Emotional Health

Cultivating Strength: Feed the Good Wolf (Part Two)

“Once upon a time, there was a Native American grandfather who told his grandson, “Grandson, there are two wolves inside of me. One wolf is white, good and altruistic, generous and kind, and the other wolf is black, mean and greedy, violent and angry. The two wolves are in a constant fight within me.” The grandson, with wide eyes, says, “But which one will win, grandpa?” And the grandfather says “The one which I feed.”

The image of two wolves warring within us—a savage one and a friendly one—competing over narrow territory for our self-regard is vivid and intense. It illustrates the effort that we make to keep one at bay and the other well fed, emphasizing the choice each of us have in maintaining positive attitudes.

Last week we examined the influence that cultural norms can exert, like in the case of negative body image, however, much depends on our ability to fight these intrusions. While  you can resist the influence of values you  don’t truly agree with by identifying and challenging them, an important next step is recognizing what you truly value in yourself and “feeding” those things.

Some people feel unworthy—they have learned this, and their attitudes persist unquestioned, even when they themselves might not feel that way about others. If you don’t value yourself, it is likely that you have been taught to feel that way. It can be a fundamental and unquestioned part of your self-image.

For example:

Cynthia grew up in a family with parents who  were  not prepared to give adequate attention to their children for several reasons. Her  father was a harsh disciplinarian, and her mother, chronically depressed and self-involved, was an alcoholic. Though generally well-behaved, Cynthia was often ignored in favor of her more problematic siblings, who teased and taunted her. Her parents did not mistreat her, but they did not intervene to protect her and left her to fend for herself.

She developed a sense that there was no way to gain either approval or attention, and whenever she asked for it she was rebuffed. Her parents had their hands full dealing with the others. As many children do, she concluded this was the result of her own inadequacy rather than viewing the whole situation or questioning her parents’ judgment. She remained watchful for cues about how to gain approval, and turned to school as a way to excel and be recognized.

Still, as she grew up, she remained convinced of her essential unworthiness despite some remarkable achievements in the real world. Nothing could persuade her that she was important and valuable.

 In therapy, we began the process of questioning her attitudes and challenging her basic assumptions. One day, she was gardening and, realizing she was avoiding stepping on some ants, she had an insight: she was giving the ants more respect than she did herself. She valued the ants as “God’s creatures” but did not give herself the same entitlement. It was the beginning of her realizing and then challenging her profound feelings of unworthiness.

Those who have been neglected—or worse,actively abused—retain negative self-worth as a legacy. This has been vividly displayed by victims of sexual abuse, who feel that the treatment they suffered must have been their fault and have spent decades hiding in shame. But many “average” people without such histories suffer from unnecessary and debilitating self-doubt and feelings of worthlessness.

Last week, I talked about the importance of recognizing and identifying these feelings and calling them in question—“ringing a bell” in your mind when you feel them. That essential step helps to loosen the automatic association of such responses to various situations. The next step involves developing competing thoughts based on more current and realistic ideas about yourself.

We develop our basic self-image in childhood, and there are many things that contribute to it. But despite the changes that occur as we mature, often our internal ideas about ourselves remained stubbornly outdated.

An example is the person who stills sees herself as the person she was in middle or high school. I have known many people who were nerds or uncool in some way who retain an image of being not good enough. They often don’t stop to question why they are still measuring themselves by the standards set by adolescents. The scars burn all the fiercer if teenage experiences validate already formed feelings of inadequacy.

Once you learn to recognize these outmoded and destructive feelings, what can you do to combat them? After learning to ring a bell in your head in response to habitual, critical, and negative thoughts, the next step is to replace those ideas with more positive ones. An important tool you can use to do this is to acknowledge and cultivate your strengths.

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  • Lynn Bernstein December 16, 2018 at 3:17 am