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What you attend to will grow

What feeds the angry wolf?

A wise elder reflects on life and says: “It’s as though there are two wolves fighting inside me. One is vengeful, angry and violent. The other is loving and compassionate.”

A child asks: “Which wolf will win the fight in your heart?”

The wise elder answers: “The one I feed.”

This ancient wisdom about which wolf to feed is validated by neuroscientists who tell us that the way we think and speak affects our brain.

If our habitual thinking patterns are characterised by worrying, self-criticism and anger, then our brain develops the neural connections that lead us into anxiety and prickly sensitivity to other people.

In this state, we doubt our own capabilities, lose touch with the inner workings of our minds and hold other people responsible for our upset. When they do something that we don’t like, we feel aggrieved and ruminate about what we think they should or should not have done.

With this mindset, we are likely to go into ‘fight’ mode, feeding the angry wolf with tit-for-tat criticisms, irritable jibes and comments like ‘what about you, then…’. So they too feel upset and the likelihood of any mutual understanding evaporates.

Alternatively, with the same thoughts in mind, we go into ‘flight’ mode and remove ourselves from the situation. Or else we just ‘freeze’, unable to do anything. None of these reactions will resolve the problem. Indeed, they can make things worse.

How to feed the loving wolf instead

The alternative is to wire up a different set of connections in our brain, so that we can weather the storms with more love and compassion.

The starting point is to understand that our feelings and emotions are not caused by our or other people’s behaviour. Rather, they stem from our interpretations of that behaviour.

Example: You run a class with a carefully prepared sequence of activities. A participant arrives 15 minutes after the start. The way you interpret this will determine how you feel.

Think of her as disorganised, and you might feel annoyed. Label her as inconsiderate, and you might be angry.

But if you know she’s under considerable stress, you might feel concern.  

But our critical or judgmental thoughts are not to be squashed or disregarded. They have a message for us. They hold the key to understanding what qualities in life – the universal needs such as support, understanding, consideration – are missing in a particular moment.

So when we find ourselves reacting negatively to people, and blaming them for how we feel, we might pause for a moment or two and ask ourselves:

  • What am I seeing right now?
  • What do I think about it?
  • What are my thoughts telling me about which needs of mine are not being met right now?

This way, we are taking responsibility for what we feel. And when we do that and get clear about our needs, we are better able to respond with compassion, instead of with judgments and blame, even in challenging circumstances.

This process lies at the heart of Nonviolent Communicationsm (NVC). It transforms the fight, flight or freeze reaction into nourishing connection with ourselves and others.