Recently, I met a little dog named Cookie who reminded me of how easy it can be to misunderstand inconvenient feelings, as well as how hard it can be to have compassion for them.
I sat down beside Cookie at San Antonio Airport on Mother’s Day. He was in a pet carrier, and I heard him before I saw him; his barking and whining were loud and insistent. Cookie's mom was talking with friends she had bumped into, and I heard her say that she had given him half a klonopin for his anxiety, but that it wasn’t working.
Cookie seemed terrified, and I had some sense of what it was probably like for him sitting in a strange environment with hundreds of unfamiliar people, sounds, and smells. My hunch is that Cookie is an HSD (highly sensitive dog). And, similar to HSPs (highly sensitive persons), overstimulation can be crippling.
Wanting to help, I caught the mom's eye and smiled. That morning, a friend had shown me some YouTube videos about thunder shirts, which were originally made for dogs who become anxious during thunderstorms. These little coats hug a dog's body and seem to instantly soothe and relax them. I asked the mom if she knew about thunder shirts, noting that I had just heard about them myself that morning. She hadn’t, but she immediately googled the term and seemed excited and grateful to have a possible solution to Cookie’s anxiety.
I felt for the mom. She, her daughter and Cookie seemed to be traveling to visit family. I could sense her stress and self-consciousness as Cookie continued to bark and whine, no matter what she did to soothe him. At the same time, I felt sad and disappointed when I heard her say to her husband on the phone, “Cookie’s already misbehaving.”
I thought to myself, “Gee, if I didn’t understand human language, and a family member stuck me in a ventilated nylon bag not much larger than my body, dosed me with half a klonopin, and brought me to a busy airport, I might react the same way.” I didn’t see it as misbehavior. Instead, it seemed fully understandable, given the situation.
And as I waited for boarding to start, I began to think about the connection between how the mom was characterizing Cookie, and the way that many people relate to the parts of themselves that “act out” in certain situations and don’t follow the "plan."
For example, let’s say you’re going through a breakup or divorce, and while you're in the middle of it, your best friend gets engaged. As much as you might want to celebrate with your friend, it’s likely going to feel difficult to be as effusive as you might wish to be. In addition to sympathetic joy, you could also feel anger, sadness and anxiety.
If you didn’t understand and accept the full range of your feelings as normal, you might harshly judge yourself for having these “bad” feelings: “What’s wrong with me that I’m not happy for them? Why am I being so selfish? Why can’t I put my feelings aside?”
However, it’s completely human and understandable to have complex feelings, some of which may not match your ideas about how you're “supposed to” feel. Just because your feelings don't appear in a Hallmark card, doesn't mean that there's anything wrong with them, or you.
“Just because your feelings don’t appear in a Hallmark card, doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with them, or you.”
Cookie continued to struggle during boarding, takeoff, and throughout the flight, barking and whining unless he was in his mom’s lap. I was seated in the row behind them, and I could sense her difficulty in navigating the cold stares of fellow passengers, as well as the flight attendant’s insistence that she put Cookie in his carrier.
At the same time, I again felt sad and frustrated when the plane touched down and I heard her say to her young daughter, “Cookie was very naughty today.” And her young daughter repeated it, “Yeah, Cookie was naughty.”
Of course, it would have been a more peaceful flight if Cookie hadn’t felt so scared, and if he hadn’t barked and whined. But Cookie wasn’t naughty; he was terrified.
I didn't feel that it was the appropriate time to point this out to Cookie’s mom, because I could see that she was already very stressed and self-conscious. But maybe Cookie’s story can help you come into a different relationship with the parts of yourself that you perceive as naughty or inconvenient.
The next time you're having feelings that seem like they don't belong, see if you can take a step back and ask: What if these feelings are just part of being human? If you bring curiosity to them and experiment with the possibility that there’s nothing wrong with having complex feelings, you may find that they are innocent, and completely worthy of your compassion and understanding.