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

by | Mar 21, 2022 | Physician Burnout, Physician Mindfulness, Physician Resilience

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.

  1. Embrace uncertainty

When you stop and think about it, uncertainty and change are the only things that are certain. Impermanence is one of the basic laws of our world.

After all, everything changes. Our relationships change. Our kids grow up and change. Our bodies age and change. Our environments change. Our planet changes.

All too often, however, we forget this basic truth. We somehow expect things to be predictable and stable.

The problem is that this expectation sets us up for difficulty. It leaves us struggling unnecessarily when something shifts. It adds a layer of suffering above and beyond that caused by all the VUCA around us.

What I’m getting at is that we have a choice. We can meet uncertainty with reactivity or we can meet it with mindful understanding.

More than meditating on a remote mountainside, mindfulness helps us have the calm, steadiness, and clarity we need to work constructively with all the change and uncertainty.

At the same time, while we can find ourselves resisting change, we can remind ourselves that it does not have to mean something bad! Just take a moment right now to think of all the difficulties you have faced in your life and work that are now resolved and far behind you. This can help you see how change has actually been quite the positive.

  1. Respond to complexity with compassion

Even knowing that change is the only thing that is certain, it can still be difficult to weather. Living in such a VUCA time is difficult. You deserve compassion for managing all the challenges.

With mindful awareness, we can bring ourselves compassion for what we’re going through. There is increasing evidence that self-compassion is a powerful antidote to stress and even burnout. From where I sit, I think that it is actually one of the most powerful medicinals available to us.

  1. Take purposeful pauses

With mindfulness, we are aware of what is going on within and around us. We tune in and pay attention to our experience. We learn to utilize our breath to take us out of the fears, worries, stories, and preoccupations our minds are so good at generating about what might come next, and bring us back to the present moment. Here in the present, we leave that overly activated limbic state and can experience a sense of calm.

A pause also serves to allow our prefrontal cortex to come online. It creates a critically important space between our emotional response and conscious, intentional action.

Once we have paused, we can then see more clearly that fear had taken hold. 

With a pause, we become the witness of our experience as opposed to the one trapped by it.

  1. View VUCA as opportunity

I don’t know about you, but I can find myself reacting to the VUCA environment with something of a fixed mindset. With a fixed mindset, I am telling myself things like ‘it shouldn’t be this way’ and ‘why is this happening?’

When I can utilize mindful awareness, I can see that I’ve boxed myself in with a fixed mindset. I can challenge myself to grow. By grow, I mean challenging myself to see whatever difficulty I’m experiencing as an opportunity to learn.

Here again, mindfulness again throws us a lifeline. Mindful awareness involves leaning into curiosity.

I can flip the script and ask myself:

What can I learn from this experience?

How can I use this to be a better version of myself?

How can I help others cope in this VUCA environment?

What do I want to look back and see about how I acted?

In summary, while VUCA is definitely the order of the day in healthcare and beyond, you don’t have to succumb. You don’t have to live in fear. There are constructive actions you can take to help you cope with uncertainty, build calm in chaos, and even thrive in chaos and VUCA. While we can’t control much that is contributing to the VUCA time, with mindfulness we can control how we respond to it.

I hope you’ll try out these 4 mindfulness strategies as I have seen them help countless people. I’d love to hear how it goes.

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To learn more about how mindfulness coaching can help you cope with this VUCA time, please reach out for a complimentary consult.

6 Free Resources To Help You During COVID19 And Beyond.

  1. 14-day meditation series 
  2. Imposter No More PDF
  3. Resilience Book Chapter
  4. Leading In Crisis PDF
  5. Balance To Burnout PDF
  6. 30-minute consult

Take advantage of one or more of these valuable resources created for clinicians and non-clinicians.