As story below illustrates, the key to resolving and dissolving anxiety is Patience and Presence…
The Story of the Cat Who Came with the House
On the day I moved into the house I rented, the landlord asked if I would agree to look after the cat.
The landlord had spent a good part of the day before I moved in chasing, threatening, enticing, and persuading the cat to come home with him, but the cat would have none of it. “Looking after the cat,” he said, “Should be an easy assignment. It will simply involve putting out a plate of food for him in the mornings outside the front door, and making sure he eats it.”
I soon discovered why the landlord couldn’t catch the cat. He was waiting for me in the mornings when I put out his food, usually within sight but still a good fair distance from the front door. On the instance he saw me, he vanished. All I would see was this flash of black tail, then the cat was gone.
I would watch him stealthily approach the food from the front room window. Very wary he was, looking around in all directions, with the expectation that some-life-form somewhere was going to jump on him, torture, and terrorize him.
When he did get to his food, there was a rhythm of two, maybe three bites, then a terrified look-up, look-around, ears pricked up to intently listen, then another two, three bites, and so on.
I decided this cat must have been severely traumatized in some horrible way – and my heart went out to him.
It would have been totally inappropriate to go running after the cat to stroke him and provide comfort. Had I even been able to catch the cat, touching him would have traumatized him.
I needed to take into account the cat’s own timing: his readiness and ability to take in and absorb the safety I wanted so much to provide for him.
So one morning, after finishing his food and he had taken a few contented-and-full-up steps back down the driveway, I opened the front door, stood in the doorway, and just simply held my presence there.
I showed up in this way each and every day.
For the first two weeks the cat’s response was to simply bolt. But after two weeks something changed.
One day the cat didn’t run. He held his ground and watched me. He didn’t move towards me, but he didn’t move away either. He just watched to see what I would do next. And I didn’t do anything next. For the next however-many-days-it-was I stood in the doorway, and with heart deliberately open I observed the cat – and the cat observed me.
After some days of him watching me and me watching him I decided to do something different. I slowly backed into the house, but kept the door open. I didn’t move too far back. I could still see him.
I saw him become curious.
I am guessing that maybe he had formed some sort of bond with me by then because he seemed to want to know where I was. Maybe he even missed me being in that doorway, because he took some steps forward with an active sniffing nose and very pricked up ears to see where I was.
For the first few days we played that game: I stand at the door, he stands too. I move in, he moves forward enquiringly. I stay within sight of him, and he stills sees me.
But one day I move back far enough so that I am out of his sight. I go into the front room and watch him through the window, to see what he is does with that. I see confusion but curiosity, that same leaning forward of the body with inquiry, nose sniffing a hundred sniffs per minute, ears fully upright. And I see him slowly and ever so carefully lean into my doorway – very alert, checking everything out with all senses. The front paw crosses the threshold. Then the next paw. It takes him five minutes, but now he is fully inside my home.
After maybe ten further minutes of me sitting on a chair by the front room window breathlessly still, I see his little cat-head peering into the front room. I say in my most fatherly way, “Hello.” And he bolts out.
Our game goes on like this for days or weeks – I don’t remember the length of time it took for him to eventually become a house cat and spend some of his mornings and most evenings curled up on my lap in peaceful repose on my couch, me conveying to him in words and touch that it was fine now. He was safe and “everything is going to be okay.”
I have told the “Cat” story to many of my clients and students over the years, because I feel it successfully illustrates the importance of at first being willing to be simply present to anxiety. To show up and to acknowledge to Anxiety:
“I know and hear that you are afraid and scared, but know that I see you and am present for you right now.”
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