Why Doesn't My Cat Think She's Fat?
All right, so in the last two posts we’ve determined that our brains are giving us messages that were encoded when we were little that are often unhelpful because they were formed when we didn’t have access to our logical mind and this continues to impact us today. But there’s still a burning question…WHY do our minds do that?
Why do they form these unhelpful messages that we are then stuck hearing all the time? The short answer is...because they are trying to keep us safe.
There is a part of our minds that is exactly like the minds of animals. This is the part that operates on survival instinct. It’s called the fight/flight/freeze response. When animals sense danger, they go into automatic responses that they have learned from their environment will keep them safe.
My two cats, Nala and her son Keto, showcase this concept of survival instinct beautifully. Nala was found in a back alley as a teen mom with a litter of kittens, all of them sick and dying. They were about to be put down when they were rescued.
Nala learned a few things from this experience. Firstly, she learned that she needed to roam around to get food, and that being able to forage outside and assert her freedom were massively important to her survival. This experience has totally shaped her personality now...she loves the outdoors and her freedom more than anything. She constantly wants to go outside, to investigate, to explore, and gets very annoyed and anxious when she encounters a closed door (which poses endless dilemma’s in my apartment in the middle of the night!)
The second thing she learned from her environment as a young cat was that food was scarce, so she needed to eat as much as possible whenever food was available. As you can imagine, now she eats and eats and eats! Cat food, Human food, whatever’s offered - she’s interested.
The final thing she learned from her early life experiences was that people would give her food if she was friendly to them. So….you can see where this is going. Yes, she sucks up to absolutely everyone.
These things make her feel safe and secure now because they are what kept her safe as a kitten. Even though she doesn’t actually need them anymore because now she gets fed at the same time every day by the same people. But because her brain was wired that way when she was young, she still operates as if she’s in that earlier reality….Which is exactly what we all do! But we’ll get to that in a minute.
First, let’s look at the very different brain pattern that formed in Nala’s son Keto (my other cat).
Because he was so little when the trauma of being on the street occurred, he learned very different coping mechanisms. He was the runt of the litter and very tiny, so he needed to be as close as possible to his mummy at all times so that he wouldn’t miss getting fed from her milk.
So now of course he sits on his mom every chance he gets…literally ON her. When she gets sick of him and pushes him away, he finds another lap to crawl onto. Basically, anyone who feeds him gets this treatment. (Which is, by the way, the CUTEST thing in the whole world :)
The second thing that Keto learned when he was little was that he needed to hide from everyone who wasn’t his mom because they were potential predators and he was totally defenceless. So, yes, now he runs and hides whenever he senses danger, and absolutely COWERS at the suggestion of leaving the apartment.
So these two beautiful creatures that share DNA, that are in the same family, that are together all the time…act totally differently because of their early life experiences and how their minds reacted to keep them safe.
A recent event highlighted this perfectly….I was having people over for dinner and a knock came at the door. Both cats jumped and ran. But they had very different outcomes in mind. Keto ran straight to the bedroom and didn’t come out again all night….And Nala ran to the door to greet my friends and then proceeded to hang out at (well more ON) the food table all evening. Survival instinct at its finest!
So, how does this apply to us? Our minds do exactly the same thing and come up with similar patterns of behaviour that are automatic reactions to early life stress based on our survival instinct (think of the last time you felt stressed and craved something sweet to eat, or someone said something mean to you and you wanted more than anything to be home in your bed with the sheets over your head).
Except, the only difference is that we also have this other part of our brain that is constantly analysing everything. The thinking part. So instead of just carrying on with these patterns in bliss and harmony like my cats do, we criticise ourselves for them.
So, if my cats were human…(a thought I often find myself thinking, but that’s another story).
Keto would look at Nala and say “oh my God I”m such a wuss! I’m so anxious I can’t even leave the house! What’s wrong with me??”
And Nala would look at Keto and think…”Oh my god I’m so fat compared to him!!! I really need to stop eating so much!!”
And in both cases we would panic because our instinctual brain is telling us one thing that we have to do in order to stay safe...but our analytical brain is telling us that this is wrong/bad and that we need to be different so that we can “be like everyone else” (classic analytical brain assumption) and then we end up hating ourselves because our mind is at war with itself.
This survival instinct can definitely hold us back. but whatever wild and crazy patterns our mind has come up with - they are natural - and all we need to do to start the change process is to notice them and see them for what they are. Simply our minds doing their best to keep us safe.
Now, before you go thinking “Why the crap do we even have that part of our brain if it causes us so much grief!?” Just think of how long my cats would have survived in the gutter without developing seriously inventive strategies for survival. We NEED this part of our brain in moments of stress. It’s AWESOME! And unbelievably adaptive and creative. It’s just that what we DON’T need is to keep carrying the same pattern forward into the rest of our lives.
The way we can change this is by first of all noticing how our survival brain has adapted, stop beating ourselves up about it, and gently asking ourselves the question: “Do I still need this? Is this pattern of behaviour still serving me?” And if it’s not, give yourself permission to let it go…which can sometimes happen in a moment or may take years. The outcome is not the point - what matters is that you are now in the process of learning how to manage your own brain. So that you can live more like a cat…and enjoy the sunshine when it crosses your path.
Check out my cats in all their glory in my Youtube video on this topic here: