A few weeks ago, I became embroiled in an interpersonal conflict situation. The details of who said what and when, are incidental. The key point is that I was annoyed, angry, upset et cetera by actions of the other person. Equally, they had similar reactions to actions that I took. What’s been interesting since then is to observe how my mind has processed these events.
There is a well known Cherokee legend about a grandfather who is talking to his grandson about handling negative emotions such as anger, hurt, upset. He talks about the internal conflict as being a fight between two wolves. One wolf represents negative emotions such as fear, anger, hurt, irritation. The other wolf symbolises peace, harmony, forgiveness, love. His grandson then asks which wolf will win to which his grandfather responds ‘the one you feed’.
So what I’m finding happening for me internally is exactly this struggle. It’s the struggle between the two ‘stories’ that I find cropping up for me about what happened.
On the one hand, I can tell a story of hurt, feeling let down, humiliated, frustrated, isolated. In telling my version of the story to my friend or partner, I can grasp for details of little things the other person said or did that support my ‘argument’ about my being wronged.
There is plenty of payback for me in doing this. My friend will respond with a dish of sympathy for me and indignation on my behalf at the behaviour of the other. These supportive and caring actions on her part also help to increase our connection and bond as friends.
I also get the pleasure of hanging out on a nice green patch of moral ground because I ascribe a certain rightness to my views on the issues in dispute. There’s quite a kick in running the movie in my mind of me barrister-like, rehearsing and reciting the case against the offenders, block by block building back my injured ego, in a vain attempt to squash any bad feelings that might be tempted to arise and upset me.
Holding a story of being a ‘victim’ in my mind has lots of benefits to it. I can build a monument in my mind to this story of injustice and have the further pleasure of taking it out and polishing it at regular intervals for the rest of my life.
But as legend tells us, there is another wolf that can be fed. I can tell myself another story: Here is a situation where both of us have been upset, hurt and triggered by actions that each of us took on foot of the circumstances we found ourselves in.
Yes, ‘they’ did some things that upset me but I too, took actions that were upsetting to them. Even though it was inadvertent on my part, the impact was still the same.
Honest appraisal also must lead me to conclude that I failed on one of the key aspects of good communication – to listen to what was not being said (but being thought and felt) by the other person(s) at crucial times in the events that happened.
I can remind myself of key values that I hold about how I engage and relate to other people and how they engage and relate to me. While these values have been challenged and undermined for both of us, I can persistently push myself to find a way to restore our working relationship to one that again upholds these values.
This ‘story’ is less seductive. It means having to let go of the anger which I then realise has been covering up more uncomfortable emotions: hurt about some things that were said, fear about taking the next step and unease about the unhelpful actions on my part in the situation.
So it’s a struggle – do I succumb to the almost delicious temptation of the victim story? Or do I resist that very hungry wolf and instead, take a few deep breaths and very gently lead my mind down the other track?
Which wolf do you feed?