Learning from Our Worst Selves: Feeding the Shadow Wolf
Sometimes fear, anger, or sadness are appropriate responses to the complexities of life.
There is a classic parable based on a Cherokee legend that tells the story of two wolves. In it, a boy tells his grandfather that there is a fight going on inside of him between two wolves: a light, playful, loving one and a dark, scary, mean one. He asks which one will win, and the grandfather says, “The one you feed.”
This story comes up a lot in contexts around positive thinking. Of course it makes sense to feed our positivity and thus help it grow. But there’s a shadow in this story too: who do you think will fight harder, the relaxed, well-fed wolf or the desperately hungry one?
Trying to starve our shadow sides is usually a recipe for a backfire. Having a bad day is one thing, but feeling shame for feeling bad adds an unnecessary layer of stress to the whole situation. Having to put a happy face on all the time can be subtly exhausting, and makes it easier for that hungry wolf to attack our most vulnerable places. Of course we should feed our bright and shiny sides. But our angry, sad, and fearful sides need food too—though perhaps with different kind of nourishment.
Our shadow wolves are there for a reason. Sometimes fear, anger, or sadness are appropriate responses to the complexities of life. If, for example, you’re in a toxic relationship, your shadow wolf might reasonably be howling at you to get out of it. If you refuse to listen and insist that your relationship is fine when it’s really not, you’re avoiding the work that needs to be done to make a change in your life. Rather than try to ignore these uncomfortable emotions, we can engage with them, talk to them, try to figure out where these feelings are coming from and what they might be trying to teach us.
Sadness, for example, is usually present when something or someone loved has been lost, and grief takes as long as it takes. Anger is usually an indication that a boundary has been crossed or that a need is not being met. Our anger can help us understand where our boundaries and limits are and help us fight back if we need to. Fear can come in response to a real or imagined threat. Our fear may need a rational mind, a solid Plan B, or simply a reminder that courage doesn’t mean fearlessness, it means being afraid and doing it anyway.
Sometimes, of course, our negativity comes from habit. We can over-focus on negative things and forget to be present for pleasure and sweetness. This strategy probably helped human beings survive through the process of our evolution—being aware of danger is generally safer than revelling in delight. We’re lucky enough to live in an era when most of us are relatively safe most of the time, so we can focus our attention and gratitude on the many delights of modern life. But if we take this too far and silence our internal alarm bells over and over, we can certainly get ourselves in trouble.
So yes, we should be mindful about how we are feeding the wild animals of our minds. The light and the shadow are both there for a reason, and there’s no need for a fight if both are getting the nourishment they need. The light wolf should be fed with positive reinforcement, kindness, rest, healthy food, and encouraging people. But the shadow wolf must also be fed—with compassion, kindness, and a willingness to listen and learn. When we go to the source of our internal experiences with curiosity rather than shame, we can learn from our own darkness and become more powerful in our own light.
Tap into a practice of listening to your many internal selves with a guided meditation here.