We learn so much from our pets. The four-leggeds (and wingeds and scalies) in our life.
This summer, I had a tent at the Pet Rock in the Park festival in Portland Maine, an annual event that is primarily focused on our fur babies. While the traffic through my tent was not nearly the level I had expected or hoped for, I still had a tremendously joy filled day. Why? Because I was able to observe the harmony of all of the blended families milling about the festival. That’s right – blended families of such variety I had never seen before. A German Shepherd and Chihuahua, each holding the leash of their respective humans who were walking hand-in-hand. A poodle keeping pace with its brotherly mutt. This whole community of harmony, happening less than 3’ from the earth’s surface.
Let me share what I have learned about freedom from pets – both that day and in my years of working with pets. Here are a few themes from the perspective of our extended family members…
It’s not about you. It’s about ME. (And my needs matter.)
There’s a saying that dogs sleep with you because the love being with you, and that cats sleep with you because they love your bed. While we do typically associate dogs with loyalty, and cats with independence, what they have in common is a need to be respected as individuals.
Take my two felines for example. Emma really just likes her space, nap time, and to curl up on my husband’s lap the second he sits down. Granted she’s getting on in years, but mellow is her MO. If I try following her around the house, she’ll give me that “stop bugging me” look, and then find a way to get out of reach.
Walter on the other hand asks for constant attention. I have learned to not take a step in the kitchen without looking down. He is quite stealthy and manages to place himself within inches of my feet without me knowing. When I acknowledge him, he immediately leads me to where he wants me to go. Sometimes it’s scratching his back while he enjoys a few kibbles. Sometimes he wants me to take a romp through the cellar with him. If I don’t follow him, he gives me that disappointed look of “where did I lose you?”
Two felines. One family. As different as apples and grapefruit! And neither thinks twice about it, I am sure. They know nothing but the freedom to be themselves.
Let’s not forget that the two-leggeds in our life (yes, I’m speaking of human beings) have their differing needs too. My uncle once asked my mother how she managed to raise her nine children and treat us all equally. Her answer was “I didn’t”. What??? She went on to say something along the lines of “I treated each as they needed to be treated”. Genius!! I was very shy and clingy, and loved being outside. Some of my siblings were much more independent and gregarious. Some were very introspective yet confident. To try to treat us all the same would have led to much disharmony in our home.
(For other pearls of wisdom like this, please enjoy my blog “Lessons From Mom”, originally published in September 2018.)
Consider this observation when someone in your life is responding to you in a way that makes no sense to you. Perhaps you are being kind, and they are being gruff in return. Or you are making your demands clear, yet they are simply turning their back on you in a wave of indifference. Or you are being as helpful as you can possibly be, yet they are clearly annoyed. Or you are giving them oodles of free range and staying out of their way, but they are coming back with questions and clinging to your every word. They are not you. You are not them.
There are many good books on this general topic if you want to explore this concept deeper. “Men are from Mars; Women are from Venus” and “The 5 Love Languages” are two of the better-known ones. There are also different communication and working style surveys that are popular in our corporate world; when I was in my corporate career, we improved team dynamics through “Myers-Briggs” profiles, and the lessons from “Trombone Player Wanted”. But I find that simply reminding myself from time to time that we each have our own interpersonal styles and preferences can be helpful.
That was soooo 7 seconds ago!
Our pets do not dwell on things that irritate or offend them. It’s not “forgive and forget” – they do not even get to the point where the concept of “forgiveness” is a thing! They experience in the moment and move on. Unless our pets are subjected to constant hurtful actions, they just return to their natural state and personality traits moments after any sort of altercation.
Oh why oh why can’t we take that lesson from our pets?!? Just think of all the angst and time and pints of Ben & Jerry’s (or bottles of wine or antacids) this perspective would save us!
How can we be more feline / canine when it comes to moving on? It’s not easy, at least at first. In a recent blog I wrote about Acceptance we explore some thoughts. But just remember, when someone lashes out at you, they are reacting to their own fears, biases, triggers, etc. Something about the interaction set them off.
Do a quick self-check:
Am I in a place of compassion?
Was I actually acting out based on one of my own triggers?
Is there something for me to learn here, or to heal within myself?
If I was being insensitive, how do I choose to make amends?
Sort it out, breathe, and move on.
This leads nicely into the next lesson…
If you hurt me, I will react. If you love me, I will respond.
This is such a natural way to live for our four-leggeds. They respond to any actual or perceived attack by fight, flight, or freeze. But when they feel safe and loved, they will sit and cuddle with you. Even come to your defense when they sense threat around you. They respond deeply to knowing they are loved.
Many of we two-leggeds also have experienced the proverbial “deer in the headlights” moments, when just maybe if I don’t move, they won’t see me. I have had those “run Forrest run” moments when I feel hurt, and all I want to do is get somewhere else, as fast as I can. And I know I have been provoked into “mama bear” mode when God help anyone that is in my crosshairs!
Sometimes in dealing with others in stressful (fight/flight/freeze) moments, what we worry most about is their potential “fight” response – the counterattack. But, if the other person is someone we truly love and care about, consider that frequently putting someone into “flee” or “freeze” mode is likely more damaging to the long-term state of the relationship.
Think of a time when you were provoked into an argument with a loved one. Chances are that it was eventually resolved. That you both aired your grievances so to speak. Maybe even came to understand each other better, and grew the level of compassion you shared for each other. You probably also learned a thing or two about yourself, your values, your “triggers”, etc. in a way that will be helpful to you going forward.
Now think of a time when you felt hurt, and just wanted to fade to invisibility in that moment, or to run far far away. Did that ever really get resolved? Or did it deepen layers of hurt, and solidify the triggers? Now consider the roles reversed. Perhaps times when you felt particularly victorious because the other person – perhaps even someone whom you love deeply – suddenly retreated from the disagreement. Consider what likely was really going on within them in the moment of retreat. Do you think they are feeling “oh I was really so wrong, and I am grateful to you for making that clear to me and making me a better person”? Not likely! They are cataloging that new fresh wound, lining it up by the others.
But on the other hand, there have been many many times in life when love and compassion – sometimes in an unexpected way – has been directed my way. Times that I have felt hurt, or disappointed, or even guilty (again I encourage you to check out my “Lessons From Mom” blog for that last one). I know when I feel love and compassion coming from the other, it gives my heart and soul breathing room to process, rethink, learn, and heal. It truly does help me to be a better person. And it also causes me to sink to an even deeper place of love and compassion for the one who is being loving towards me.
So here comes the hard part. When you feel triggered – hot, armed for bear, beyond anger – consider just for a moment digging deep into your soul resources and find compassion for the offender. WHAT?!? Yes, compassion for the offender. This is something that I work hard on with my clients, many who have been victims of terrible human behavior. Once you realize that the other's behaviors are likely a result of their own wounds – abuse, neglect, misunderstandings – then it’s a little easier to send a little compassion their way. And once you send them compassion, you’re able to release a little of the strangle hold they have on your energy. It does not mean you are accepting or condoning their actions, but it does mean that you are starting to restore your own empowerment by not allowing them to trigger you. Like I said, it's the hard part. Practice… practice… practice…
Know when it’s time to go
It took me a long time to write this blog. Nearly two months. But about a week ago I realized why. My dear feline Emma, 18 years young, was starting to make her way to the Rainbow Bridge. She has now crossed, and thanks to her I realized I needed to add this last segment to the post. When I began writing this, we had two felines living with us as part of our family, and now we have just one. Emma taught us this one final lesson before leaving.
Let me tell you first a little about what seemed to be Emma’s process of transitioning. She was quite elderly by feline standards. Yet she was very much part of our daily life to the end. Her health had been declining for the past few months. She was losing weight, sleeping even more than usual, and in the final weeks she was also losing strength. But she had a lot to teach us over the years about unconditional love, about playing, about resting and self-care, about getting along with those who irritate you (sorry Walter), and so much more. Toward the end she was teaching us about compassion for the differently-abled as she became more needy, and the joy of sharing when we offered her food from our plates just because it made us happy to see her eat. She did a wonderful job of teaching us, and had probably taught us all that she could in this lifetime. So in that final week, she just focused on snuggling, and sharing love with us. Finally the night before we were planning to take her to the vet for assistance in her transition, she passed in the middle of the night, snuggled with us, and on her own terms, giving us that final lesson on free-will.
What can we learn from Emma’s final round of lessons? I am sure more will come to me in the coming weeks, but for now, it is a reminder that I can help and teach those who want my help and teachings. But I cannot do anything to support those who reject my support. And that is ok! Her act has encouraged me to consider more about how I am spending my time. How to examine and reset my life priorities. About being “me” even when others might reject who I am due to their own biases, beliefs, fears, values, or whatever. This gives me strength to choose when and where and with whom I choose to spend my time. In a sense, choosing when it’s time for me to show up, and when it is time for me to move on. And it feels soooo empowering in the best way. Thank you Emma!
In honor and memory...
This blog is being submitted in memory and honor of our Emma. A great teacher, champion spot chaser, master of resting, experienced traveler, and first and foremost a princess. May she find lots of rest, along with shiny spots, chicken treats, socks, and warm laps at the Rainbow Bridge.
Ok, all tissues aside now, I would love to know what YOU have learned from the loving pets in your life! I invite you to sign in and share your comments.