Recently I have been taking care of a friend’s cat while she’s staying in the hospital. I used to play with cats at my grandparent’s when I was a kid so I was overjoyed to have a cat again as an adult. When I first collected him at the vet, I literally shrieked in excitement. The first few days in the house, he was very shy and kept hiding in his safe corner. Slowly, he came out to explore all the rooms. After a week, he dominated the sofa every day with his stretched body.
Cats are weird. They like to knock things off counters for no apparent reasons and squeeze themselves into tight space. This cat was no different. He behaved unpredictably. Sometimes he followed me around and rubbed his head against me lovingly. Sometimes he hid under tables and behind curtains cautiously. Sometimes he sought attention and sometimes he was aloof. Sometimes he ran towards me and sometimes he ran away to be left alone.
On the day he was affectionate, I was visibly happy. Yet, when he acted defensively and stayed off the sofa where we usually sat together, I turned concerned. I asked my partner if he thought the cat was okay. I wondered if I had done something to scare the cat and I believed his behaviours were because of me. After attentively listening to all my worries about the cat, my partner — he’s someone who’s very secure and emotionally healthy — reminded me, “But you don’t know what he thinks.”
I was startled. I was indeed projecting my thoughts and feelings onto this little cat. I didn’t know what he was thinking. I only saw his behaviours which could be driven by a wild combination of factors; the rest was all in my head. It suddenly hit me that if this was a human and human relationship, how the cat behaved would resemble an avoidant person who pushes and pulls and I would be the anxious one who overthinks everything.
It reminded me of all the times in the past when my pre-therapy anxiety had acted out in dating situations. Instead of observing and accepting the other person for who they were, I would automatically think their behaviours were related to me in a negative way. I would obsessively recall their words and actions and constantly stress myself out trying to decode them. I would ask myself why they did what they did and grow painfully anxious when I didn’t have the reassurance I wanted from them. I would assume the worst and quietly put up with the treatment I was given because I was too busy making sense of their behaviours to draw healthy boundaries for myself.
Now, with a more emotionally secure mindset after eight months of weekly therapy, I have managed to shift my thinking away from myself — particularly from what I might be doing wrong — and towards the understanding that not everything is about me and because of me. I have learned to embrace my needs and speak out when they are not met in relationships. And when my needs are repeatedly not met in a relationship, I don’t think it’s my fault or something is wrong with me or my needs are too much; I decide that the relationship is not for me and I walk away.
In the case with the cat, there’s literally no way for me to know what he thinks, so there’s no point in guessing and worrying about him besides anything related to his essential needs as a cat. Though, in human relationships, you can’t read the minds of other people either. You can only observe them and ask them questions. They can be a great mystery that you’re overly eager to solve. Especially when they act in a way that is hurtful or disrespectful to you, you want to know why. You want to know if their behaviours are about you. You want to be able to empathise with the reasons behind their behaviours because you believe it’s the right thing to do and, frankly, empathy would help justify the pain they cause you. But this isn’t what you should be focusing on.
What you should be focusing on is what you need and want from a relationship and whether these needs and wants are satisfied. When a relationship makes you unhappy in any capacity, you should re-evaluate the relationship and decide whether it is acceptable to you instead of over-analysing the past, assigning blame, or questioning your self-worth. Inevitably, when someone hurts or disrespects you, if you’re insecure, your first instinct might be to think you deserve it or stretch your boundaries to normalise their behaviours towards you because you’re scared of losing them. But you should avoid directing your thinking inwards and second-guessing yourself. You should look at facts and consider your well-being first. Because losing yourself is infinitely worse than losing someone who hurts you.
Now if you think that you have to understand people’s behaviours in order to weave a story about what happened between you and them for closure, I have good news for you: The story is never about why they did what they did. The story is about you — whether your needs are met and what you do to move on and get what you want in life. You can leave those people out completely. You don’t have to understand or empathise with someone who hurts you. You’re allowed to want nothing to do with them and cut them out of your life for good. It doesn’t make you a bad person. It doesn’t stop you from healing.
After all, the only person you know for sure is yourself. The only person you have control over is yourself. That’s why self-awareness is incredibly important. Instead of wasting time decoding people who don’t have good intentions with you, you should focus on understanding yourself. Instead of wondering why someone treats you badly, you should be asking yourself why you keep choosing people who can’t give you what you need. These insights will help you pick better partners and move forward in life with maturity and confidence.