It’s Only Natural

Any of these activities that fit feel ‘natural’ to me. When I do things that don’t feel natural, I feel more stressed — with all the implications that this has for our physical and psychological wellbeing. So, it is an interesting question what ‘natural’ means exactly.

My experience, and perhaps yours too, is that some things feel like they fit me better than others. I mean all sorts of things: clothing, pastimes, occupations and groups, to name only a few.

The things that fit for me aren’t necessarily the things that I am best at. In high school, my best marks by a long way were for Economics. It bored me rigid then and still does. I have never felt the slightest inclination to study it further. At university I mostly studied English Literature, for which I only got moderately good marks in high school.

Neither is what fits entirely due to education. I grew up in a non-drinking house — I hadn’t tasted alcohol until I was nearly twenty. I knew that I preferred beer to wine, even though I had never tasted them before — so I wasn’t educated into a preference. Since then, I have learned to appreciate wine more, but beer is still my preferred tipple.

Any of these activities that fit feel ‘natural’ to me. When I do things that don’t feel natural, I feel more stressed — with all the implications that this has for our physical and psychological wellbeing. So, it is an interesting question what ‘natural’ means exactly.

Whether there is any such thing as what is natural can be questioned. When we look at the diversity of behaviour throughout the world, it is tempting to conclude that there is no such thing. The example for me is men holding hands as they walk along. This is quite ‘natural’ in some cultures, but for an Australian male (like me) it would take an enormous amount of change for this to feel natural. (It doesn’t feel natural to gay Australian males either, interestingly enough.)

Yet when I examine my own experience, however diverse the experience of others, there are some things that just do feel natural to me. A lot of my work on my emotions has been tuning in to what fit for me and not forcing myself to do things. This has meant as much unlearning as learning (perhaps more). Listening to my stomach to let me know when I have eaten enough, finding the kind of exercise that I enjoy, even knowing what kinds of people are (psychologically and physically) safe to be around — all this has been more about unlearning than learning.

This process of unlearning can be very charged. There can be feeling of liberation and elation — “I’m finally feel free to be myself!”

This can lead us back to childhood, before all the ‘education’ is done to us. Children’s actions tend to be immediate, spontaneous and fresh. When we can be like this, life can be less of a struggle, and we are less likely to get stuck fretting.

And yet, I enjoy talking with friends (impossible without an education into language), and appreciating paintings, even enjoying wine. All this is the product of education. Human babies are born ‘poorly equipped’ with instincts. We don’t know how to walk soon after birth, and we are dependent to some extent for years on our caregivers. A more positive way to put this is to say that we are the ‘learning animal’. Humans learn and so are quite adaptable — we can live in just about any part of the earth, for instance.

It seems to me that what is natural for us is both voluntary and involuntary. As much as I understand and am good at something, I still don’t want to do some things. I’d rather be a blogger, however successful and well paid I could be doing economics. There seems to be an involuntary component. Yet, when we look at the diversity of what is natural around the world, it seems undeniable that we are also educated into what is natural to us (all the different greeting rituals around the world for instance).

Part of the story I think is how education is done. When people are given enough time and are helped to make sense of what they are learning in their own way, what is learnt can come to feel natural. For instance, it is now quite natural for me to notice mistletoe. This happens spontaneously. I don’t have to try and see it or look for it, I just notice that it is there. This has only happened in the last few years since I became friends with a butterfly collector: butterflies like mistletoe. He pointed out to me what mistletoe looked like. There was no pressure; I was able to ask him whether a particular thing was mistletoe. So in my own way and in my own time I came to recognise mistletoe. When we are pressured into ‘learning’ something we aren’t interested in, I think it is far harder for this to become natural.

I think we need a way to understand this interplay of the voluntary and involuntary in what makes us. The time honoured — and I think very insightful — metaphor is the acorn. Each acorn is destined to be an oak tree, and each human baby is destined to be an adult. In some sense the full development is encoded in the seed or baby. And yet oak trees differ from each other, and human beings do too. The oak tree adapts to local conditions, as do people, with the result that we look different in different places. The culture surrounding the tree or person likewise can affect which potentials of the seed or person are developed.

For me there are some implications for how much satisfaction we have in our lives. We can watch and learn from our involuntary reactions. We can simply note that we have preferences. I much prefer walking to swimming and much prefer either of them to running. This has clear implications for my staying physically fit. We may also learn from analysing our reactions — why we prefer one picture to another, or one style of music to another, for instance.

It will be easiest usually to work with what is natural for us. To learn in a way that suits us, for instance, even if we aren’t learning a subject that we are interested in.

We can gain a sense of the kind of nourishment we need from our environment. We have a sense of what it is that we need to flourish. And, depending on our environment, we can often do something to obtain the nourishment we need.

Living in tune with what fits for us is a recipe for a less stressful life. And we can learn how to do this.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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