An elderly Cherokee sat around a campfire with his grandchildren, teaching them a life lesson. Fire light flickered in dancing shadows. He told the children: “A fight is going on inside of me: A vicious fight between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger and envy; greed, arrogance and resentment. And, the other wolf is good – he is joy, peace, love, serenity, compassion, kindness and humility.”
“The same fight is going on inside of you,” he continued, “And inside of every other person, too.”
After a moment of silence when they all listened to the crackling fire, one of the granddaughters spoke up. “Grandfather, which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
Do You have a Choice?
Let me put it this way…If you’ve experienced trauma, and many of you have, there is little choice about which wolf to feed. Influenced by trauma, subconsciously, you feel obligated and compelled to feed and follow the first wolf, escalating shame and guilt, which turns normal vigilance into an ongoing and stressful state of hypervigilance.
You don’t do this on purpose!
The New Story
Once you recognize which wolf you are following – and if it doesn’t feel good – you can take steps to engage skills and tools that will help you to switch paths! There are two wolves. Creative Brain Wolf is nurtured by her pack. She grows up normally and demonstrates the same loving instincts towards her own pups that she experienced from her caregivers. When she falters, she receives support. Her ancestors experienced little trauma.
The other wolf, Primal Brain Wolf’s mother is killed by a hunter. Her grandmother was also killed by a hunter. She is just old enough to survive without her mother’s milk, but the pack rejects her and she has to live at the outskirts, eating their scraps. She is skittish and defensive, ready for attack.
We create reality based on what we know. But it’s not just about our environment. Some kids are more empathic than others – more sensitive – and so their nervous systems get revved up more easily than another child’s. Keep in mind: This may have nothing to do with parents and caregivers, and more to do with our ancestral inheritance. But often parents don’t know how to make the repair or hold the kind of space a child might need to calm the nervous system.
That constant revving of the nervous system is what creates “hypervigilance.” Because a child believes adults know what is best, if the adults are unsupportive, untrustworthy, inconsistent, emotionally neglectful and/or physical or verbally abusive, the child receives the message that he or she, the child, is “different,” somehow bad, flawed, even evil. The child internalizes a cruel voice that holds him to impossible standards. He gets so accustomed to this voice that he thinks it is who he is – that he can’t live without it. It becomes his best friend… and inhibitor – and, at its worst, destroyer.
The voice causes the child within the adult to shut down and repress emotion that turns into physical ailments or anxiety issues. The voice, that I refer to as Inner Nasty (IN) is never pleased and constantly critical towards you and others, so much so that people often feel like a pin cushion. What may seem like an innocent remark turns into another pin into the cushion.
How to Switch Paths
Self-compassion is imperative. Hearing the voice and labeling it, or seeing it for what it is (your old survival programming) is also vital. The brain has a harder time healing with this voice in place. But the primal brain wolf does not like to be hungry and it will balk. It will try to sneak in dressed as a lamb. It will convince you that it is essential for your survival. But it no longer serves you.
Noticing the side of you that perpetuates abuse towards yourself, and having a clear intention to stop the voice, is enough to begin to create brain changes.
The primal brain itself serves the wonderful function of regulating breathing, hormones and other bodily functions. In other words, you don’t have to think to take a breath. But it’s the same subconscious region that gets revved up, hijacks creative thinking and holds you in a hypervigilant pattern, affecting all of those physiological functions.
How do you know if you’re in primal brain thinking?
If you are triggered and feeling fight, flight or freeze, you’re probably not thinking clearly. Again, we want this response if you’re about to get run over by a truck, but not if your boss changes your schedule for the following week, or your spouse is frustrated because you’re late coming home from work.
How do you know if you’re in creative brain thinking?
You navigate conflict calmly and skillfully. You don’t get triggered easily. You feel a sense of calm even in the face of a stressful situation. You don’t worry about worst case scenarios.
So, again, it’s not a matter of which wolf you feed, but recognizing which wolf you are following.