This is Leroy, my 7-year old orange tabby. We rescued each other after I decided that my other kitten, Omar, needed a buddy. Since he moved into my home, he’s grown from an absurdly adorable and playful kitten into a needy, obstinate, chaos-inducing menace.
I’ve read multiple articles about how we, as humans, can learn to be more Zen by observing cats. Leroy is not that cat. He has moments of Zen, I think. I’ve seen him be still…when he’s asleep. I imagine that he would be the first cat to be expelled from a Buddhist temple. He has no off switch.
But, I realized this weekend that there are things that I can learn by watching how my cat literally stomps through life.
Before you imagine me as some sort of reincarnated nightmare from the “Cats” movie (I’m saving that for Halloween.), allow me to explain. I don’t want to literally be like my cat. I want to embrace some of his characteristics because for better or worse, he epitomizes so many of the attributes that I am trying to fine-tune in my life.
This epiphany came to me after I watched Leroy jump from the top of my kitchen cabinets onto the floor with a loud thud. True to his breed, Leroy is big. He’s chunky. He’s tubby and he owns it. I always say that we do not body shame in my home, but every single time I hear Leroy jump, I worry about his tiny feline knees.
Do you know who isn’t worried? Leroy.
He owns every inch of space he takes up. He’s not fretting over serving sizes, carbs, or healthy fats. He doesn’t worry about being judged when he eats. He runs when he wants (In short bursts unless it’s 1 – 4 am, when he’s clearly training for a marathon!), he lounges when he wants, he pounces on Omar without provocation. He doesn’t assess his ability to do anything physically with his size. He never stares at himself in a mirror, cataloging his every flaw. He is who he is.
He is also unapologetic in his desire to love and be loved. He is obsessed with me. I can be sitting or laying down and in less than 30-seconds, I hear the motor of his purring as he slowly crawls up to me and gets as close as he can to my face. Sometimes he perches on my shoulder, sometimes he cozies up against my belly, sometimes he climbs onto my back and nuzzles my hair. It’s as though if he could, he would climb into one of my nostrils, curl up and take a nap.
He doesn’t worry that his need to be close to me is off-putting. He doesn’t overthink whether or not I will regard his behavior as “needy” or label him a “stage three clinger.” He couldn’t care less about what I am telling my friends, family, and social media about him. Believe me, they all hear about him.
He doesn’t take it personally if I eject him from my lap or my shoulder because I’m over his attention. He doesn’t pout when he gets the business end of a water bottle. He either moves on, or he tries again. And again. And again. In his way, he’s not afraid to let me know that he NEEDS me.
When he is threatened, scared, or otherwise bothered, it shows. His fur fluffs up, his tail goes ramrod straight, ears go back, he growls or meows loudly. He doesn’t worry that what he is feeling is coming at an inconvenient time for those around him. He rides them out until HE feels better. There is no amount of cajoling, reassuring or forcing him to change his mood. Leroy will calm down when he is good and ready and not a moment sooner.
He’s not quick to warm up to strangers, and to this day he’s never felt the need to examine why that is or take a Buzzfeed quiz about being an introvert. He is known to hide for hours whenever I have company over, but when he is finally ready to meet them, he doesn’t leave them alone. (This is where he and I are actually more alike than different.)
While these qualities are demonstrated with both of my cats, Leroy tends to be the most demonstrative in regards to his personality. I’ve often described him as my Id whereas his feline brother, Omar is more my Ego. Leroy acts. He leaps before he looks (Again, my fear for his little joints is legit).
You may be reading this and thinking “Well Stephanie, you just described every single cat on the planet, and what does this have to do with mental health?”
What I’ve realized while observing my cat is that good, bad, or ugly, he doesn’t get in his own way. He is not an overthinker. He protects himself without sacrificing his vulnerability. He lives his best life with little to no regard for the opinions of others. He lives completely in the moment.
While I don’t want to adopt every quality that Leroy possesses (Could you imagine me jumping from a couch onto the shoulders of someone I love?) His ability to just BE is something that I aspire to.
A major contributing source of my anxiety comes from overthinking, and from caring way too much about what other people think of me. Social anxiety is something that I have only recently begun to confront in my life and it’s been an interesting process.
I have done the routine where I take stock in every single gaffe I believe that I committed at a social event or group hang the night before. I’ve had to ‘pre-game’ in order to feel comfortable at parties. I’ve read way too much into texts, or lack thereof.
My anxiety about being ‘too much’ for some people has caused me to hold back on my affection and vulnerability making it hard to connect with the people I truly care about. Anyone who has known me for a significant amount of time has referred to my putting up ‘walls’ at least once in conversation.
I’ve also tried to just STOP my anxiety symptoms or repress them in order to make people around me more comfortable. I’ve been a practitioner of what is now labeled as ‘toxic positivity’ for decades.
Does any of this sound familiar to you?
Anxiety Resource Center has introduced me to kindred spirits from all walks of life. Although our anxiety is as unique as we are, it is easy to recognize some of your own challenges in the stories of others. What I have come to understand is that our brains are trying so hard to keep us safe that sometimes, we need to find ways to override the alarm before the constant blaring drives us insane.
I’ve always believed that we could learn a lot from the animals around us. They act on instinct but are also very intentional. Watching their own alarm systems manifest in their brains, bodies, and behavior can be fascinating as well. I am a big fan of FEELING YOUR FEELINGS and animals do just that. They do whatever they need to do to get to the other side of a threat, and then they go on with their lives.
Katy and Laura emphasize the importance of being in the moment as a way to help with anxiety symptoms to all of their clients. If you are in the here and now, you can’t ruminate about what you did the night before or catastrophize what may happen tomorrow. This is something that animals have mastered; the art of being fully present.
While it’s true that we cannot live our lives in the exact same way as our pets (Please consider the aforementioned “Cats” reference) we can look at the way they interact with their environment and use that as a guide in our own lives.
I’m not going to jump off of the top of my refrigerator, but I will continue to work on not caring about the opinions of others in regard to my life.
I’m not going to take a swipe at my sister’s head the next time that I see her, but I will work harder to be more open with my affection and vulnerability.
Most importantly, when I am confronted with difficult emotions, I will work through them instead of repressing them, even if it involves fluffing up, flattening my ears, growling, and meowing incessantly.
Actually, especially if it involves those things.