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The Scorpion, the Turtle and a Parable of Trust

image of bridge, trust, Raleigh Psychotherapy, counseling

Most of us have heard the story of the scorpion and the turtle. It can illustrate many points and teach a number of lessons. I see it as a parable about mistrust and trust, and how old messages formed from treatment in our formative years can lead us to abandon our good thinking. Let’s take a look.

The Scorpion and the Turtle

The scorpion and the turtle meet on a river bank. The scorpion cannot swim, so she asks for a ride across the river on the turtle’s back. Mr. Turtle has been around the block a couple of times, has heard the stories about scorpions and their deadly stings, and replies no. He knows better than to trust the Scorpion. The scorpion

has some experience herself and knows how to ask the turtle in a convincing fashion.

This is where the story gets interesting. Although he knows better, Mr. Turtle decides to trust Ms. Scorpion. Mr. Turtle reasons that Ms. Scorpion’s life depends on him making it to the other side; if the scorpion stings him, they both will die. Mr. Turtle goes against his knowledge and judgment because he is sure that Ms. Scorpion wants to live. He agrees to help her.

Mr. Turtle begins the trip across the river with doubts, concerns and fear. His desire to help prevails and he discounts his impressions and feelings. Sure enough, halfway across the river, Ms. Scorpion can no longer resist her impulses and she stings the turtle.

“Why?” asks the turtle with his dying breath. Ms. Scorpion answers, “Because it is a compulsion. I have to do it.”

Why Did Mr. Turtle Trust Ms. Scorpion?

Mr. Turtle grew up in a highly dysfunctional family where no one could be trusted and the truth was never told. If Mr. Turtle was slapped, he was told it was because he was bad. If the utilities were shut off, his parents didn’t take responsibility for not paying the bill, they said the utility company lost the payment. If no one arrived to pick him up after an extracurricular activity, his parents said he had not told them what time to arrive. In the midst of all this chaos, Mr. Turtle believed he had somehow caused each mess and it was his job to clean it up. He was taught that “no” was a bad word not to be used. When asked to do something he always said “yes,” without thinking it through. “Yes” was the right answer. This carried over into his adult life without conscious thought on the part of Mr. Turtle.

Ms. Scorpion grew up in a family where there was no discipline. The children were allowed to do what ever they wished. If she got in trouble in school, her parents would set the teacher straight and there would be no consequences. Ms. Scorpion grew up believing she was special and that the rules did not apply to her. Testing the limits and breaking rules became an obsession.

Mr. Turtle was taught to not trust his own judgment or to think for himself. He was taught that there was no difference between the truth and a lie. To compound Mr

Turtle’s troubles, he could never say no because it was a wrong answer. Even thought he knew that Ms. Scorpion would kill him, his past taught him not to trust his judgment. He believed that to be a good turtle, he had to help others in need. Clearly, Ms. Scorpion was in need and he had the ability to help. Therefore, “yes” was the only answer. He was not able to realistically evaluate the situation and act on what he saw because Mr. Turtle was taught not to trust his own judgment.

How to Trust

Trust is not something that you give to someone. In order for your trust to be properly placed, it must be earned. You have to take time to know something about the other person. How does he act in daily life? How does she treat family, friends and co-workers? What about integrity, morals, and ethics?

Trustworthiness is shown in actions over time. Do words match actions? If not, believe the actions that you see, not the words that are said. Presuming that a person will change in the future if you believe them now is a clear example of giving away trust in spite of your knowledge, your observations, and your better judgment.

The Beginning of Trust

Learning to trust begins as an infant. How caregivers react to a babies needs begins the process of shaping trust. If the caretaker is attuned to the baby, attends to the child’s needs in a caring way, and is consistent, attentive and nurturing, the baby begins to believe that the world is a safe place and begins to trust. The baby learns to communicate, making it possible to express their needs. Over time, a child they learn to trust their needs will be met. This experience of being able to trust is the basis of a person’s beliefs about self, the world and the future. The child learns the world is a safe place. This is how children learn to trust themselves. They become able to differentiate between those who are trustworthy and those who aren’t. If this process does not go well, then children do not trust their own realities.

Trust a Basic Human Need

Children want and need to trust their parents. They will sacrifice their own well being to maintain the image of a good parent, so their survival depends on having a good enough parent. That unfulfilled desire to

stays with us into adulthood. This unconscious longing to trust leads us to project trustworthiness onto people and relationships that remind us of our family members, who were not trustworthy either. There is a confusion about the difference between trusting others and

our impressions.

Bringing this full circle now, we return to Mr. Turtle. He did not trust his own impressions, feelings and thoughts about Ms. Scorpion. The desire to trust, combined with the experience of having his reality contradicted, caused Mr. Turtle to discount his perceptions and knowledge, and led him to trust a most untrustworthy companion. The decision to ignore his knowledge came at a great cost, even though he had the best of intentions.

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