You’ve all heard the story about the poisonous spider which, during flood season, asked a frog to carry him on his back to the other side of a swollen river so that they’d both be safe. The frog said, “Why should I carry you across?” The spider said, “For humanitarian reasons. It would save my life and you could feel that you had done a good deed.” The frog said, “Yes, but you might sting me and kill me.” The spider said, ‘Why would I do that? It would kill me, too.” The frog thought about it and said, “That makes sense. Hop on my back.” Halfway across the river, the spider did, indeed, sting the frog. With his dying breath, the frog looked at him and said, “Why did you do this?” And the spider said, “I couldn’t help it, it’s just my nature.”
Oddly enough, there are many human beings who live their lives in a similar manner. They justify, rationalize and excuse behavior that’s often detrimental to themselves and others because it’s their nature. It’s evident in the behavior of addicts, as well as other individuals who are exceedingly rigid, obsessive, controlling, abusive, angry or depressed. Most of them are intellectually aware of their behavioral problems, yet they continue to act in the same self-destructive manner, declaring, “It’s my nature.”
But, nature alone shouldn’t be allowed to control you. There are many occasions when you must behave in spite of your predispositions, impulses and feelings. It’s not easy, but I’ve seen some people change. However, it often required a catastrophic event to make them realize that they could no longer indulge their nature. They had to listen to another voice inside them that knew right from wrong, constructive from destructive and what they wanted from what they felt obligated to do.
Brandon is a quintessential example. It took him fifty-eight years to realize that he could do something about his behavior. I originally saw him in therapy twenty years earlier. At that time, he came because his wife insisted. He demonstrated little insight or desire to look beneath his surface. He was a mid-level executive who was resigned to the hand life had dealt him. He was comfortable earning what he did and doing work that was neither challenging nor threatening. He was highly rigid, dull and totally lacking in spontaneity. Life afforded him little joy, but it included little pain. This orientation wasn’t restricted to his work alone. It went back to childhood, which included a highly organized, rigid mother, who lived her life similar to the way Brandon lived his. She was dutiful, responsible and carried out her obligations, but that was all. Brandon’s relationships with his wife and daughter were highly similar to the one he experienced with his mother, i.e., they could find little to criticize him for. However, they could have accurately said that, although his body was there, God only knew where his emotions were.
To fully understand Brandon, you need to know that his father was a high-powered executive. He had reached the top position in his industry, but he paid a price. He was rarely home. Brandon saw him as a person on a pedestal, whom he felt he could never live up to. He, nevertheless, tried his best to follow in his father’s footsteps. After college, his father found him a position in the same industry. But that’s where it ended. He was so frightened of making mistakes or failing that he refused to risk expressing his opinions or making decisions. Mother had taught him well. You receive little or no praise for achievement, but considerable criticism for not being perfect.
Twenty years later, Brandon found himself entirely alone. He had retired with a comfortable pension, which was augmented by a large inheritance from his parents. But he had no friends, he was estranged from his wife and, despite his desire for closeness with his daughter, she refused to be involved with him. As a result, he came to therapy. But, this time he was more than a spectator, he was a participant. He introspectively realized that he was totally risk-adverse and had lived his life controlled by his fears. The price for playing it safe was the restriction of whatever creativity, initiative or proactive behavior that existed inside him. He said, “I more or less stayed afloat. I procrastinated and took days or weeks to make decisions that others made off the cuff. At home, I controlled because I couldn’t afford any deviant opinion. I now see that I lived my life on guard, lest I be criticized for my behavior. I went to church, was generous in my contributions and never showed hostility toward others. Most people would describe me as a good man.” Let me state, however, that those who wanted his love would have described him differently. They would have said that he was unapproachable, unemotional and undeserving of the love they felt for him. Over time, their hurt over feeling that he didn’t care caused them to reject him and seek a life outside of him.
For most of his life, Brandon denied the hurts he experienced. He felt that any expression of emotionality denoted weakness and a lack of masculinity. It was a statement issued by his mother throughout his childhood. Interestingly, during most of his life, whenever questioned about his reserved attitude, his lack of emotionality and his almost obsessive control of others as well as himself, his answer was, “That’s my nature”.
If you were to meet Brandon today, you would find that he no longer uses his “nature” as an excuse to justify old behavior patterns. Instead, he takes pride in being in touch with his feeling, his wherewithal to cry, experience joy and react emotionally. He is now able to behave in accordance with what he feels, as opposed to what mother or society dictates. He is the person he wished he could have been throughout his life. His old “nature” still lurks inside, but Brandon behaves in spite of it, instead of because of it.
With increased awareness of self and sufficient desire, you can as well.