The Tale of Two Wolves: 3 Steps You Can Take Today to Take Control of Your Mind

In these challenging times in the world, many are experiencing profound dis-ease, including anxiety, fear, anger, frustration, and more. Our world can feel very out of control, and this can take us into a swirl of thoughts and emotions.

In times like this, I think about a parable I heard years ago and find myself coming back to on a regular basis. Perhaps you’ve heard this parable before:

A Cherokee elder is teaching her granddaughter about life.

“There’s a fight going on inside me,“ she says. “It’s a terrible fight and it is being fought between two wolves. One wolf is unhappy – full of anger, regret, frustration, annoyance, envy, guilt, resentment, and fear.“

“The other one is more content,“ the elder goes on. “This wolf is good. She is full of joy, love, peace, humility, serenity, hope, generosity, compassion, and kindness.”

“These two wolves are inside of each and every one of us.”

The granddaughter paused, thinking hard, then asked her grandmother, “Which wolf will win the battle?“

The Cherokee elder smiled and replied, “The one you feed.“

The choice we have

What I learned from this parable is that we have a choice regarding our inner state, and regarding how we respond to the challenges that arise in our life and work.

So many times, we can feel like a victim of the circumstances in our lives. We blame our boss, our ex, our child, or even the weather for making our lives difficult. We say things to ourselves like “if only my boss didn’t micromanage me,“ or “how could this be happening to me,” or “isn’t it just my luck to get a rainy day.”

In healthcare, we find ourselves with thoughts like:

“If only I didn’t have this miserable electronic health record, then I could feel happy and more content with my career.“

“I can’t stand those administrators as they’ve taken away so much control in the practice of medicine. They’ve made things miserable!”

We can find that the default is that our mood is determined by what goes on around us.

If this resonates for you, please know that you are far from alone. It is something most of us do, and it is something that is reinforced by many societal messages. Marry the right person, then you’ll be happy. Get the right job, then you’ll be a success. The advertising world, in addition, is constantly telling us that a new house, car, or pair of shoes is what will bring us happiness.

With all these messages, it’s all too easy to slip into this way of thinking. I certainly know how often I can slip into this pattern.

The problem with this, however, is that it leaves us at the mercy of external circumstances to shape our level of ease and contentment.

Now, of course, there is a great deal in our lives that is well outside of our control. For those of you in healthcare, you know just how much is in this category.

With the growing corporatization of healthcare, for example, physicians (and many others) have lost a great deal of control over how their practices are run. They have administrators to be accountable to, a computer record that demands hours of their time to stay on top of, and no end of insurance authorizations to get their patients much-needed tests.

In this setting, many physicians find themselves angry, frustrated, resentful, and more. They tell me about being irritable with their staff, waking up during the night having angry internal conversations with their practice administrators, and being home with their kids at the end of the day, wanting to be present but having their minds churning over events in their days, They tell me about how exhausted they are by it all.

While completely normal to experience anger, frustration, and resentment, medical training includes next to nothing about how to manage these types of challenging emotions. That leaves us caught expending precious energy stores on things we cannot control.

It leaves us expending a lot of energy spinning our emotional wheels, and feeling drained, bitter, and disempowered as a result.

In terms of the parable, we don’t learn how to feed the wolf of contentment and ease. We don’t learn that we have a choice over which wolf we feed.

As a physician coach, I’m in the business of helping physicians who are stuck and unhappy find ways to get to a place of greater satisfaction – with their jobs and with their lives. Many of the physicians who seek me out are struggling with burnout.

They are exhausted, emotionally drained, cynical, and feeling like a cog in the wheel of their work.

Part of our work is learning the emotional self-management that our training, very sadly, did not include. A key aspect of this is learning that we have a choice over which wolf we feed.

The gift of the story of the two wolves

It is also the gift of mindful awareness.

Now, I know that the word mindfulness can conjure up something esoteric, or, at the other end of the spectrum, something fluffy and unimportant.

What I’m talking about is a very applied form of mindfulness, what we might think of as mental mastery mindfulness.

I like this term as, when we get to know our mental patterns, we begin to see that no matter what is going on externally, we always have the freedom to choose how we respond to it.

So, you may be wondering: How do we feed the right wolf?

Mental mastery mindfulness

For those of you who follow my writing, teaching, and coaching, you know that I am quite a pragmatist. I see mindfulness as a highly practical approach and set of skills we can utilize to build greater stability and ease in our lives.

You also know that I will never say things like “Just think positive thoughts” or “just don’t get angry.” To me, that is simply a sort of psychology mumbo-jumbo!

What I do say is that we have a choice which of our thoughts and emotions we give attention to and which we do not.

So, what does all this mean in terms of the two wolves?

First, it means paying close attention to your thoughts and emotions. Meditation is the best way to do this. Sitting in silence on a regular basis helps us get to know what our inner experience is. And sitting in silence with a kindly attitude to what we find is even better. It’s not about judging ourselves for having whatever thoughts and emotions arise. It’s simply about kindly observing what it is that is going on within us.

This stance of the observer helps us get to know how our thoughts and emotions make us feel. We can begin to spot which thoughts and emotions take us in a direction of ease and which do not. Which ones take us in a direction of working well with others and which do not.

Second, once you spot thoughts and emotions that are taking you in the wrong direction, i.e. the unhappy wolf, see if you can picture those simply passing through the open space of your mind. In other words, you get to choose whether you’re going to attach to them or whether you’re going to let them pass by. This definitely takes practice, yet it is a skill we can develop.

Third, be kind to yourself! You have developed mental patterns over many years and, if you’re like me, you simply did not learn that you have a choice regarding your inner state. So, please don’t use this as fodder for beating yourself up.
I know that once you employ the right tools, you will gain this mental mastery. You will develop the ability to feed the wolf that brings greater goodness to your experience.

If you’re new to meditation and want a supportive guide to help you get started, please do access my free 14-day mindfulness mini-course, The Daily Dose of Calm. In less than 10 minutes per day, you’ll learn about a mindfulness topic and then be guided in a brief meditation.

Three Mindful Alternatives to New Year’s Resolutions That Will Guarantee You a Better Year Ahead

New years resolutions

It’s that time of year again when many people are beginning to frame their resolutions for the new year. Almost two years into the pandemic, many are frustrated and depleted, ready for things to be less weighty in 2022. And hopefully, they will be. But, if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that uncertainty is part and parcel of the human experience. As much as we wish differently, there are no guarantees of what 2022, or any other year, will bring. 

And yet, it’s a normal human tendency to want to exert control over the future and reduce uncertainty wherever we can. And when we set resolutions, we’re hoping for that certainty…

But, how many years have you set resolutions and, come mid-February, experienced a sense of disappointment when these have not materialized? 

I know that I certainly have. 

For years, for example, I set a New Year’s resolution to establish a regular exercise routine. And for years, I managed to exercise for a few weeks but then petered out. Guess what happened then? I went into high gear criticizing myself, accusing myself of being a weakling, and feeling like a failure. All that self-castigation only served to deplete my motivation further. I headed into March each year with a sense of hopelessness that I could ever change my pattern.

But now, I am happy to report that I have actually exercised regularly for over two years! I credit this success with three simple mindfulness-based strategies. Perhaps you can try these for yourself.

1. Stop being a bully

So many times, we set goals for ourselves then beat ourselves up when we don’t achieve them. I know that I do. Yet, none of us are perfect. We all deviate from our goals. It is simply the way we humans operate. 

When we criticize ourselves, however, we’re basically feeding ourselves the message that we don’t support ourselves. Just think about it for a moment: Are we being an ally to ourselves or more a bully? For many of us, it is the latter. And does bullying ourselves serve to motivate us to do better? We may think that it does, but is that true? 

Here’s a brief exercise to help you answer this question.

Bring to mind right now something you want to improve on in 2022. This first part of the exercise won’t be much fun but take a moment right now to list all the ways you’re not up for the challenge. For example:

“I’m not good at this.”

“Others are so much better at sticking to things than I am.”

“I’ll never get this done.”

“This is going to be another year where I don’t achieve my goals.”

“I’m so bad at setting new habits, why should I even try.”

Now rate your level of motivation to complete the task on a scale from 0 (no motivation) to 10 (highly motivated).

For the second part of the exercise, stay focused on the same thing you want to improve on. This time, though, tell yourself affirming messages. For example:

“I’m great at doing this kind of thing.”

“I may procrastinate but I always get things done.”

“I have just the right skills and strengths to do this.” 

“I’m just as good as everyone else at this kind of thing.”

“I’ve got this!” 

Now re-rate your level of motivation on the same scale, from 0 (no motivation) to 10 (highly motivated).

What happened to your score? Did your number go up, down, or stay the same? 

I’ve done this exercise with thousands of physicians and others, and the vast majority say that their number goes up, and typically, in a significant manner. 

It’s ironic, but the more we focus on what we’re not doing well, or what still needs to get done, the more draining and daunting our tasks can seem. And yet, the more we focus on what we’re doing well and are accomplishing, the more confidence and energy we have to accomplish more. This counterintuitive truth is what Mark Manson refers to as the “The Backwards Law” in his bestselling book, How to Not Give a F * * *.

2. Set your intention

Instead of resolving to lose twenty pounds, exercise three times a week, or save X amount of money per month, setting a daily intention is a great way to guarantee success. After all, traditional New Year’s resolutions set us up for a binary metric of success vs failure, and you may know exactly which side of this equation most of us land on.

A daily intention is much more nuanced, less black and white. You can think of it more like setting your course. Even if you don’t reach a specific goal, you are helping yourself shift into a mindset of efficacy and accomplishment.

Your daily intention can be about a specific action (a “doing” intention) or more about an emotional or attitudinal approach (a “being” intention.)

Examples of daily intentions include:

Today, I will try to avoid empty carbs and sweets.
Today, I will show up as my best.
This week, I will exercise just as much or more than I did last week.
Today, I will be as kind to myself as I am to my close friends.
This week, I will get more of my charts done in real-time.
Today, I will remind myself not to take things personally when they are not.
This week, I will try to be more mentally present when I’m with my family.

Instead of leaving us with a fixed mindset of success vs failure, setting an intention helps us see that life always involves bumps in the road, and that times when we step off our desired path are completely normal and to be expected. 

Intentions are about growth and a growth mindset. The growth that we can achieve moment to moment, imperfections and all.

3. Focus on wants instead of shoulds

From Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, to James Clear (Atomic Habits,) all experts make clear that for any new habit to take hold, we need to focus on what we truly want to achieve, rather than on things we believe you “should” be achieving. In other words, to be successful at any life change, we have to really want it.

Similarly, Ryan and Deci’s theory of self-determination,  the leading theory on human motivation, tells us that intrinsic motivation is much more powerful than that generated by external forces.

So it pays to take the time to consider what it is that you truly want, teasing out the things others have said you should do or stop doing.

You can ask yourself the following questions:

What’s truly important to me about this?

How will I feel when I move forward on this?

What do I most want to look back and see?

Lastly, whatever you do, please try not to use your resolutions as a means to beat yourself up. The more you focus on what you are achieving as opposed to what you are not, the more you will continue to accomplish. Truly.

Go forth and decide what steps you’ll take today. Move from inner bully to inner ally, set a daily or weekly intention, and focus less on shoulds and more on wants. Even if you falter from your path, every moment of your life can be used to institute change.

Self-improvement is always within your reach.

If you found this helpful, you’ll want to join the rapidly growing private Facebook group for healthcare providers, Mindful MD.