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Learning Emotional Health from Animals

Want to enhance your mental health—which can’t help but improve your relationship with food? If animals could speak about mental health, here’s the advice I imagine they’d give. If you have a pet, observe him or her to see if you agree.

Animals take the attitude of that’s life. If my cat goes to her dish and it’s devoid of food, she might circle around me once or twice, but then she moves on to other things. She’s got more to do than sulk or be angry or try to analyze what’s wrong with me or the world—or herself—when she doesn’t get what she wants. Instead, she has a snooze, plays with her toys, stares out the window, or heads outside to lounge in a shady or sunny spot (depending on the weather) on our lanai. Here’s what she doesn’t do: ruminate about why I didn’t feed her or whether she’ll ever be fed. You could live like she lives if you gave staying in the present half a chance and accepted that sometimes for no reason you can possibly fathom, life just doesn’t go your way.

Animals live guilt free. Once an occurrence is over and done with (unless it’s highly fear based), it’s forgotten. If I shoo away my cat, she doesn’t sit around wondering if she did something wrong. She simply leaves the area. No matter how much she fails to get her way, she doesn’t question whether she has upset or disappointed me. Did you know that humans are the only animals that feel guilt? And the others do quite well without it. They make decisions in the present based on the reality that confronts them. If you are busy feeling guilty, you actually degrade your quality of life. First, because you’re making yourself miserable for no good reason and, second, because you’re not using the present to make decisions to help you create a better life.

Animals have no use for shame. Even when I reprimand my cat, she doesn’t feel ashamed. She might recall my sharp “No!” when she tries to slip into the bedroom again as we’re trying to keep her out or the scolding I give her or when she drinks water from the pool. She might be trained by “No!,” but she doesn’t think it has anything to do with her value or whether or not she’s a “good” cat. I have read that some higher primates may feel something akin to shame, but it’s in the moment. They don’t spend hours beating themselves up for disappointing others or when others disappoint them.

It sounds hokey, I know, but what about imagining how your pet (or a pet you know) would act when you find yourself making up reasons for why things go wrong in your life, feeling guilty and ruminating about events that are over, or miring yourself in shame for perceived wrongdoings You’ll feel better and may even avoid mindless eating. Thanks to Dr. Jon Connelly and Rapid Resolution Therapy for these great ideas!