Lessons from The Cat Lady

It started this spring.

The Cat Lady that had been feeding stray cats in the alley behind my house began to place trays with cat food and bowls with water under the areca palms right behind my back house. I was livid. Doubly livid because Cat Lady had lived in the neighborhood for years but no longer did. We all knew who she was. She came back, always in the middle of the night, to feed the cats and then drove off again. Suddenly the neighborhood cats all gravitated toward my property. More of them snuck under the fence and began to travel through my garden. Every morning I removed the cat food trays and water bowls and dumped them in the trash bins. Every night Cat Lady came back, placed new trays and bowls. I fumed. Didn’t she “get” that I was removing the paraphernalia because I didn’t want the cats fed? I left a voicemail on an answering machine that a neighbor thought was hers. Asked her to stop. Received no response. Discussed other courses of action with the head of my neighborhood civic association. Spoke with my lawyer friend David. Friends sent articles of other Cat Ladies in other cities and the civil disruption they caused. My fury grew. And still, there seemed no clear path forward. No inevitable next step. All the while the cats were being fed, every night. I was consumed with Cat Lady’s actions. I trust it’s clear that I’m not writing this Post to vent my frustrations about Cat Lady. You have your own version of Cat Lady in your life. It may be the co-worker who is not incompetent enough to fire and not brilliant enough to ever excel. It may be the policy or policies that are just plain stupid and impractical but yet everyone at work diligently abides by. It may be the pervasive micro-management by your boss that consistently pushes you to the brink. What do we do when we suddenly find ourselves in that grey murky territory where the path forward isn’t clear? When, God forbid, there is nothing we can do? When we start to feel powerless? Here’s what happened with me and Cat Lady. I had no big master plan. I just knew that things had to change; I had to do something different. I hope the approach I describe here will be of help to you as you encounter similarly frustrating situations.

1.  Acceptance

Reality had changed, whether I liked it or not. Cat Lady had encroached on my home turf. Instead of obsessing about how much I hated this reality, accepting that this was so began to lesson my fury. Worst-case scenario, if nothing were to ever change with Cat Lady, would I be able to live with Cat Lady’s behavior? The unsettling answer – and it so wasn’t the answer I desired – was YES. So, for now, Cat Lady was here. And as much as I didn’t like her presence, I could probably live with it. Grrrrrh.

2.  Patience

Beyond removing the feeding paraphernalia every morning, I seemed to be unable to take action just now. My initial explorations did not generate an obvious next step. So, instead of forcing the situation, it seemed prudent to exercise patience. Not do anything for a while. See what other next right actions might present themselves. The next right action, for now, might be to do nothing. As hard as that is for someone like me who likes to solve problems quickly, the decision to not take further action helped me to exhale.

3.  Shift Your Attention

Instead of obsessing about Cat Lady and her actions, I decided to focus my mental and emotional energy on more of the many things in my professional and personal life that were going well. Honor that old metaphysical dictum that the things we focus on are the things that we amplify. Why not amplify the assets in my life instead of the things I considered to be barriers! Thinking constantly about Cat Lady clearly was taking up too much mental and emotional space in my life. It wasn’t working. I felt better. Instantly. Funny thing is, the moment I shifted my attention I no longer felt the need to compulsively remove the feeding trays and water bowls. I just let them sit there. There were entire days when I forgot about them. I didn’t even bother to look. Late one evening, about 4 months after the feedings began, I was driving into the alley after just having landed at the Ft. Lauderdale airport and saw a car right behind my house. Lights on, trunk open. Without any conscious deliberation I knew, at once, that it was her. Cat Lady. Doing her thing. In a sudden moment of fury, I sped up my engine and raced toward her car to scare her. Hit the brakes and came to a screeching halt, a foot from her car. What are you doing? she screamed at me, trembling and clearly shaken. Do you remember who I am? I do, I said to Cat Lady. You had found a purse that a house guest of mine had lost on my lawn and returned it to me. It was a neighborly moment that I had, indeed, been very grateful for. I need you to stop feeding the cats on my property, I said to her. You’re drawing the cats to my property and they’re all starting to hang out there. We bantered about how there had always been stray cats in the neighborhood, how she had always fed them, and the reality that the stray cats were, indeed, here. You could have just left a note for me, Cat Lady said. I would have stopped feeding them here. I found my anger come to a boil again. There were all sorts of things I wanted to say about the nerve it took to invade another person’s property. Her audacity to think it was Ok. Her utter disregard for others. I said none of it. I shut up. From that evening on Cat Lady stopped feeding the cats behind my back house. She moved her operation to another part of the alley. I am happy she had. I am glad the feeding stopped. And it oddly seemed to matter very little. It was no longer about Cat Lady. Come to think of it, it had never really been about Cat Lady. I had already let go. Related: Great Leaders Move Energy: Do You?