I have a cat I sometimes call “Crabby Cat”. His proper name is Jack, a beautiful, senior, brown-black tabby. I first saw Jack as a pair of dark, triangle ears poking up from behind some goutweed along the border of my garden at the house I used to inhabit in town. I’d be puttering around the garden and notice the ears or some movement, maybe a faint meow, and I would start talking to this mysterious visitor. I eventually got to see his beautiful face, distinctive markings and paler tan colouring outlining his large eyes. I was smitten.
Over a period of months, back about 9 years ago, I determined he was a stray. Since he got along with my other cats out in the garden, I enticed him to hang around. Once he got close enough, I noticed he had an oozing wound above his left eye. I decided to take my chances on trapping him so I could get him to a vet, to clean up the wound and neuter him too, after which I would release him and hope that he might stay with us.
I succeeded, with the deft use of a can of tuna placed in a cat carrier just outside the kitchen door. That, with some vigilance and fast action, caught him. He had the abcess drained, got “fixed”, tested for diseases and vaccinated. After a night in my basement I released him, and after three days of nibbling the food I left out, under cover of darkness, he showed up for a proper visit and never left.
But Jack, as I chose to call him for his sense of sturdy maleness and street-smarts, brought a little “cattitude” with him. The vet had estimated Jack was about 6 years old at the time, so possibly he’d been on his own quite a while, avoiding or surviving the dangers of foxes, raccoons, owls and cars, let alone winter. Life on the streets can be rough for a cat.
He had a short fuse, not totally trusting us, batting at the others and hissing, although I don’t think anyone was ever actually scratched by him, cat or human.
I spent a few years without Jack when I moved and could only take one cat with me, leaving Jack with my former partner. But a year ago Jack, and another cat I had adopted, Rosie, were offered back to me, as my ex had decided to move away. Jack would now be entering a new house with three other cats, two dogs and a new “dad”.
It was then that I started to call him Crabby Cat, as he would hiss at us for no apparent reason, the cats, the dogs, whomever walked too close by. He’d wave his paw to swat at the other critters who were basically ignoring him as they tried to pass him in the hallway, (maybe he just wanted attention?) Sometimes he’d make contact, batting one of the dogs right on the nose, but it seemed no claws were extended. They learned to give him a wide berth.
He’d also eat his food in a terrible hurry, flinging bits here and there outside his dish, uttering a snuffling, growling noise as he gobbled it up, looking worried that someone would snatch it away if he didn’t. Sometimes he’d eat so quickly it would all back up onto the floor a few minutes later. He did eventually slow down as he came to trust in the supply.
The hissing and growling have decreased too, but it is still there on an almost daily basis at some point or other, and I have started to see a connection between Jack’s seemingly out of place hissing and some of my own bad habits, namely my habit of worrying “what people will think”, or more particularly, worrying about the possibility of being criticized.
I was working recently with a coach on one of my own issues, a certain stuckness and procrastination that arises when I am just on the precipice of really getting somewhere and then I backslide, partly due to an underlying fear of receiving unfavourable criticism by putting my work “out there”.
I have always know where the fear comes from, inculcated at a very early age as I watched my siblings either be on the receiving end of criticism, or else trying to avoid it, as they and I observed judgments being doled out about others by our father. I learned well, as they say, to “fly under the radar” – to be a good girl, be quiet, not cause any trouble, and of course not to have an opinion that might not be the right one. I had observed too many times how quickly other opinions could be shut down just by his tone of voice. I learned it was not safe to speak up or to be noisy or very different. The desire to conform in order to feel safe was paramount. This still happened into my 30’s when I spent some time back at home one year.
As Tony Robbins, one of the founders of the Strategic Intervention coach training program I am in, says, “Our two greatest fears are that we are not enough, and we won’t be loved.” We do a lot to fit in.
In my case, as I expect for many (as the feeling of not being “enough” seems to be pervasive in our culture), this sense gets implanted at a very young age, and reinforced by our observations as we grow up, even if we are not directly criticized and even when, as I was, we are told we are loved. The messages are absorbed by observation. We learn to contort and stifle ourselves to make sure we are never a target. Some folks go the other way and act out and rebel. But not me. I had learned that security was more important than speaking up and being yourself. I believe it was indeed true that I was loved by both parents, but I also observed that “approval” could be taken away. I am quite sure my dad had learned this with the help of his own family conditioning too, and he was passing on his own insecurities to us.
So, you ask, as you scratch your head, that’s all too bad, but what does it have to do with a crabby cat?
Well, seems Jack and I may both get stuck in a reactive loop from time to time, growling and hissing at perceived “dangers” that are no longer there and are no longer relevant. Jack is no longer out on the streets or in the woods fending for himself, fighting off other stray cats and raccoons looking for a bit to eat, or even being vulnerable to owls or foxes who might be around and hungry. He’s got the “good life” now, constantly being served, snuggled, attended to, in a warm and comfortable home. He doesn’t need to growl and hiss and bare his teeth to protect himself. When he does, he’s regressing to an earlier time, running an old program.
And sometimes it would seem, so am I! I don’t do much growling and hissing, but there are certain triggers that bring me to a state where the old programs run, just like Jack…times when I feel vulnerable, where I fear I might be exposed to judgment or criticism, where I feel I have to “measure up” in order to get approval, and therefore to feel safe. Just being aware that such emotional regression can occur can save one from reacting in a way that is out of proportion to a given situation.
Because of all the study and self-development I have done over the years, I am much more aware and less likely to fall into such a trap. I have learned through Strategic Intervention and other concepts to create new beliefs for my life that are more empowering than beliefs I held as a child, and to let go of old beliefs that are no longer true for me.
Sadly, my father passed away many years ago. It would have been nice to have gotten to the stage where I no longer felt that childish vulnerability and could relate to him adult to adult, having open and honest discussions without fear. And perhaps he would’ve finally appreciated that too. But I need not fear his disapproval anymore. The fear of being rejected by my family is no longer relevant. I do want us to stay connected and loving, but as an adult, it is no longer a matter of my personal security if anyone disapproves of me.
So, as the holidays approach, and new leaps are taken by me in my coaching career, I remember to stay aware of old triggers and emotional habits. When something pops up, I can pause, step back and evaluate my response. If it looks like I have responded from an old pattern that is not based in the current reality of my life, then it’s time for me to take a deep breath, “put on my big girl panties” as Cheryl Richardson is fond of saying, and act from my older and wiser adult self.
As for Jack the Cat, I am still not sure how to break him of his regressive hissing habit, except to keep loving him and helping him to feel secure in this house until he can form a new belief that being close to other critters is not a threat, that they all get loved and treated equally, and that he is finally…safe.
To read about the concept of emotional regression see John Lee’s book, “Growing Yourself Back Up”, which I first learned about from Hay House author and coach, Cheryl Richardson. Also helpful in terms of breaking away from the disempowering patterns often passed down through generations in families, see Denise Linn’s Book, “Four Acts of Personal Power”, which adds elements of meditation and ritual to help free oneself and free the generations to follow.