The one you feed - moving away from negativity towards well-being

My dad first told me this story a number of years ago and it’s still one of my favourites. I’ve come across it at different points in my life and have often shared it with clients who are struggling with overcoming negative thought patterns.


In case you haven’t heard it, the story goes like this:

An old Cherokee chief was 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, self-doubt, and ego.

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 then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old chief simply replied; “The one you feed.”

The shadow

The Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, famously spoke of the 'shadow self’, which he described as the parts of our personality that we repress or deny. He believed that our shadow includes the darker aspects of ourselves such as selfishness, greed, and aggression, much like the evil, or bad wolf in the parable. Jung believed that in order for us to become whole, we must both acknowledge and accept our shadow. 

In the parable, we could take the idea of ‘feeding’ the wolf as being the way in which we maintain our sense of self, through our self-talk, thoughts and behaviours. When feeding the bad wolf, we might find ourselves engaging in negative thought patterns, whereby we tell ourselves that we’re not good enough or that we’ve done something wrong and then actively seek out evidence to confirm this. Some might find themselves practising unhealthy behaviours such as over-consumption of alcohol, use of non-prescription drugs or other risk-taking activities. It might play out in relationships as if we don’t feel worthy of love, how can we accept love? As such, some may repeatedly find themselves pushing others away.

So how do we avoid this? How do we make sure that the good wolf wins?

Moving towards well-being 

Soul food

It might sound strange, but I like to think of my mind as a small animal, in need of nurturing, love and care. It’s scary out there and so it’s my job to remind my mind that it’s safe. Keeping the good wolf well-fed involves self-care, kindness and compassion. Instead of being angry at ourselves for being so negative or anxious, we can see that our bodies and minds are just trying to keep us safe.

In neuroscience, it's generally accepted that as humans, our brains are hardwired for negativity, to look out for danger. It’s thought that this negativity bias originally evolved to protect us. In our modern-day lives, however, we’re no longer watching out for the sabre tooth tiger but instead, for an email from our boss or text message from a loved one. It’s not our brain’s fault, it just hasn’t been able to keep up with the fast pace of modern-day living.

Stop right there

So when we’re faced with a challenging situation and our negativity bias has kicked in, the first step for me is to stop. That’s right, literally STOP(P).

  • S - stop
  • T - take a breath
  • O - observe the situation
  • P - look at it from another perspective
  • P - proceed

This is a technique commonly used in CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) and mindfulness practices. The most important part of this technique is the initial stop. It’s catching yourself in that moment when your mind is starting to run away with itself, when you’re asking the ‘What if?’ questions.

By stopping at this moment and connecting with your breath, you’re able to re-engage your senses and return to the present moment. This is mindfulness. You don’t need any fancy techniques or to sit in a lotus position, just take one big breath in through your nose, really filling up your belly and then let it out slowly through your mouth with a sigh. If it feels good, try it again.

Once you’re in this calmer state, you can then have another look at the problem or situation that’s on your mind. Perhaps you could notice if there are any negative assumptions or generalisations. You might then try to look at the situation from another perspective and challenge those assumptions, for example, rather than thinking, what if everything goes wrong? You could think, what if everything goes right? Or if someone hasn’t replied to your message, rather than thinking that they’re mad at you, it could just be that their battery has run out.

Take a break

Sometimes, however, things aren’t always so simple so you might decide that actually, right now is not the time or place to worry about it. If it’s out of your control, maybe you could choose to put it to one side and deal with it later. This isn’t avoidance but a way of taking back control of your current circumstances and focusing on the present moment. Here, some kind of distraction can be helpful in acting as a kind of ‘circuit breaker’. Something to literally break the negative thought cycle. This might involve taking a break away from your desk if you’re at work, stepping outside for some fresh air, making a cup of tea or even turning on your favourite song and having a quick dance break!

Three good things

Another practice that I find particularly helpful in challenging the negativity bias is 'three good things'. This is often used in positive psychology and is a variation on a gratitude journal. The idea is very simple. At the end of each day, before you go to bed, write down three things that went well or were good about the day. They could be simple things like, ‘I had a really nice cup of tea this morning’ or ‘The sun came out at lunchtime so that I could go for a walk’, or they could be bigger things, like ‘I got the all-clear from the hospital’ or ‘I got the job that I applied for’. 

Whether they’re big or small, by tuning into the positives, we literally reduce the pull of the negativity bias, leading to a greater sense of well-being.

There are many other wellbeing practices, many of them with proven benefits. For me, however, the main thing is to do what makes you happy. If that means going out for walks in the hills on wild windy days, do that! If it means (like me), snuggling up on the sofa under a blanket, watching your favourite film, do that! Whether you like being around lots of people, spending time alone or with a significant other, there’s no right or wrong way to self-care.

You are not alone

It may be, however, that mindfulness practices and self-care just aren’t enough. No matter how hard you try, the bad wolf seems to keep on winning. I know how that feels, I’ve been there too and this is where counselling can help. Working with a trained counsellor or psychotherapist can help you gain perspective and explore any underlying feelings or emotions.

When I work with clients experiencing persistent low mood, anxiety or low self-esteem, my aim is to help uncover the root cause of these feelings and identify triggers. We will work together to find out where these negative thoughts and feelings came from and how they are being maintained. By shedding light on these darker aspects of self, we come to acknowledge and accept the shadow or the bad wolf, without judgement. In treating ourselves with compassion and kindness, we can choose to feed the good wolf, to no longer maintain the negative thought patterns.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to counselling, so if you’d like to find out more or to have a short call about how I can help, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Wilmslow, Cheshire, SK9
Written by Jessica Terry, Counsellor MBACP, MNCPS Acc.
Wilmslow, Cheshire, SK9

With so many demands on your time, it’s easy to find yourself at the bottom of your priority list.  There’s always something or someone that needs your attention, so the idea of self-care may seem like an indulgence that you just don’t have time for.  I find that life has...

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