Which Wolf Will You Feed?

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We do not decide IF stumbles, mistakes, outright failures occur in our lives. They will. We all are human and subject to imperfection- our own and that of others.

We have two innocent emotions, the desire to be loved as we are and the fear we won’t be. When we get hurt, we cover up our vulnerability, fighting for emotional survival. One way we do that is to become self-punitive.

What do you hear in the quiet of your own inner world when you stumble, make a mistake, fall flat on your face, or even when you succeed but are not number one? I’m betting it is the voice of your inner judge and jury: “How could you be so stupid?” “Why did you do that”? “You are such a jerk!” “Stop feeling so sorry for yourself”… “Maybe if I punish myself often enough or harshly enough I’ll learn to not put myself out there like that”. If that worked, we’d be near perfect by now, right? If it worked…

The need to protect and promote the self to avoid risking rejection or shame gets bigger and the true vulnerable self shrinks or gets buried. I would like to offer three different images that represent what happens to us when we respond to our own humanness with harsh self -criticism instead of compassion.

I like toys. I have a set of stacking dolls, fashioned after the Minion characters. Imagine these toys represent your personal interior journey. We start our journey as young, tender, vulnerable, unencumbered innocents. Minion #1 resembles the part of us most unguardedly receptive to the giving and receiving of love, with a simple joy of being alive. Each successive doll reveals bigger protective and promoting coverings over the vulnerable, sweet and simple little Minion, who becomes more and more deeply hidden.

vunerability

Minion #2 has taken a hit in the eye with a large spiked club. That hurt! His vulnerability is even more encased, the wounded self more concealed, just as we are when hurt, particularly in the emotional domain of our worth, lovability and belonging. Minion #3 wide-eyed and anxious reflexively covers his heart. Pain sometimes takes us by surprise. Uncertainty prompts a red-alert state of avoidance and self-protection. Evidence of self-protection increases, and buries vulnerability deeper. Minion #4 has one eye, fewer teeth. Perhaps he’s on the loosing end of some conflict, contest, or consequence. Minus an eye, he’s less aware of what he sees. Hidden from him as much as others. And the tuxedo… Hiding behind performance and pretense? His true vulnerable self becomes even more inaccessible. The artificial self gets bigger and becomes the self presented to others.
Minion #5, the last and largest Minion with his sad, half-mast eyes, is armed with a sword. After awhile the vulnerable self is desperate to protect, promote and defend. Soldiering up to ward off anyone who dares to come close with the appearance of strength, defense, and self-sufficiency, even aggression. The result of all this hiding is more disconnection from self and others, and a less pure sense of worth and belonging.

Another image that can be helpful in understanding what happens when our basic need for love and belonging is threatened is a coat of armor. Brené Brown uses the term “armoring up” when speaking of what we do to self protect. protected heartArmoring up can look like: driving a fantasy that perfection is just around the corner if we only try harder. Or it can show up as numbing with addictions to food, substances, TV, sex, gaming, social media, etc. Another way we armor up is by externalizing the enemy when we project our inadequacies or negative emotions onto others. Awarenessness of what we do to prevent being seen and known for who we genuinely are at the core is the first step to dismantling the armor. Compassion is the second step because it makes it safe to look beneath the armor and discover the value in being one’s authentic self and connecting meaningfully with others as real and whole people.

The dolls and the armored heart represent the innocent part of us that longs to be loved just as we are and the lengths we go to prevent painful injury to the authentic self. When these patterns of self-protection and promotion become habitual we form an identity around what we think we have to be to be lovable and worthy. Over time these patterns tend to become consistent and characteristic schemas for our way of being.

There is another paradigm that illustrates the same process of forming identities around self-protection and promotion. Spirituality is sometimes referred to as the deepest form of psychology. In both the Christian and Buddhist traditions there are concepts that describe the loss of a sense of self when our basic human need for love and belonging are threatened. The Christian tradition calls it the True and False Self. Buddhists call it the Flexible and Fixed Self.

snailPhysiologically there is no place to locate a ”self”. There is no imaging device that can be focused on the body or brain to locate a ”self”. The sense of self is rather a mystical concept. ”Self“ emerges spontaneously when we are in emotional pain, especially when an identity we cling to is threatened. We are built for survival. When we sense pain in our bodies or egos our natural response is to defend and protect. Painful experience after painful experience that is not received with acceptance and grace increases the need to wrap layers of protection around the True or Flexible self. The galaxyspiral of the shell above and the nebula captured by the Hubble Telescope to the left suggest a path that winds around and around creating more and more distance from the True or Flexible Self at the center of who we are and creates more rigid ways of being, called the False or Fixed self, that gets more expansive the more we perform for and please others and attack our own humanity with harsh self criticism. We gradually become alienated from who we authentically are and our ability to connect deeply with others and Spirit.

All of our emotions are signals. They are given to inform us about our experience. All are valuable, not just the positive, pleasant ones. Negative feelings are helpful too. We don’t want to eliminate them; we just don’t want to get stuck in them. Recognition with judgment never changes anything for the better. Recognition of emotion with acceptance and compassion makes it safe enough to explore experiences that build the False/Fixed Self. It is then they become pliable and transformation can begin.

The False/Fixed self recedes as emotional survival techniques when we stop feeding them. There is an old Cherokee story that goes like this: An elder Cherokee had a conversation with his grandson about a battle all people fight within themselves. “It is the battle between 2 wolves”, he explained. “One is angry, greedy, jealous, arrogant, dishonest, and resentful. The other is good, loving, peaceful, humble, compassionate, kind, and generous.” The grandson thought a moment and then asked, “Which wolf wins?” The old Cherokee replied simply, “The one you feed.”

How do we stop feeding the wolf of self-judgment and feed the wolf of self-compassion and acceptance of ourselves as imperfect, but wonderful, parts of shared humanity?

How do we find the safety? We find it in the presence of mindful awareness; empathy; self-compassion; the appreciation that we have this one, short and precious life; and for those inclined, Divine Love as they understand it.

The following are suggestions for feeding the wolf of self-compassion, acceptance and valuing of who we are at our core.
1. Mindfulness: Mindfulness if not pushing away emotion because it is uncomfortable, but feeling it and moving through it. It is the awareness of our present experience, moment to moment, with acceptance. Guy Armstrong would define it as “knowing what you are experiencing while you are experiencing it.” Another helpful understanding comes from Ron Siegel; mindfulness is single tasking and being wholeheartedly present in our own lives.

The practice of mindfulness seems to be coming of age and more mainstream than ever as its collaborative relationship with science grows. Renowned mindfulness teacher and researcher Jon Kabat-Zinn describes its potential as akin to a new Renaissance because it is the foundation of so many healing arts.

We know that we all suffer sometimes. There is suffering we cannot control and suffering we create. Our brains have a “negativity-bias” which causes a continual vigilance for danger in support of our instinct for survival. Too often, like Goldilocks, we look for what’s too hot, too cold, too hard, too soft. We pay attention to what’s wrong with our circumstances, others, and us and get locked into pain, self-criticism and emotional reactivity. We scan like a sniper, locked and loaded, instead of treating ourselves as we would a friend. That is not mindfulness.

Mindfulness is awareness with acceptance and helps us recognize when we are suffering and shines light on another path, the path of befriending that we are today and in this moment. This kind of mindfulness can lead to self-compassion and wholehearted, courageous living. Mindfulness is a skill that can be learned by practically everyone even if you are not an experienced meditator or aspire to be one.

2. Self-Compassion is by definition simply treating ourselves with the same kindness and understanding we would a friend. When a friend is suffering, the first step of compassion is to “see” her. The next is to open our heart to her, “suffer with her”, and holding awareness this experience could also be you. Then kindness usually arises spontaneously.

Research has found that 76% of us are kinder to others than we are to ourselves. Why is it so much more difficult to express kindness to ourselves than others? Among the many reasons may be a feeling that to label our own need as suffering seems self-centered or weak. In reality, everyone suffers sometime. It is not a moral failure to need loving-kindness. No one gets a pass. Ancient wisdom tells us that everyone needs and deserves loving-kindness and that includes our own.

How would your life be different if instead of criticism, your inner voice whispered something like this? “Everyone makes mistakes, it’s ok to be part of this imperfect but wonderful human community.” “Yes, that hurts, anyone would feel pain right now”. “That didn’t go according to plan this time, disappointment is hard.” “May I be kind to myself”; “May I accept myself just as I am”; “May I have courage to try again”; ‘Thank you for this moment”; “May I have peace. The habit of responding to all emotions with mindfulness and compassion is the foundation for positive emotion and greater kindness toward others.

Self-compassion is a skill anyone can develop, strengthen and make a part of everyday life. Just as we offer others, we must “see” ourselves, open our hearts to recognize suffering without judging it and allow the kindness that arises naturally for others to warmly rise and marinate our own pain. Befriending the self-critic is the only way to transform it. Any moment of kindness you offer yourself is re-training the brain.

3. Empathy: Seek to have people in your life that will understand, which means to stand under the emotional load with you. They do not have to have had the same experience but if they recognize your emotion and can identify with that feeling and then let you know they do, you will not feel alone.

4. Gratitude: We have this one, short, precious life. Looking for the gifts and letting recognition of them wash over you. As Brené Brown would say, an attitude of gratitude is not enough; we need a practice of gratitude. Having a yoga outfit doesn’t make you a yogi.

5. For those inclined Spiritually, a deep resource is available. Hopefully whatever image you hold for Spirit includes a sense of love, such that there’s nothing you can do to be more loved or less loved. One of my favorite reflections is by Anthony De Mello, “Behold God…beholding you…and smiling”. Gazing upon that image can melt the need to be something other than your imperfect and wonderful self to be worthy of love and belonging.

We do not decide IF stumbles, mistakes, outright failures occur in our lives. They will. But we do decide which wolf we will feed.

Each of these five steps is a practice that can be learned and all will be discussed and experienced in an upcoming workshop entitled, “Which Wolf Will You Feed”.

Joy Myers, MA, LPC, CDWF

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