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I like a good Facebook share as much as the next guy.  In fact you’ll notice we do a bit of that on this very page.  And perhaps like me your newsfeed is full of people sharing postiive thinking messages.  The sort of “think this way and your life will be better” type of post which is sometimes code for “this is how positive I think (honest) and you probably should as well”.

Now this comes from a good place, because we see people around us who are struggling and want to point out that “hey, just change your thinking and it’ll be ok”.

 I get that, because I deeply understand how changing ones thinking patterns can change your experience of the world.  There’s only one problem with these positive messages we share.  They don’t work.  At least not for their intended purpose of getting others to shift their thinking.
Let’s take an example – one of my favourite positive thinking homilies.  Many of you would have heard it before, it goes like this:

One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.
He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all.“One is Evil – It is anger, envy,  hate,  jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.“The other is Good – It is joy, peace, love, hope, acceptance, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?”The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

What a great message! Focus on building the positive stuff and you can overcome your negative self!

The correct technical psychoanalytical response to this insight is – “well, duh”.  Because those who already do that naturally don’t need the metaphor and those who don’t are unlikely to switch purely based on this story.

 While this is a useful metaphor for helping people to understand that what they choose to focus on will determine their expoerience, I believe there is a fundamental flaw with it.  And it’s this flaw which means you can read it and think “yeah I get that”, but that “theoretical” understanding doesn’t change a thing about how you actually operate.
The metaphor sets up the idea that we are at war with ourselves.  The two wolves represent two sides of ourselves and we’re advised to feed one and starve the other.  It’s interesting to think that if we’re at war with ourselves and we’re lucky enough to win that war – who loses?  That’s right, our selves.

Imagine I had two pet wolves as the metaphor suggests, and I decided I quite liked one, but didn’t much care for the other.  So I decide to feed one and not the other.  Guess what happens?  Firstly the one I’m not feeding gets decidedly grumpy and starts to play up, becoming increasingly viscous and unsociable.  Secondly my neighbors quite rightly dob me in for animal neglect and suddenly I’m before the courts.  Because it’s not acceptable to starve the animals you’re supposed to be loving and caring for.

And it gets more interesting when we apply the metaphor to itself.  Remember how the “good” wolf represented love and acceptance?  Well starving one wolf hardly feels like love and acceptance, but perhaps looks more like hate and neglect – which is the wolf we’re supposed to starve!  Boom, that was the sound of the metaphor imploding.

 So while on the one hand I really like the idea behind this metaphor, I feel it could do with some updating.  Because what I’ve learned is that when we try and deny, ignore or reject a part of ourselves, it never works.  We can never win a war with ourselves and it’s futile to try.
I’ve heard one well known hypnotist and therapist observe that many of his clients come to him with an idea that hypnotherapy is like some sort of exorcism, that you can come in, point the hypno therapist to the icky part of you and they’ll do some strange chanting and remove that piece.
But that’s not how it works.  Every thought we have, every feeling, every behaviour has a purpose.  It’s some part of our unconscious trying to communicate with us to fulfill a need it feels is imporrtant.  Sometimes it does that in a clumsy way, or in a way that was learned very early in life with the understanding of a small child.  So the behaviour isn’t always the best way to achieve the intention.  But there always is an intention and it is always a positive one.  Always.

Trying to starve or ignore that part of ourselves only makes it scream all the louder.

 What is more useful is to actually listen to our thoughts and behaviours while asking ourselves the key question – what is the positive intention it’s trying to achieve?

So for example jealousy and insecurity may be an unconscious attempt to protect the person from hurt.  Anger and aggressiveness maybe an unconscious strategy to ensure a person is heard.  So rather than try and starve these parts, we prefer to listen to them, discover their positive intention and then help them discover more useful ways to achieve that intention.  It’s not an exorcism, it’s a nurturing.

Because it’s not about winning the war with ourselves it’s about loving,understanding and accepting ourselves.

 Maybe there are two wolves inside of us.    And maybe it feels sometimes like one of them has gone a bit feral and needs to be put down.  But you wouldn’t starve a beloved pet, you would gently nurse it back to health.  And then rather than just one wolf working for your highest good, you would have the joy, the comfort and the power of two wolves. Or even better a pack of wolves.  So next time you hear a wolf howling inside yourself, rather than trying to starve it, take some time to check in with yourself and ask, what is the positive intention behind the howl.

 

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