The Cat Lady: Cultivating Core Values Through Self-Compassion

The Cat Lady

Joanna was a fifty-year-old woman, who loved chocolate, knitting, and detective shows.  She did not like the name Joanna.  She preferred her chosen name, the Cat Lady.  Her grandmother brought her up as a child.  Joanna was shy, and had very few friends.  When she could not find any friends at school with whom to share her day, she would come home and share it with Sylvester the cat.  Her grandmother passed away, when she was twelve, and her mother took over the reigns. 

Her mother was not yet mature enough to raise a child, so she was prone to snap at Joanna for behaviors unbecoming of an adult.  Joanna would retreat into her own mind.  There she would cry, and wonder if her grandmother could hear her wherever she was.  Sylvester became Joanna’s lasting connection to her grandmother, and when he passed, she began to wear shirts with cats on them.  At a family gathering, an aunt noticed and warned her that one day she would become a cat lady.  The name stuck, and Joanna wore it as a badge of courage.  It meant she was like her grandmother and not her mother.

Because of this critical mothering, Joanna would do everything she could to appease friends and boyfriends.  She was married at twenty-seven years old.  When she made a mistake in the relationship, she would claw herself so that she would never made the mistake again.  On the outside, Joanna seemed to be doing well enough, until her husband left her for another woman.  She had a breakdown, and upon being admitted, she told the psychologist on duty that her husband had physically abused her for years, and that she had friends, who mistreated her as well. 

Given her fragile condition, they searched for family that might be able to help her get back on her feet.  Her second cousin, Esther, answered the call. Esther had recently been widowed and her children lived far away.  She struggled to find ways to fill her time, so with some reservation she took Joanna into her care.  In the time that I met with Joanna, Esther complained about the same two things: Joanna’s affinity for cat shirts, and her fantastical connection with the detectives on the television shows she watched.  “They’re not real,” she would say.  “That woman needs to get her head out of the clouds.  No man would be seen in public with a woman, who wears cats on her clothes.”

Joanna appreciated being taken care of.  She did everything that she thought would make Esther happy, but inside she felt sad and empty.  She would scratch herself, when she made mistakes.  Ply herself with chocolate, when she felt lonely and empty, and she would cuddle up to her favorite detective show with her favorite cat shirt on, when she was sad. 


In our work, we looked at the scratching first, and used some exposure and response prevention to manage it.  We would set up scenarios for scratching, and then she would shriek and throw her hands up to prevent it.  She actually quite enjoyed this after a while.  She told me that this was the closest she ever came to being involved with sports.  She imagined she would respond similarly to a successful sporting play.

Once, Joanna was able to stifle her scratching, we began to use self-compassion to help her sit with difficult experience.  She did this aloud in therapy, at first, because it made her feel less alone.  She always smiled at me when it came to the kindness part, as if maybe I would tell her what to do, but I never did. 

As her success in therapy grew, she began to practice self-compassion at home, and came to a sudden discovery.  “The detectives.  They are my dads, aren’t they?”  Her words were so direct that I could not feign being stunned.  “They are,” I said.  “And the cats?  They are my grandmother?”  “They are,” I replied.  She took a deep breath in, and looked to my glass jar full of miniature chocolate bars.  “Maybe just one,” she said. 

Core Values

After her epiphanies about the detectives and the cats, Joanna’s core values started to come out one by one.  The detectives were thoughtful, kind, generous, interested, and interesting.  The cats were friendly, welcoming, engaging, and inviting.  She picked up another candy bar, then put it down.  “I don’t want this.  I just want to be happy,” she said, as tears formed around her eyelids.  “I know,” I replied.    

Given Joanna’s newly emerged core values, we set out to find a job that was thought provoking, interesting, and offered coworkers, who were generous and kind.  She found a job at a local hospital, where she and a small group of other people would offer hospitable services to patients, such as dogs, blankets, fuzzy socks with traction, and special snacks. 

Once she found success at this job, we looked for a man, who was welcoming, warm, friendly, interested, and engaging.  She joined a recreation group, and met a man about ten years her senior at a bingo tournament.  He won several rounds, and shared his winnings with many of the other members at his table including Joanna, but switched seats to sit next to her.  He said that she was lucky, and he did not want his luck to run out.  She thought he was crazy, and denied he could be interested in her.  But, after he chose her as a partner when the group went to look at birds, and then later when they played shuffleboard, she could no longer deny his interest.

When I asked about him, she said, “I should have known he was my type.  He has one of those fancy hats, and smokes a pipe just like the detectives.”  She also considered her core values, and admitted that he had done a fairly good job of manifesting those qualities.  She knew he was a keeper, when she asked him to name one thing that he liked about her and one thing he did not like so much.  He liked the cat shirts.  He felt a woman that can love an animal could love a man.  He did not like Esther very much.  He thought she talked down to Joanna, and he hated to see her suffer.  They never got married.  Joanna said once was enough for her, but as far as I know they are still playing shuffleboard, holding hands, and watching the birds, cat sweater on her, fancy hat and pipe on him.

Your Core Values Are Coming

No matter how difficult our early life is. Some part of us will find a way to locate loving parents.  With enough self-compassion, we can discover the nature and genesis of this love, and distill it into core values that we can use to find meaningful and supportive jobs and relationships.   No matter how hard the road, find your way to self-compassion.  Remain patient amongst the day-to-day work.  We learn what we need to when we need to.  It may not be today or tomorrow, but some day soon you will have what you need to live the life you deserve.

365 Days of Kindness.  Self-Compassion.  Day 96.  In The Books.