Taking Animals Personally

Taking animals personally. That sounds like a really good thing, doesn’t it?  It raises all kinds of images of us really paying attention to animals and what they do and what it means to then as well as us. Sad to say, that’s not the kind of personally that sometimes shows up when our animals develop problems. That kind of personally is quite different and can throw a humongous monkey wrench into the works as we seek to resolve these issues.

The kind of personally I’m talking about is the kind that causes us to believe that they deliberately display any negative behaviors just to embarrass or anger us. I think about this particular human tendency a lot because I encounter it a lot. And while I think I can say that the tendency to do this has increased in American society, I can’t be so naïve to say that this didn’t happen when I was younger. Quite the contrary, I think this orientation became established in my generation of Baby Boomers and we then passed it on to our offspring who passed it on to theirs with each generation entrenching the tendency more deeply and expanding its range further.

Of course, the social scientists who have studied this phenomenon have been looking at what they consider its more heady manifestations in politics and other human-human interactions. But the core belief remains the same. In a nutshell, we take things personally because we believe or want to believe that we’re the center of the universe. Because of that, if the dog, cat or any person does anything that upsets us, we become as upset as monarchs whose subjects failed to please them in some way.

Previously I wrote about this subject as the human behavioral scientists see and study it where it bears the label “narcissism.”  But while some academic researchers are decrying this quality in their ever-ready population of human lab rats, i.e. their respective student bodies, others are finding that there’s no shortage of it in older folks, either. Just as a majority of high school students think they’re smarter than their test scores indicate, a whopping 94% of professors think that they’re above average teachers.

So while I could (and sometimes do) join those old fogies who condemn the narcissism in the younger generations, I also realize why my parents viewed my generation that same way even though they contributed to its creation. They came through all the hardships imposed by WWII and bought into the illusion that this was the war to end all wars and that their sacrifices had resulted in a utopian world for us that they never had themselves. As a result, when we or anyone did anything that violated that fantasy, they took it very personally. How could the kids/world/neighbors/government treat them that way?  And because we evolved to learn by selective modeling or mimicry like other animals, we bought into this to one degree or another and passed on more of the same to our kids.

These and other studies of narcissism led me to explore the subject of motivated reasoning. (Click here for a survey of the material available on the subject. The impetus for this area of study came from studies in neuroscience which demonstrated that incoming sensory data gets processed by the emotional and memory centers of the brain before those of reasoning. However this happens so fast that we and other animals who process data this way aren’t aware of it. This explains why we can feel so positive that our view of reality is correct and that another’s contradictory one is the result of their faulty reasoning or even stupidity. Equally troublesome for those of us who consider ourselves quite knowledgeable in one area or another, that education makes it more difficult for us to view anything related to that subject objectively than it is for those who know nothing about the subject at all. (This raises the image of those who study narcissism wrongly perceiving themselves that the most qualified researchers in the field, but that’s another story.)

Recognizing this helps explain what otherwise seems like incomprehensible human behavior. When we add this to the awareness that we’re more or less hard-wired to get what we want using the least amount of energy, sometimes it’s rather amazing that things work as well as they do.

Now it’s all well and good to understand that we come by our inflated sense of self-worth thanks to a bit of neurological slight-of-hand that we might even be able to convince ourselves is beyond our control. But what does this have to do with our companion animals who misbehave?

The way I see it, my data base of memories and the emotions related to them create the lens through which I view my world at any given instant. I sit in my office early in the morning with all the windows open listening to the birds and enjoying the smell of the crisp clean air that cleared yesterday’s heat and humidity with a blast of window-rattling thunderstorms. This is the lens that will color my view of everything until something changes it. Only now because I understand a little more about how my brain works, I can think of that change as coming from within rather than without. So it’s not a case of anyone or anything making me see the world in a certain way; it’s a case of me choosing to allow it to make me see my world that way.

But sometimes that’s not as easy as it seems. If, for example, I want to assume a victim mode because it enables me to avoid doing things I’m perfectly capable of doing (thereby saving energy for things I’d rather do), that means I’ll perceive everything the dogs do through that victim lens. In that case, if Frica decides she really has to go out right in the middle of my yoga routine, I will perceive that much differently than if I have a more favorable lens filtering my view of reality. In the former case, letting her out may be accompanied by heavy sighs or impatient mutterings to her to hurry up, why didn’t she go when I let her out the first time, blah, blah, blah. In the latter, I pause long enough to let her out and let her in when she’s done without giving it a second thought.

Now in my case, this inconsistency is no big deal because my dogs are stable as well as, I’m sure, convinced that I’m somewhat mad but that’s OK because apparently to them my good points outweigh my bad ones. But suppose one of them or the cat had serious behavioral problems that required a consistent response on my part. How could I get around these various filters that convince me that my view of reality is the only one?

I ponder the answer to this both for myself—egocentric narcissist that I am—and also for my clients. While it’s still a work in progress, it seems to me that step one is to recognize that this is how our brains works. We each really do create our own realities that complement our emotions, memories, and beliefs about ourselves. Some of these are more beneficial than others which may be flat-out destructive to ourselves and our animals. But they’re all our own creations. The very good news here is that this means that, if they’re not working for us and our animals, we can change them. The not so good news is that, in order to do so, we have to find some way to get around these egos of ours that try to convince us that the animal should have to change, not us, and that it’s really mean/stupid/cruel of the animals not to want to do that to please us because after all isn’t that what they’re supposed to do?

Of course, as soon as we think about it we know that’s a crock, but that doesn’t answer the question: how do we get around narcissism that’s so much a part of it we don’t even recognize that it’s there?

For me personally, Charles and Ray Eames classic film, “The Powers of Ten” was and is an excellent place to start, even without the recognition that our awareness of what’s bigger and smaller than us has increased dramatically since they made the film in 1968. Getting a sense of where we fit in, simultaneously too insignificant for words in the overall scheme of things yet part of all that is, has a way of making changes that seemed impossible or not worth the effort worthwhile. Put another way, in the process of making changes in our perception that yield a more viable image of our animals and their problems, we can’t help but help ourselves.

If you have any comments regarding subject matter, favorite links, or anything you'd like to see discussed on or added to this site, please let me know at mm@mmilani.com.

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