I’ve already talked once about my amazing cat, Rye. The one who is deeply anxious but through the power of accepting her as she is and her own tenacity and bravery has achieved more than I ever thought she would. I am so very proud of her.
I am also anxious. I’ve had pretty deep anxiety for as long as I can remember. I am medicated for it now and really doing much better, but nothing can make it go away completely. I get anxious sometimes. Sometimes it’s social anxiety, sometimes it’s anxiety about trying a new thing, sometimes my heart just pounds and my breathing is fast and I’m shaking for no apparent reason at all – it’s just aimless, pointless anxiety about nothing. That last one is kind of annoying, honestly.
I’ve also been very frustrated with myself about my own anxiety. When I was growing up it was often treated with impatience or dismissal or anger, so I learned to be ashamed of it. My being fearful was being “bad” and when I hid my fear I was praised for being “good.” I have a few specific examples I kind of want to trot out, but I don’t want to be excessively depressing and I’m not actually looking to really talk about my childhood right now. Suffice it to say – I learned that being scared was “bad” which translated into seeing MYSELF as “bad” because I was so afraid and I wasn’t able to stop being afraid.
Enter Rye. While her foster mom* is lovely, potential adopters don’t want her because they see how scared she is and don’t want to deal with that. As though her fear is something to “deal with” or is a “hardship” in some way. Well, as I said in that previous post about Rye, I don’t consider her anxiety to be a hardship on me at all. And being a person with much anxiety myself, I know how to treat an anxious cat.
Over time, I started to notice something. The way I treated Rye and her fear was very different from how I treated myself and my fear. I never placed any demands on Rye, but I would make demands on myself that regularly ended in panic attacks or other unpleasantness. I had absolute trust in Rye to set her own pace, but no such trust for myself. I am always incredibly proud of Rye and every accomplishment she makes, but every step forward I take is accompanied by an internal litany of how I still fall short.
Now, I am one of those people who always has stricter standards for myself than for other people. I suspect many of us are like that. It’s not actually something I think a whole lot about, but eventually the double standard on how I responded to myself vs. how I responded to Rye was just too much to ignore.
I had a few ways available to me to resolve the cognitive dissonance. I could decide that I need to be harder on Rye. I could decide that we just need to have two different standards because Reasons. Or I could decide that I should be gentler with myself.
It probably goes without saying that the first option was no option at all. Not. Happening.
Option two was tempting, but I couldn’t quite manage to create justifications that satisfied me. I really tried, though.
Which left option three. Honestly? It’s kind of working. I really have gotten so much more gentle with myself and my anxiety. Maybe it isn’t bad of me to be afraid, maybe it’s not a moral failing on my part, maybe I’m not actually weak. I see Rye as phenomenally brave, the bravest cat I’ve ever known, because of her willingness to do things in spite of her fear. Maybe, just maybe, my accomplishments are worth praising without also belittling myself. Maybe, just maybe, I’m brave too. Maybe, JUST MAYBE, I can be proud of myself.
Ok, I haven’t actually made it that far. I’m not proud of myself yet. But I am far gentler with myself, and less inclined to judge myself harshly for feelings I can’t control. I’m better at being, if not proud, at least happy with myself when I do things that are hard for me.
And you know what? This works SO MUCH BETTER. Turns out getting angry with myself for being fearful didn’t actually accomplish very much. Rye taught me a lot about the power of accepting others for who they are. Now she’s teaching me about the power of accepting myself.
* If you’re wondering why her foster mom didn’t just adopt her if she was having so much trouble finding a home, well, I wondered that too. Apparently Foster Mom thought her home was too loud and chaotic for Rye to flourish in, and wanted to find a calmer, quieter home to be Rye’s forever home.