If you struggle with chronic negative thinking, rumination, or painful, persistent thought patterns, there’s a story I think you may find helpful. It’s an old Cherokee parable that goes something like this:
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life.
“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.
“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”
He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.” – First People’s Two Wolves Legend
This is a well-known and much-referenced story but, as a therapist, I think it has particular applicability for what I see so many of us struggling with in our mental health journeys: chronic negative thinking.
If you struggle with chronic negative thinking, you’re likely feeling the effects of this in a variety of ways: frequently getting caught in painful mental thought loops, maybe feeling a low-level simmering mood of resentment or fear, having a really hard time focusing on the positive, etc..
But did you also know that if you struggle with chronic negative thinking you’re literally changing the neural structure of your brain, causing a cascade of impacts in your physical body, and, according to some, potentially predetermining your reality?
In today’s post I want to share with you more of the neuroscience behind WHY “feeding the right wolf” is critical for our overall well-being (and certainly for our mental health!), and share a wide variety of tools and resources you can use to help you stop “feeding the wrong wolf” and tend to the other instead.
How chronic negative thinking literally changes your brain.
What neuroscience and magnetic resonance imaging have been able to show us in the last several decades is astonishing: the brain is “plastic.”
What this means is that far from our brains being “fixed” and “rigid” – a thought popularized by famed Harvard psychologist William James in his landmark 1890 text The Principles of Psychology – we have the capacity to change and grow our brains by creating new neural pathways throughout our life.
One of the most popular studies on this was done on, of all populations, London taxi cab drivers which showed that, in the course of learning the voluminous amount of complex information and geography continuously required for their jobs, the grey matter in their brains literally grew.
You may not be a London taxi cab driver but every day and in every way you are or are capable of forming new neural pathways, too.
So what’s a neural pathway?
A neural pathway is a connection between a number of neurons (nerve cells) in different parts of the brain which are connected by and communicate with synapses. The more those certain neurons fire and communicate, the stronger the neural pathway becomes.
Think of it like this: Imagine you’re in a local forest and a bit lost finding there’s no clear pathway to get back to the main trail. You start bushwacking through the forest, creating a new, faint tracked path where there was none before. You just created a new neural pathway. If you kept going back over this path, again and again, deepening your footstep treads into the ground, you would be strengthening the appearance and also ease of access to this pathway.
The same thing more or less happens in our brain’s neural pathways when we act or think in repeated manners.
Every time we think the same thought (whether it’s a positive or negative thought), or act in the same way (whether it’s something small like cracking an egg or larger like taking the subway across our city), we deepen the neural pathways in our brain which more firmly establishes habitual thinking or behavior patterns (for better or for worse).
So if you struggle with chronic negative thinking, the reality is that your brain is literally crafted and shaped by this thought habit of yours.
And when you have strong neural pathways formed and established in your brain, it can feel harder to “break” (so to speak). That’s how we can “feed the bad wolf” again and again.
But again, the good news is that our brains are plastic and they can change up until the day we die.
The less fun news?
It takes significant conscious effort, plus repeated effort over time, to form new neural pathways (aka: to break those chronic negative thinking patterns). But, this is how we can begin to create change in our world and more consciously “feed the good wolf.”
In other words, it can totally be done but not without effort on your part.
Why bother? Isn’t a certain amount of negative thinking normal and okay?
So why bother with challenging which “wolf you feed”? Isn’t a certain amount of negative thinking normal and okay?
Well, yes and no.
But no means am I suggesting that feeling normal and appropriate spontaneous emotional and mental responses like disappointment, sadness, fear, jealousy, etc. are wrong and need to be “controlled”.
I’m referring instead to what feels like chronic, habitual, repetitive thinking habits that occur even when there’s no direct external correlation to the internal rumination you may be experiencing.
For instance, having reoccurring, painful ruminating thoughts like:
“I married the wrong guy – her husband/boyfriend is a way better catch. I just settled.”
“There’s no way I can get a promotion, he only favors the men on the team. I can’t get ahead because I’m a woman in tech.”
“The kind of people I’m interested in dating don’t go for someone with my body type. What’s the point of trying to date anyway?”
“Good things happen to other people. Not to me.”
It’s not up to me to tell you whether or not you should “control” or try and stop these thinking habits of yours. You get to decide which wolf you want to feed, after all.
But if you’re feeling frustrated and challenged by the emotional impact of being caught in thought loops like these and you personally want to explore what else might be possible, it could be really beneficial for you to practice “feeding the good wolf” instead.
Well, in addition to the fact it can literally feel better to practice more conscious mental states of gratitude, appreciation, and noticing what’s going well in our lives, there is, believe it or not, “accumulating evidence that suggests our thoughts are often capable of extending our cognitive and physical limits.”
In other words, you may be thinking your way into the actual negative realities you dread: feeling unappreciated at work, feeling unstable in your relationships, feeling unworthy and unwanted by the folks you’re dating, feeling like a creative failure at your job, etc. etc..
So if you’re clear that you have some habitual chronic negative thinking patterns you’d like to interrupt and reverse, some neural pathways you’d like to stop treading on, if you’re clear you’d like to “stop feeding the bad wolf”, I have some tools and suggestions for you about how to best do that.
Tools and practices to help you “feed the good wolf.”
Noticing, challenging, and changing our thoughts is simple, but not easy.
It’s simultaneously not rocket science but it’s also the toughest real-world Jedi mind work any of us are called to do.
And the process of changing your chronic negative thinking is the same regardless of the content of your thoughts:
In more detail…
Start to notice that this is even happening for you! That each morning you wake up and think to yourself, “Great. Another stupid work day. Why can’t I just win the lottery and retire?” And that a few minutes later you feel grumpy and maybe even a little tight or sick in your belly.
Start to notice sooner and sooner when you have that thought, ideally in the moment when it is starting to happen. That as soon as you wake up, that thought is starting to fire through your brain.
Step Three (the hardest step!):
Challenge your thought! Catch it, substitute something else instead, notice it, let it go, refocus your attention and mind onto something else, ideally a thought that’s more positive. Ideas for how you can challenge and substitute your thoughts (aka: “feed the good wolf”) include:
- Acting and thinking to yourself the very opposite of that thought. Example: “It’s actually going to be a great day. I have lunch with my friend scheduled, and Netflix is releasing that new show I love tonight.”
- Stepping outside yourself and into the perspective of a mentor, pen-and-paper hero, or someone you dearly love and admire. Then think what they would have to say in that moment. Example: “What would Maya Angelou have to say about this day? Probably that it’s a gift and I’m silly to waste it. Go out and soak in the beauty. And make some, too.”
- Play the Gratitude Game. Find 10 reasons why your life is actually great. Example: “One reason my life is great is that I’m actually waking up and not dead. Another reason is that I’m waking up in a safe, warm house. Another reason is that I actually have a job to go to…” Etc.
- Untwist your thinking. Much like the Gratitude Game, find 10 reasons why your thought is faulty, why it’s just not true. Example: “My life is pretty great because I make good money and my wife loves me. That doesn’t really add up to a crappy day.”
- Locate the problem and find solutions. Example: If you genuinely don’t like your days because of spending 9 hours at a job you don’t like and 2 hours commuting, can you promise yourself that you’ll begin another job search? Can you find reasons how you can improve your situation?
- Use Byron Katie’s 4 Questions.
- Learn to accept disappointment as a normal part of life. As counter-intuitive as it may seem after I’ve given you so many tools to challenge and switch up your thoughts, I also really think it can be helpful to remember that existing in a constant state of bliss, ease, happiness, and joy is not realistic for any of us humans. If you can remember and perhaps learn that disappointment, or feeling sad, tired, or upset is a natural and normal part of life, perhaps paradoxically as you lower the bar for yourself, you can experience an increase in contentment and ease in your daily experience.
Rinse and repeat. And then repeat some more. Again, it took time for your neural pathways to develop and deepen as they have, for your potentially chronic and habitual negative thinking patterns to develop, for your habit of “feeding the bad wolf” to become as consistent as it has. It will take some time and some effort to learn to do something different, to form those new neural grooves, for your “feeding of the good wolf” to become more habitual. So be patient with yourself.
Wrapping this up.
I hope you found today’s article helpful if you – like me and so many of us! – struggle with not “feeding the bad wolf.”
It may take time and effort, but learning how to “feed the good wolf” will, according to neuroscience, literally reshape your brain, help you feel better, and possibly even alter your reality.
And until next time, take very good care of yourself and don’t forget: you get to choose which wolf you feed.
- Smash the lies, discover the awesome! A podcast I recently guest-featured on where we talk all about changing beliefs about yourself and challenging thoughts in general.
- Neuroplasticity and the Critical Practice of Speaking More Kindly to Yourself.
- Living in Gratitude: Mastering the Art of Giving Thanks Every Day, A Month-by-Month Guide by Angeles Arrien