Feeding the Wolf…Mindful Self-Compassion and Wellbeing
By Jeff Tirengel, PsyD, MPH
“A fight is going on inside me,” said an old man to his grandson. “It is a terrible fight between two wolves. One wolf is evil. He is anger, envy, sorry, regret, greed arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other wolf 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 thought about it for a minute and then asked, “Which wolf will win?” The old man replied simply, “The one you feed.” – Adapted from Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life (Mass, 2006, p.271)
The wolves within me were on the verge of a dangerous scrap in December 2009. I had spent most of the month as an inpatient fighting for my life. I was later told that I would likely have died within weeks had I not begun intensive treatment for the virulent form of lymphoma with which I had just been diagnosed. As with many other types of cancer, there are multiple forms of lymphoma. These range from mild to, in my case, highly aggressive and life-threatening.
When the medical team finally brought my high fever and other symptoms under control, I began to hear the inner wolves. The decision of which one to feed seemed obvious, but I was less clear about how to nurture my own “good” emotions in these unfamiliar situations. Fortunately, my professional training and experience had afford me the opportunity to learn about two related streams of knowledge that I could turn to in these challenging circumstances: positive psychology and mindful self-compassion.
I had been a member of the California Psychological Association’s delegation to the State Leadership Conference in Washington, D.C., when Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD introduced positive psychology as the theme for his 1998 APA presidency. In part because of my public health background – I had, for example, worked in the U.S. Office of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention during an earlier part of my career – I was immediately drawn to the ideas and approaches to well-being that emerged under the umbrella of positive psychology. I spent the next several years learning as much as I could about this line of research and professional practice. From 2007 until my cancer diagnosis in 2009, I served as an international training facilitator for the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center, founded and directed by Dr. Seligman. My training responsibilities were in the Penn Resiliency Program (PRP), headed by Karen Reivich, PhD and Jane Gillham, PhD (see Seligman, 2011 for an overview of Penn’s resiliency research and the range of settings in which the findings have been applied). My knowledge of what I could do to foster my own resilience in response to the life threatening cancer, e.g., by applying PRP skills for thinking more flexibly and realistically about the challenges ahead of me, has repeatedly proved to be of value when the wolves began to howl.
The practice of Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) has likewise been an important companion on my journey. MSC can be linked to positive psychology both through its contributions to psychological well-being (see, for example, Baer, 2012) and through the inclusion of “kindness” as a character strength in Peterson and Seligman’s handbook of character strengths and virtues (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). While positive psychology has tended to focus on the value of kindness to others, MSC calls attention to the complementary need for kindness directed inward. As defined by Germer and Neff (2013), “Self-kindness entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than flagellating ourselves with self-criticism…When asked directly, most people report that they are kinder to others than to themselves (Neff, 2003), and it is not unusual to encounter extremely kind and compassionate people who continually beat themselves up (p. 586)” Stated in a slightly different manner, “Self-kindness refers to the tendency to be caring and understanding with oneself rather than being harshly critical” (Neff & Germer, 2013, p. 28).
The concept of self-compassion includes three interacting components, including self-kindness as described above. The other two elements are a sense of common humanity, and mindfulness. The common humanity component invites us to recognize “that the human condition is imperfect, and that we are not alone in our suffering. We can’t always get what we want. We can’t always be who we want to be, either. This is part of the human experience, a basic fact of life shared with everyone else on the planet” (Germer & Neff, 2013, p.857). This reminder of our common humanity is intended both to encourage a sense of compassionate “other” toward ourselves and to foster a mindset that connects our own experiences of struggle to those of our fellow human beings.
Mindfulness, the third element of self-compassion, can be described as “turning inward toward our painful thoughts and emotions and seeing them as they are – without suppression or avoidance. You can’t ignore or deny your pain and feel compassion for it at the same time” (Germer & Neff, 2013 p.857). As defined by Bishop et al. (2004), mindfulness has two core elements. These are: (1) “paying attention to one’s present moment experience as it is happening”’ and (2) “relating to this experience with a curious, open and accepting stance’ (Neff & Germer, 2013, p.28) In the context of self-compassion, mindfulness involves “being aware of one’s painful experiences in a balanced way that neither ignore nor ruminates on disliked aspects of oneself or one’s life. It is necessary to be mindfully aware of personal suffering to be able to extend compassion toward the self” (Neff & Germer, 2013, p.29).
More than 200 journal articles and dissertations have examined self-compassion and its correlates over the past decade. The research literature has tended to support the notions that “individuals who are self-compassionate demonstrate better psychological health than those who lack self-compassion” and that “self-compassion is associated with positive psychological strengths such as happiness, optimism, wisdom, curiosity and exploration, personal initiative, and emotional intelligence” (Neff & Germer, 2013. P.29).
A pilot study of the recently-developed Mindful Self-Compassion Program, designed to teach self-compassion skills to the general population, found that these skills can be taught effectively in an eight-week program. The research concluded that the program was effective at enhancing self-compassion, mindfulness, and well-being, and that participants maintained their grains at six month and one-year follow-ups (Germer & Neff 2013; Neff & Germer, 2013). Additional information about Mindful Self-Compassion research and resources is available at www.mindfulnesscompassion.org and www.self-compassion.org.
As valuable as both positive psychology and self-compassion have been for me personally, the story about wolves which began this article is not entirely consistent with my cancer experience. My intentional focus on the care and feeding of self-compassion and related “good” qualities within me has not resulted in an end-of-life scenario for the “evil” ones. Rather, I have developed a deeper understanding that such terms “positive” and “negative” as we use them in psychology are, in fact, contextual. For example, the greatly valued and highly sought “positive” quality of serenity might at times lead me to tolerate circumstances that I could actually change, e.g., being treated disrespectfully by medical care providers and/or their office staffs. Similarly, the “negative” quality of anger might at times ignite and fuel my efforts to change what I can. My engagement with cancer has also added to his appreciation of the potential value of the entire spectrum of emotions that is part of our common humanity. As a consequence, the ongoing “terrible fight” between the wolves no longer seems so terrible. The two wolves will still live within me, but I now have greater compassion for both.
Baer, R. (2012) Mindfulness and self-compassion as predictors of psychological well-being in long-term mediators and matched nonmediators. Journal of Positivity Psychology. 7, 230 – 238.
Bishop, S., Lau, M., Shapiro, S., Carlson, L., Anderson, N., Carmody, J., Segal, Z., Abbey, S., Speca, M., Velting, D. & Devins, G. (2004). Mindfulness: A proposed operational definition. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11, 230-241.
Germer, C., & Neff, K. (2013). Self-compassion in clinical practice. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 69, 856-867.
Mass, W. (2006). Jeremy Fink and the meaning of life. New York: Little, Brown and Co.
Neff, K. (2003). Development and validation of a scale to measure self-compassion. Self and Identity, 2, 223-250.
Neff, K. & Germer, C. (2013). A pilot study and randomized controlled trial of the mindful self-compassion program. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 69, 28-44.
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association and New York: oxford University Press.
Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York: Free Press.