What a Mongoose Can Teach You About Unhealthy Relationships and Being Yourself


I had a friend who was my mongoose. They are little creatures, able to take down rabbits much bigger than themselves and eat the rabbits to bones and fur. Mongoose are related to leopards and hyena, but are much much smaller. They are, in fact, from the superfamily feliforma. That means “cat-like” carnivores. And, they are immune to venom that can kill an adult man in less than 30 minutes. That’s a bad thing if you are a king cobra.

If you are a mongoose, the mongooses’ tightly knit social group favors your own mongoose-ness. As a member of the mob (that is the term for a mongoose pack), you will appreciate your full belly and the social order. You will revel in their cat-like nature, which will feel like it is all nature. Each member of the mob has its role — some leaving to hunt while others watch the old and young. There are some drawbacks in their ultra-hierarchical system of conformity. For one, only the alpha male and female may reproduce. But as a mongoose, you are rarely hungry or alone — even if you are not an alpha. And, you will think, “This is exactly as it should be. It makes sense. Anyone would be a mongoose if they could. They are the best animal. Everyone is happy.”

Everyone wants to belong, but is it your mob?

I am not a mongoose — or cat-like anything. I do not relish in the kill or the acquisition of power. This is not my natural schemata. It is exhausting. I find people who use the word alpha as a crowning moniker off-putting and prone to manipulation. (I am not your child or your bad dog. Please do not rub my nose in my messes, smack me with verbal newspapers, or take away privileges. And have the decency to accept I’m a logical being who can make a sincere apology without punishment.) For me, unabashed selfish people depress me. How can anyone trust someone who is looking for the advantage in soft points of your being? Besides, I enjoy trust more than obedience. Maybe I am anti-authoritarian.

The point is, we all have our various designs. Our characteristics feel like failures in proximity to someone whose design is dangerously at odds with our own. The king cobra fears nothing but man and mongoose. But lions and eagles eat mongooses.

It has taken me a long time to understand that boundaries are okay. It is not a failure if someone is a mongoose and I am a rabbit. A rabbit shouldn’t cuddle with a mongoose.

I recall a very interesting conversation with someone I genuinely love. With a little resign, he announced that we should never sleep together. He is uncomfortable with romantic love, the responsibility it entails depresses him. I am saddened by the prohibition of it. It was a very wise decision, so many years of friendship later, that we knew ourselves better than to ever date. He would always feel like he failed to give enough. I would always feel like I wasn’t enough. We simply are different designs — but, we have learned to understand each other. We are not in conflict. Nor are we dangerous beasts. He is not a mongoose nor any other cat-like carnivore.

People love to say that opposites attract. It is in all the magazines (marketed to teenagers pretending sex and displays of power make you an adult). Ego, more than inclusion or comfort, drives challenges and conquests of youth. It is foolish. You do not want to be a rabbit in a mongoose den, no matter how amiable that mongoose is. Partnership evolves from understanding, which requires designs that are similar. You have to be able to be vulnerable. You have to be legible. And I do not mean just naked, body blurring partnership. All relationships, from friends to family. You have to be able to communicate, work through things, and have common and inspiring values. It doesn’t mean you are the same. It means that there is something in your design that brings out the best of you¸ rather than changing you entirely. It is the person who can read you well enough to forgive you — because it is hardest to understand when you feel hurt. It gives you somewhere safe to become more from.

There is something more fundamental in rejecting the popular belief that opposites attract. I no longer want to be someone else, like I did when I was younger. I do not need someone to save me. I am me becoming better. I tried to be other people, but I don’t fit into that mongoose world, tough and tribal as it may be. A wolf in sheep’s clothing still cannot bleat.

This is okay.

As I read in an article in Psychology Today recently:

“Somewhere out there are people who can identify with you and appreciate you for who you are… Cultivate authenticity, and you’ll find those you are meant to be with. ‘…true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.’”

These are the other imperfect, messy, nurturing people you can grow with. Acceptance is more than letting you in the den door. “Tell me who admires and loves you, and I will tell you who you are.” (Saint-Exupery) Love is more than proximity.

“Stop trying to be a mongoose.” Loved ones may say, if you are not a mongoose. And if you are a mongoose, they may caution you against thinking you are a great big lion. Eventually, you will need to caution them, too. You may sit there with bandages and swabs for them, providing triage to a wounded heart.

So the questions aren’t: am I enough? But can you be there to help as I become as awesome as I can be? Or, at least encourage me when I falter? I don’t need you to be strong for me. I need you to let me be strong. Tell me when I am wrong. Love me anyway, for what I am. Can you put aside the stupid notion that we are prey, the living food of acquisition and ego? Even if you are masterful at the hunt, you will be weak someday. And, I will watch you while you sleep. Because you made me strong enough to do so.

Tell me who you admire (and why) and I will tell you who you will become. For friendships, family, and relationships, loyalty is incredibly important. But, it is also important to know who you are loyal to. No amount of desire can make you comfortable playing dress-up in another skin. There are people I love who will never understand me. There are people who I will never understand. And, because we love each other, we stand off and hurt each other over and over again — trying to make each other into something we are not. Our natures are at odds. Those are not fruitful fights.

You have to be able to talk. Even a fight is an opportunity to learn and understand each other. (I have seen people come back from long separations much stronger than their first time around.) There is nothing worse than silence at a dinner table. “We just know each other so well — “ So well that you kill each other? Knowing someone is a constant process of discovery. Be open. They will grow. Allow them to surprise you by not confining them to the past. When we forget to talk, people start feeling like the only way to be themselves is with people who do not know them.

So why doesn’t everyone openly and authentically talk? If love, as Anthony Giddens said, is a process of mutual disclosure, why don’t we disclose? There is so much at stake that it is painful to be vulnerable. It is painful in these human skins to guess wrong about who are snakes, rabbits, dogs, cats, and mongooses. We fear rejection. We fear the people and things we cannot replace. We fear being wrong. We fear humiliation. All this is because we crave belonging. So, we get stuck hiding in plain sight, but unseen. We hide in the skins of others, the skins they want, in weird mimicry. We are desperately frightened that ourselves or others will figure out we are in the wrong den — and we will be homeless.

Be you.

Instead of fear, be. Try it, even when we have to admit that we were sniffing around for familiarity in the wrong place. You have to be willing to change, to talk. You have to be willing to let someone affect you — because that is intimacy and it is strongest, deepest in the mind and heart. Excitement happens in moments with someone, not surfeit and stolen from them.

“No single event can awaken within us a stranger totally unknown to us. To live is to be slowly born. It would be a bit too easy if we could go about borrowing ready-made souls.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Not fierce.
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