Cats and dogs

One of my marvelous mentors has a interesting way of describing mental health using an analogy of cats and dogs. I think you’ll appreciate it.

We all know dogs. In general, friendly, cute, and gluttons for attention and affection. Their focus turns quickly to the person providing those things. We have a lot of control over a dog’s state of mind. For example, when we praise the dog, he is happy, his tail wags, and he is right there with us. When we scold, he cowers, puts his tail between his legs, and runs off to hide.

We also know cats. Cats, in general, don’t give a flip. They don’t need our approval, so when we praise, they don’t care, and when we scold, they don’t care. Either way, they just look at us, yawn, and go on grooming or napping. Yes, some are more affectionate than others while some are more skittish, but overall our attention does not impact their state of being the way our attention impacts the dog.

The point is that most of us start the personal growth journey like the dog, dependent on others for direction and approval. The goal is to become the cat, self-directed and independent.

Self esteem vs other esteem

This is not about bashing dogs. We love them and have them as pets and appreciate their ability to focus on what we ask them to do. They are designed to be obedient and are more connected to humans as a result. However, people are not supposed to be that submissive. When we humans turn our power over to another human, we are not expressing healthy self-esteem. In the model of mental health, dogs represent other-esteem, cats represent self-esteem.

Examples of other-esteem:

  • Needing someone’s approval and/or agreement in order to feel good
  • Focusing on ways to gain that approval/agreement: what we look like, how big our house is, the kind of car we drive or the work we do, etc.
  • Idolizing celebrities or identifying with sports teams – makes us feel special
  • Needing the promotion to prove our value
  • Acting overly nice so as not to hurt another’s feelings, or to get them to like us
  • Taking responsibility for things that aren’t our fault or business
  • Trying to control people, outcomes, situations, things

Notice that the world we live in is full of other-esteem. The symptoms are clear: factions are getting deeper and divisions wider because, over time, we create others as enemies in order to have others to bond with more closely. The longer this goes on, the bigger the chasm. Sound familiar?

Conversely, when we have self-esteem, there is no need for division, nothing to prove, and therefore a greater ability to listen and hear, negotiate and partner. Generosity and respect are natural outcomes of healthy self-esteem. War and conflict are not.

Codependence vs independence

Another way to say this is that the dog is codependent and the cat is independent. According to Pia Mellody, an expert on codependency, “The codependent individual relies on others to determine his worth or gets it from comparing himself to others, so his self-esteem fluctuates between feeling worthless and better than. When negative events occur, a person with healthy self-esteem does not question his or her own worth or value.”

Ultimately, this all boils down to an issue of worthiness. The more we value ourselves, the more we value others and the less we are controlled or determined by others and outer circumstances. The good news is that once we have reached a state of self-worth/self-esteem/independence, we can then achieve interdependence, where we are able to partner with each other while maintaining our individuality. When this happens, relationships blossom and life runs much more smoothly.

So then, the question of the day: Are you the cat, or the dog?