We of the humanoid persuasion have a big thing going on with barriers.
From thresholds across which brides were awkwardly (and riskily) schlepped, to glass ceilings, and garden walls, we love boundaries.
At least, we love physical boundaries.
Many of us are less adept at maintaining personal boundaries, the kinds that don’t involve cement, rocks, or marigolds. After all, saying “no” is negative, and we are supposed to strive for positivity.
Once again, and as ever, cats exhibit far greater agility than we can ever hope to master (no grooming jokes permitted; keep it clean). Hisses, raised hackles (please, somebody explain hackles and where to get me some), and threateningly lifted paws are all tools that cats use to keep others at bay.
Since cats’ barriers are not the brick and mortar sort, these tools are sufficient for the task. But, really, just exactly what are cats’ barriers all about? Short answer: space and time (it’s more than just a continuum).
Cats establish boundaries to protect the space they need, for whatever time is necessary to feel comfortable. Perhaps a day, a fortnight, but possibly an eon or three. It all depends on the cat and the given body — feline, human, or something else entirely, like a tote bag with an astonishingly realistic cat face printed on it — that they need to become accustomed to.
Cats will threaten and even fight for the space and time they need. Sometimes it is all the space and all the time (Doctor Who, eat your heart out. Cats are the truest Timelords.)
Our feline mentors have no hang-ups about being perceived positively. Of course, that’s because it’s a non-issue when the world dotes on your every blep, toe bean, and booper. Their biggest concern is that others mind the gap and ensure that it is sufficient to the occasion and preference for company or solitude.
At Tabby’s Place, it’s common to see cats protecting their personal boundaries (and often curious about exploring the extent of others’). Each time a cat is introduced to a suite or office (ideally because a forever home was found for somebody’s new Best Feline Friend), there is a level of negotiating that happens. It takes time for the cats to adjust to sharing the space.
Sometimes this stage of negotiating for personal space ends quickly. Other times, it is unending. Often, it’s just that there’s this particular day and this particular cat.
Verde insists that it is every day and, in fact, every cat, but most especially Faith, that determines the specific need for demonstrations of stay-awayness. Even Bosco and Grecca sometimes jazz up an afternoon with a minor boundary-building spat. But, it never takes long until they’re curled up inches from each other, listening to the printer’s and each other’s purrs.
When appropriate barriers are raised and boundaries are well-defined, anything from tentative truce to contentment are found. The hackles go down, the hissing stops, paws relax. Everything is copacetic.
Now, nobody is suggesting humans go around hissing and swatting at each other to establish and protect personal space. But, there are a few lessons to be learned from the masters at Tabby’s Place, with just a little translation from catonese to human.
Hissing is communication. Don’t hesitate to say what you need. Instead of a reflexive “yes,” try something like, “I’d be happy to, after…” This kind of statement is positive, yet clearly establishes an appropriate time.
“Raised hackles” is a reflexive reaction, often due to something or someone being imposing, threatening, or just annoying. Saying something like, “I’ll need to get back to you on that” isn’t a “no,” and it buys time to look inwardly, to understand if your own feelings are shading your perception of the ask, or if there is an issue with how you were approached, by whom, or when. It’s important to give yourself time to think rather than to simply react (or overreact). Let calmer winds prevail.
Lastly, we have those lifted paws. Boy, sometimes, just sometimes, wouldn’t we all just love to pop someone on the nose? It’s never acceptable, and that level of “fight response” can be managed. Recognize if pain, hangryness, exhaustion, overwhelmedness, or any of a myriad of other experiences are leading to a battle state.
Once again, it is time for clear communication and self-protection (boxing gloves don’t count). “Can we schedule a time to talk?” or “This is too important to just squeeze in right now. When is a good time to talk?”
Of course, this doesn’t address the nuances of every situation where personal boundaries might be invaded. But, self-awareness and situational awareness are key. Learn yourself, erect appropriate boundaries, and hone the tools that will help you to protect your own space and your ability to engage positively with others.
In other words, be cat.