Two Wolves… Choosing a positive mindset

4th May 2021

Human resources

Ground & Water’s HR manager, Sandra Young, examines shortcomings in her outlook, to explain how to think positively and why it’s a winning approach every time.


I hate to say it, but my glass has always been half empty. I am naturally suspicious and my pessimism comes to the surface frequently. I realised that if I wanted to be happy, then I needed to begin thinking a little more positively and not instantly deviating to that negative and comfortable space. I say comfortable because that’s what it was for me: when something went wrong it justified my reasoning and confirmed to me that my negative response was the correct one… A self-fulfilling prophecy! At times, I was even a little smug and the ‘told you so’ monster reared its ugly head. Imagine that… Pleased that I was right because something went wrong. Makes no sense at all, does it? For me, it wasn’t the attitude I wanted to have, but how do we teach ourselves to look on the bright side?

I recently attended an Action for Happiness webinar with Shirzad Chamine. In his best-selling book, ‘Positive Intelligence’, Chamine explores the internal saboteurs we all harbour and what tools and techniques we can adopt to tame them. We develop these saboteurs in childhood as a survival mechanism against physical and emotional threats, they are very much a part of who we are and often work against us rather than with us. Remember that ‘told you so’ monster, is a perfect example of a saboteur, that is neither helpful nor productive.

The ‘Judge’ is the master saboteur, this one lurks in all of us, the one that picks fault. Faults with ourselves, with those around us and our circumstances. The biggest part of implementing change and developing our Positive Intelligence (PQ) is identifying when our saboteurs are in play, recognising them for what they are and intercepting them before they can damage us. We can do this by practising mindfulness and empathy, giving each other a break. We aren’t perfect and at times we will fall short of our own expectations and those of others; we are human after all. According to Chamine, practising empathy allows us to recharge our batteries, renewing the optimism that the ‘Judge’ robs from us. Other key techniques to adopt are exploration and innovation, shifting to a positive mindset when saboteurs show up. This is when we look beyond the issues and begin to find solutions, using our principles and values to navigate and guide us to the outcome that is right for us.

Another unwelcome and unhelpful trait that can present itself is the ‘Victim’ saboteur. That’s the one when we are convinced that everything is out to get us. We are victims of our circumstances and brood over the misfortunes we are dealt. In his book ‘Triggers’, Marshall Goldsmith explores how our environment shapes us and how we can take control of our own efforts to work towards behavioural change, including a series of reflective questions. One of which is: “Did I do my best to be happy and to adopt a positive mindset?” This got me thinking about how easy it is to change your point of view. Can you trick yourself into being happy by simply looking at things from a different perspective? Research shows that those who smile more are ultimately happier. Is this a chicken and egg situation? Of course, those who are happier will smile more. Yet studies have shown that facial expressions do impact our mood, smiling can increase feelings of happiness where none existed and similarly, frowning can dampen a mood.

You’ve just smiled haven’t you? And then immediately followed it with a frown… Go on, you can admit it!

Perhaps our happiness really does lie with our own efforts. Naturally there will be times when happiness is challenged, deeply sad events are part of human nature and our ultimate existence, but we can change our mindset to focus on the positive in any given situation, to recognise ourselves as the authors of our own narrative.

positive mindset

We all play the blame game. One technique I have been using to shift my mindset is reciting a couple of simple words when I find myself getting annoyed at a situation outside of my control. Those words are ‘empty boat’. Taken from his book, Marshall Goldsmith shares the Buddhist wisdom of the Empty Boat.

A farmer is paddling upstream at the end of a hard day’s work, when he sees another boat heading directly towards him. The farmer is rowing furiously to get out of the way and shouting to the other boat to change direction. The two boats collide, and the furious farmer shouts, ‘You idiot! How could you manage to hit my boat in the middle of this wide river?’ Closer inspection shows there is nobody in the other boat, the boat is empty and has simply broken free of its moorings. Floating down stream towards the tired farmer.

We behave differently when we feel another is to blame for our situation, we get angry, upset and play the victim. We can’t get upset when there is nobody to blame, when the source of our frustration is an empty boat. I find myself saying these words regularly and they instantly shift my focus, turning the negative to a positive and diffusing my anger before it really revs up. A simple but effective change of direction.

They say that positivity spreads and negativity festers. I truly believe that to be the case. People buy into other people’s positivity; they believe in it. A 2006 study looking at insurance sales, found those with a more positive and personable approach sold 37% more insurance than those who were gloomier in their manner. There is a reason charming salespeople are successful, there’s a reason empathic customer service advisors diffuse a situation effectively.  We naturally gravitate to people with a positive countenance, we want to be around those people and often, that positivity rubs off.

Studies suggest that positive people are more successful and command higher salaries, I expect this is likely true. Positive people will get back up and try again, it’s the tenacity and resilience that encourages the growth that ultimately leads to accomplishment. Those with a negative mindset are unlikely to continue with the dogged determination required to succeed, preferring to give up rather than risk failure.

There is a Native American parable that I am often reminded of when faced with the decision to focus on positivity or default to negativity. The tale tells the story of an old and wise Cherokee telling his grandson of the battle of the two wolves inside us all.

One is evil – it is anger, greed, ego, resentment, and self-pity. The other is good – it is joy, peace, love, kindness, and empathy. The boy thinks about this concept and asks which wolf wins, the old man quietly answers ‘the one you feed’.

I find this deeply profound, and I certainly know which wolf I would rather feed.

For full information on the saboteurs and their characteristics head over to where you can take the self-assessment to discover your own saboteurs.

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