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When you are faced with negative or disturbing emotions, can you still be productive at work or remain focused on your everyday obligations?
If your answer is yes, this means that you have high emotional self-control.
While having emotional self-control does not mean that you completely ignore your negative emotions, it does mean that you’re able to manage your feelings in a way that allows you to stay on task.
With that in mind, let’s talk about “The Two Wolves” story and three specific moral lessons you can learn from it.
Let’s get to it.
The two wolves story is a parable that represents this idea of emotional self-control. The story is most often said to have originated as a legend from the Cherokee tribe, but various versions of the story have popped up throughout history.
In this short metaphorical story, a grandfather describes to his grandson his internal battles by explaining that two wolves are fighting within him–with one being good and the other being evil.
His grandson then asks which wolf wins, to which the grandfather replies, “The one you feed.”
According to the grandfather, this battle between anger, greed, and false pride versus kindness, humility, and love occurs in everyone’s mind. Keeping this parable in mind, when it comes to your own life and personal development, you are in control of which wolf you will feed.
I know that I have felt powerless over my thoughts and feelings in the past, which has led to a great amount of distress.
However, by keeping the two wolves story in mind, I have been better equipped to navigate negative emotions when they hit during inopportune times.
Studies have shown that leaders who have emotional self-control–meaning those who are able to manage their emotions by feeding the good wolf–achieve more success than those who give in to the evil wolf. And the truth is, it is a lot easier to feed the evil wolf than the good wolf. The first of the two wolves encourages the simple way out. It’s easy and tempting to complain, put things off for another day, and give up.
The second wolf is harder to feed, as it requires discipline, motivation, and determination–all of which take effort and courage–and don’t produce immediate results.
So how can you apply this parable to your life and your efforts of continuous self-improvement?
Now, let’s examine three moral lessons that you can take away from the two wolves story.
When you’re going through a tough time, it’s easy to think to yourself, “Why is this happening to me?” You put yourself in a victim mentality and try to make sense of your negative feelings by placing blame on external forces.
People use this as a coping mechanism in order to feel a sense of control over situations that are difficult to manage.
However, this mindset completely negates your personal responsibility to take ownership of your feelings, and you actually end up surrendering your own power. When you look toward an external force to understand why you are feeling a certain way, you’re giving other people (or things) the power to determine how you feel.
By using your power to choose, you can decide which wolf you want to feed.
You can feed the evil wolf, the one that clogs your mind with thoughts of being a failure, anger, regret, envy, etc., who represents your anxiety and symptoms of depression.
Or, you can give this wolf’s food supply to the wolf that uses your energy for positive feelings and emotions that help you achieve your goals in healthy ways.
You will still notice your negative emotions, however, you will just recognize them and allow them to pass without giving them attention or reacting to them.
When you refuse to give the bad wolf your attention, you’re telling him that he can’t get food from you–and eventually, he will stop begging. Similarly, once you stop focusing on your negative emotions, they will eventually stop begging for your attention.
Exercise your power of choice by nourishing the good wolf. It is so common to look outside of ourselves for fulfillment by buying a new car or jumping into a new relationship. However, these things only bring temporary gratification, rather than long-term true happiness.
True happiness happens when you actively make a decision to be happy.
You have all the tools that you need for happiness inside of you–in the good wolf. As you continue to feed him, he will become stronger and have the power to allow you to overcome life’s adversities with resilience.
The battle is eternal in the two wolves story.
Neither wolf will ever completely vanish–just like neither your positive nor your negative emotions or behaviors will ever completely go away. But you need to find the balance that allows you to continuously improve yourself.
This is where moderation comes in, as no one in the world is 100% happy and positive during all hours of the day. Similarly, it is unrealistic to create a personal development goal and work on it all the time and never make a mistake.
For example, let’s say you’re trying to lose weight, so you give your diet an overhaul and switch out every meal for strictly fruits, vegetables, and other whole foods.
But then a co-worker has a birthday and someone brings in cake for an office party. You cave and have a piece…and then reprimand yourself for the rest of the day and declare your diet as being ruined.
Rather than quitting, you can continue down your path to self-improvement despite your negative feelings or the obstacles you’re facing. Show yourself compassion and forgive yourself for your mistakes. You can continue to make progress in spite of your doubts that have developed in light of your setback.
The key is realizing that your journey to personal development will never end, and you will always be faced with temptations that could be detrimental to your goals. However, even if you give in to them, you have to pick yourself back up and keep going.
You will always have a choice regarding which wolf to feed, and it is up to you to decide which direction you want to take. To continuously improve yourself, you have to steadily feed the good wolf.
When you complain, speak negatively about yourself, fixate on your bad habits, or stay focused on any mistakes you have made in life, you’re feeding the bad wolf. Alternatively, when you focus on your strengths and the positive aspects of your life, you’re feeding the good wolf.
The most destructive thing that you can do to your personal development is to believe the words of the bad wolf–to believe that you’re incapable of achieving a goal or of being as successful as the person next to you. To ruminate on the possible missed opportunities that you’ve faced in your life or to give up entirely.
Even if you’re hearing these messages that are coming from the bad wolf, they won’t be able to impact you if you reject them right away.
To release the grip of the bad wolf, you need to take some deep breaths and turn your focus to the wolf who is there to remind you of your strengths, joys, and accomplishments in life. The one who is there to show you how far you’ve come and your ability to continue to grow.
You can express your gratitude for these aspects of your life by acknowledging them and writing down the things that you’re thankful for.
Approach yourself from a strengths perspective by considering the protective factors you have in your life (i.e. your education, family, faith, resources) which are all available to help you cope with adversity. Think about the things in your life that you have that are working for you and helping you get to where you want to be.
The two wolves story is a classic metaphor that can help you realize that whichever feelings that you choose to spend your energy on will ultimately represent who you are.
It’s obvious that the “better” idea is to feed the second wolf, even though this requires more effort and dedication.
However, feeding the second wolf is the only way to ensure that you will accomplish your goals and succeed when all is said and done.
Keep the two wolves story in mind next time you’re facing an obstacle and you want to give up or you feel a decline in your confidence.
Hopefully, this story will inspire you to refocus and motivate you to get back on the right track toward what you’re aiming for in life.
And if you want to see more stories like this, then here are 31 inspirational stories – each with a motivating moral at the end.
Connie Mathers is a professional editor and freelance writer. She holds a Bachelor's Degree in Marketing and a Master’s Degree in Social Work. When she is not writing, Connie is either spending time with her daughter and two dogs, running, or working at her full-time job as a social worker in Richmond, VA.