Don't Let The Tiger In



When you live in constant fear or indecisiveness or have negative thoughts enter your head, you are letting the proverbial tiger in.  Whenever you feel negative energy enter your mind, you allow a wild animal to run in your mind and ruin an otherwise peaceful and pleasant experience.  Your resilience and the lives of others take a hit, as do other aspects of your life.   




About ten years ago, I helped feed tigers at the local zoo here in Panama City.  It was an experience that I will never forget.  I entered the room where the feeding would begin; the tigers were behind a chain linked enclosure so they could not get through.  There was a heavy steel door with a small window where the meat would be thrown in to the hungry tigers.  I had never done this before, but I was helping the owner of the zoo; I guess I should have realized the danger since he had just been released from the hospital after being attacked by one of his own lion's months before!  When it was time to feed the hungry tigers (a little fact that he failed to let me know was that the tigers had not been fed In a long time, making them really violent) he handed me a huge piece of raw meat and told me to put it through the window.  I can’t even describe to you the deafening roars that I was hearing and, to my surprise, the incredible visceral fear that I was feeling.  When I finally mustered enough courage to put the meat through the window, one of the tigers stood on his rear legs, stared at me right in the eyes, roared, and stuck one of his front legs through the window and nearly got a hold of me.  Needless to say, I felt a raw fear at that moment that I will never forget.  Ever since that day, I use the expression, ‘don’t let the tiger in” to explain the fears and doubts that we all get at various points in our lives.  




Letting the tiger in can happen at any time, in any place.  Your mind is constantly thinking of past and future events to make sense of the what to do next in the present.  Even in the most glorious moments of our lives, we may have negative thoughts creep in.  But don’t worry if you get more of these moments than you feel you should, because your mind is wired to be that way.  Think of it this way: when you are walking alone at night in the woods (not that you ever do this, but just imagine for a second) is it better for your mind to fear things or to be happy and blissful?  The answer is obvious; for self-preservation purposes, we are more likely to have a negative mindset, anticipating bad things in order to protect ourselves against danger.  The issue is that most of us do not walk in the woods at night, and are perfectly safe.  If you find yourself in that situation, flush all negativity out of your system and enjoy the present moment.  Feeding the negative tiger only makes her grow and take control of your mind.



Even as I write this article, I wrestle in my mind at my performance in my SUP 31 mile river race that I finished yesterday.  The race was a grueling, 38 degree, raining, 5 hour and 40 minute grind through the Tennessee River.  I use it each year to keep myself physically challenged and working towards a quantifiable goal, one that I have done for 5 years straight. There is a saying in the SEAL Teams. If you are going to be stupid, you have to be tough…

My point in all of this is, even though I finished the race, my finish percentage went from top 13% to top 22%.  Objectively speaking, my performance went down (enter the Tiger).  When I think of my accomplishment of even finishing this race five years in a row, the tiger disappears.  Focusing on the positive aspects of your life is not a way to trick yourself into a feeling of “everyone is a winner” mentality, it’s the truth about where you stand in the overall scheme of things.  Remember that you are not walking in the woods at night and you are not in mortal danger where letting the tiger in would save your life.  So just like anything in life, what you can learn from failure is entirely dependent on your point of view and your attitude, and depends on you turning a seemingly negative event into a positive one.  Hey, at least I finished the race, right?  I am sure you have similar experiences.    




Remember our negative set points from the woods.  Not letting the tiger in takes quite a bit of energy.  Many days, I find it easier to slip into cynicism, sarcasm and negativity instead of being more positive, both with myself and others.  However, fighting this set point not only helps those around you to lead a better life, it actually makes you healthier.  From a metabolic standpoint, always being on the alert and letting the tiger in brings a hormone called cortisol into your system; this hormone, at chronic high levels, is damaging to your immune system, nervous system, and your metabolism.  Not letting the tiger in takes energy, but that energy is well spent in the long run.




When it came time for me to feed the tiger, and after I felt the “swish” of the tiger’s paw in front of my face, I did something that I had never done before in my life, I quit.  I handed the meat to the zoo owner and said in a loud voice, “Here, you do it.”  He looked at me with a strange expression (the encounter with the lion had left him unable to lift his arms over his head from the damage that the lion’s teeth had inflicted into his brain), took the meat, and threw it through the window by slinging it from his waist.  It looked like a bizarre cross between an ultimate Frisbee throw and a volley from Roger Federer.  I refused to feed the tiger that day.  That is what each of us needs to do in our daily lives.  If you simply refuse to feed the tiger, spiraling negative thoughts will stop cascading into your mind and you will feel better about yourself.  You can start this process by being grateful for everything that you have in your life, starting with your next breath.  If you focus on that, the tiger can’t be fed and he will not enter your life, period.  When I think about my decline in paddling performance over my 5 year career of doing the same race, I am grateful for the fact that I can even finish the race to begin with, and grateful for the fact that I am blessed with coordination, balance, and determination to train year after year. The tiger cannot exist with grateful thoughts, because he needs negativity in order to feed.  What specific situations did you experience when you let the tiger in?  What steps could you have immediately taken not to let this happen?  Gratitude, even for the tiniest of things, cannot coexist with negativity.  You cannot be grateful and negative at the same time.  Try it and see.


Dr. N