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I have come across a story fairly often in Buddhist and mindfulness meditation circles, which is said to be an old Cherokee parable.
A Cherokee elder is passing wisdom to his grandson and he says that there’s a fight happening within him—a fight between two wolves—one that is evil and full of anger, greed, jealousy, envy, guilt, regret, arrogance, ego, and so on.
But the other wolf is good and embodies qualities like joy, peace, love, hope, gratitude, compassion, empathy, peace, and the list goes on. The elder tells the young boy that everyone has these two wolves fighting a battle inside them. And the boy pauses a moment and then asks his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The elder replies simply, “The one you feed.”
Now, calling those negative traits “evil,” is a bit much since they’re all emotions that all of us experience at some point or another, and there’s nothing wrong with that. After all, they are all part of the human condition—though, harboring these emotions for any length of time can be detrimental to our well-being.
And sometimes it’s hard to recognize which wolf we are feeding and nurturing and allowing to grow, and therefore, which one we are ignoring, and not allowing to flourish.
I don’t know about you but most of my life, I’ve probably fed the…let’s call it the “negative wolf” a little too much, and starved the good one. But since discovering mindfulness meditation, Buddhism, and more recently, that of Positive Psychology, I’ve started to feed the wolf of kindness, love, compassion, gratitude,
In doing this, the one with the negative traits has started to slink back into the shadows, even though she’s still there (because all of us will always have these two warring sides within us). We just have to decide which one we want to be dominant.
I’m currently studying to become a certified Positive Psychology, Mindfulness, and Resilience practitioner, which is basically all about feeding the good wolf. Positive Psychology is the science of well-being, happiness, and human flourishing. It teaches us to build up our positive traits, which can, at the same time, help support us if we have mental health issues and are supported with traditional psychology.
Positive Psychology helps us strengthen the good already inside us, rather than focus on just trying to fix the so-called “bad.”
One of the core aspects of Positive Psychology is resilience—the ability to bounce back from adverse or negative life situations, and how quickly we adapt from them.
I’m sure a lot of us are realizing that we are a lot more resilient than we ever thought, after coming out the other side of 2020. I’m sure many of you have said to others (and maybe to yourself) that you’re stronger than you thought. And that’s resilience!
One of the most important variables of resilience is optimism. A dictionary definition of optimism is: “the quality of being full of hope and emphasizing the good parts of a situation, or a belief that something good will happen.”
It’s something that keeps us going, keeps us moving forward through obstacles in our path.
What I’ve learned is we can be grateful not only for all the good stuff that happens in our lives (which is like, duh!), but gratitude can also help lift us up through the bad stuff by looking at the silver linings of situations (which we might see to be entirely negative with no bright side whatsoever). Silver linings can be found in anything—it’s just a matter of changing your perspective.
According to Positive Psychology, there are three ways we can use resilience in our daily lives to counter the negative thinking that, for most of us, is probably our default setting—our inner critic chattering on to us at how bad/stupid/dumb/unworthy/unlovable we are. (Side note: our inner critic is a big, fat liar!)
Three ways to use resilience in our daily lives:
1. The first is to give yourself evidence that whatever you’re telling yourself isn’t true.
Notice when you’re berating yourself. Stop, and say, “No. That’s not true because”—then give yourself evidence to the contrary. For example, say your inner critic screams, “I am so stupid!” Pause and say, “No, you’re not. You created that new complicated spreadsheet at work.”
2. The second is to reframe a situation and look at it a different way (perspective again).
You can even do this in the moment. You can maybe say to yourself, “A better way to look at this is,” and then tell yourself a more optimistic way of seeing what is happening to you. For example, say you lost your job (which I’m sure is something many of us have experienced during the pandemic). Instead of wallowing and feeling sorry for yourself, you can think, “This allows me more time to spend with my family while I look for a new opportunity.”
3. The third thing you can do is make a plan.
This helps protect you from catastrophic thinking (which is going down the rabbit hole, down and down into an irrational negative spiral about how everything in your life has gone wrong, which can lead to anxiety).
Think to yourself, “if X happens, then…” and come up with a contingency plan. This can ease the anxiety of, “Oh my god, what do I do now?!” and it gives you some space to breathe and get some perspective on the situation.
Going back to the loss of a job example, instead of freaking out and getting overwhelmed by anxiety because you don’t know what to do, you could think, “If I lost my job, then I can look at the online job opportunities every morning for half an hour and tweak my resume a bit every day before my kids wake up.”
If you have an action plan, it helps put the brakes on runaway “doom thinking,” for lack of a better word.
Positive Psychology also outlines a few areas where we can help ourselves become more resilient.
1. The first is biology.
Though resilience may be hereditary to an extent, it is something we can work on and strengthen. How your body responds to stress has an effect on your resilience. Think of a prey animal like a rabbit. After they escape a stressful situation (such as being chased by something that wants to eat them), they “shake it off” (as the Taylor Swift song says).
Their body and muscles just start vibrating and shaking violently for a few moments, getting rid of all the excess stress-energy and anxiety, allowing their nervous system to go from fight-and-flight back to the calmer parasympathetic nervous system (the “rest and digest”). Then, they’re simply able to continue on with their day as if nothing averse had just happened to them.
That’s their resilience—their ability to bounce back. Ours is a little more complicated (though there are practices in yoga and meditation where you can shake it out and work out stale energy).
2. The second is self-awareness.
How aware are you of your inner world? Of your emotions? Do you pay attention to how you’re feeling and adjust your behavior and activities to align with what’s going on inside? How aware are you of your physical body and the signs and signals it gives you all the time—heart rate, breathing, muscle tension.
Do you notice when you’re hungry or thirsty? Or do you ignore those things sometimes? If you don’t realize that you’re working too hard, you might end up with burnout.
Being aware of our inner selves and body is critical.
3. The third is self-regulation.
This is your ability to notice your thoughts and emotions and body and realize that they are out of whack and dysregulated (for example, overstimulated and in need of calming down). You need to regulate your systems and bring yourself back to balanced homeostasis. Yoga can be a great way to bring your systems back into balance.
4. The fourth is shifting perspective.
As mentioned, the ability to see the bigger picture or different perspectives of a situation, not just one narrow-minded view of reality is important. This also allows you to bring in that tool of gratitude as well. If you’re seeing all sides, you’re more likely to find some aspects of the situation you can be grateful for.
5. The fifth is optimism.
As stated above, optimism is crucial to resilience because it gives us the fuel to continue despite roadblocks. People with lots of resilience think of stressful things as challenges, which is a positive way to look at them, rather than viewing them as immovable objects blocking our path. Thinking of a stressful situation as a roadblock just shuts us down. Thinking of it as a challenge to tackle energizes us.
6. The sixth is knowing what our talents and strengths are.
A further aspect of resilience is knowing what your talents and strengths are—and that, through those, you have some control over certain areas of your life. That you can use your talents and strengths to help you get the most out of life.
7. The seventh is connection.
Another important part of resilience (and a large part of Positive Psychology in general) is connection. This is something that all of us, I think, have realized the value and importance of, ever since the COVID-19 pandemic started—just how much we all need connection with other people (even if that is just virtually).
But connection doesn’t just mean to other people in your life; it could also be a connection to something larger than yourself—something you believe in, like your faith, or some sort of purpose, something that gives you meaning and a reason to get out of bed in the morning.
8. The eighth are the institutions in your life.
Related to connection, something else that helps us to be resilient is the institutions in our lives—family, community, workplace— things that give you structure, purpose, and meaning, as well as function as a support system.
So building resilience requires the ability to:
>> Shake things off and not “sweat the small stuff.”
>> Pay attention to what’s going on inside (emotionally and physically).
>> Learn to regulate when things are off-kilter (maybe with some yoga or meditation or even some simple breathing exercises).
>> See the bigger picture.
>> Cultivate optimism to give us hope.
>> Recognize and build your innate talents and strengths.
>> Connect with others (or something bigger than yourself), as well as the world around you.
In what ways are you cultivating resilience in your everyday life?