Resilience: Best 10 lessons from a rescue kitten

Skinny black kitten peering out from behind bars of cage

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Do you know how to develop resilience? Perhaps you can learn some lessons in resilience from one of our smaller friends in the animal world. Watch as a rescue kitten gains mastery over her fears. 

At the start of the COVID-19 lockdown, I visited a cat rescue shelter. Of course every cheeky kitten romping round the enclosure was adorable. But a tiny black kitten huddled miserably in a corner tugged at my heart. When I held her, she peered tremulously up at my face, ready to flee. In her 16 weeks, she’d been rescued from a dumpster, then treated roughly by her next owner.

I couldn’t abandon her to more possible trauma.

Once home, Muffy hissed and spat whenever she saw me. She crept into impossible-to-reach spaces, only snatching food in the dark. She needed peace and time to learn she was safe.

After a few days, I started sitting in her room for hours. She still flinched and cowered whenever I went near. But she did sniff my hand a few times, and I did stroke her under the chin once.

However she still hissed and tried to hide every time I entered the room. Every day we seemed right back where we started. I despaired she’d ever trust me. Why hadn’t I adopted one of those rowdy, carefree kittens?

This was too hard. Would she ever gain mastery over her fears?

I couldn’t give up

One special day, she let me lift her out of her basket. Purring, she snuggled under my chin for an hour.

And promptly hissed at me as soon as I put her back in her basket!

But now I knew she could rise above her traumatic past. She could be confident, loving and happy too. It was just going to need lots of time and patience.

Now Muffy’s fully grown, adores eating and will do anything for a treat. She’s still scared of strangers, but rollicks round our yard, leaping after flies and diving into piles of leaves. If she’s overwhelmed, she bolts inside for a few minutes, then rushes outside again.

This little rescue kitten is an inspiration. I’m awed at the tenacity and resilience Muffy mustered to fight against terrible odds. She represents hope that with support, anyone can overcome a bad start.

Here are some lessons in resilience that this tiny bundle of fluff taught me.

1 Never give up

Watching Muffy master tree climbing was hilarious. At first she scrambled less than a meter up a tree trunk and then fell off. But each time, she shunted a few centimetres higher. Now she easily shinnies up six meters, and trots along branches with poise. If she does slip, she flails wildly for a few seconds, then digs her claws in and hauls herself back up.

It may not look elegant but it works.

Repeating small actions until she mastered them built up her muscle strength and coordination. Each success encouraged her to challenge herself a little more. She learned to plan strategic routes up and down a tree.

Most importantly, she learned to recover from seeming disasters. She powered on no matter what, determined to master her environment.

You can follow Muffy’s lead. Learn and practise skills you need to master your environment and develop resilience in the face of difficulties. 

2 Engage fully in the moment

Kittens live in the moment. They simply have to investigate every movement or noise immediately. No agonising whether they should or shouldn’t. They go with the flow, and are alive to the possibilities of each moment.

Can you say that about yourself? Or does reliving the past and worrying about the future stop you from taking action?

Notice how little time you spend mindfully in the here and now. How can you change this?

3 Realise your needs are simple

Kittens love playing with the simplest of toys – toilet rolls, balls of string, bouncy balls and cardboard boxes. They’re don’t care about the latest designer toys. They’d rather bat a crumpled piece of paper round the floor.

Kittens don’t hanker for more. Their needs are simple: love and attention, shelter, exercise, warmth, and food and water.

How can you simplify life back to the basics?

4 Every day is a new day

Each day Muffy was terrified when she saw me. But gradually she let go of her old fears. She was in a different place with different people. She opened up to the possibilities of her new home, and stopped expecting bad treatment.

You can also change how you react to new situations. Take heart if you’re full of fear.

Each day, focus on one good thing that happens, no matter how small.

Build a new set of memories

Remember people who’ve shown you a small kindness, little things that went OK, or even details in nature that pleased you. Each time you start to dwell on the past, tell yourself to refocus on these new, small memories.

Write them down so you don’t forget. Read your list through as often as you can. Actively bring them up in your mind when you’re thinking about the past. Each new memory represents a fresh start. Every day is a new day that brings more lessons in resilience.

What small positive can you take from today?

5 Gain mastery over fears

Can you imagine how terrified Muffy felt in that dumpster? And yet she’s flourishing now.

Being patient and accepting tiny signs of progress were key to helping her master her fear.

To prevent her becoming overwhelmed, I made one small change at a time. Then she could adapt at her own pace. Tiny steps taught her to tolerate her fear in easily manageable stages. She realised she didn’t need to panic at every noise.

Each time she faced a new challenge, her fear levels rose for a while. Then they dropped as she realised she was OK.

It gets easier every time

Of course, every now and again she regressed. But she soon checked out the situation, and usually realised she didn’t need to be scared. She was safe, secure and within reach of help.

She stopped expecting bad things all the time. Gradually her view of the world changed.

Are you willing to take tiny steps to gain mastery over your fears?

Start with the tiniest challenge. It might be saying hello to someone at work. Or walking one step outside your backdoor.

Breathe slowly and steadily while you’re doing this. Focus your thoughts on your breathing and let fear take a back seat. 

Master each step before you move to the next. Do it over and over until it’s not so scary any more. Then take the next tiny step. The more you tolerate your fear, the easier it gets. Each step is a step on the road to resilience.

6 Develop a sanctuary

Muffy still needs a bolt hole to retreat to. Somewhere she feels safe so she can regroup.

Can you make a sanctuary for yourself? Perhaps a comfortable chair in the corner in your bedroom. Or a nook surrounded with plants.

Put up pictures of loved ones or beautiful places, arrange cushions, throw rugs, or significant items that evoke peace, contentment and hope. 

Play some soft soothing music and breathe slowly. Retreat to your special place whenever you need a break for a few minutes. Teach others not to disturb you, unless there’s a real emergency.

7 Turn to others for comfort

Muffy took a long time to trust me. But now she bolts to me if she’s terrified. After exploring during the day, she cuddles all evening. 

You too can learn to trust others again. Even our pets can be a huge comfort to us in times of stress.

We all need someone to turn to when we’re swamped by hassles. Supportive validation is comforting from someone you trust. It reduces tension, so you can see things more clearly. 

So reach out to a trusted person when you’re overwhelmed. You don’t have to do it on your own. Talking over problems helps you gain mastery over your fears. 

8 You cope better than you think

One day soon after I adopted her, Muffy came inside covered in filthy slime. I don’t know where she’d been, but she stank. I had to give her several warm baths, then blow dry and groom her. Although she was scared, she seemed to understand I was helping her.

This tiny kitten showed huge resilience in facing these scary experiences.

We often tell ourselves we can’t face a certain situation. That we’re at the end of our tether, or can’t cope.

But you can often cope better than you think you can. You don’t have to do a great job.

Sometimes, good enough is OK

Be kind when talking to yourself about what’s ahead. You may find you’re defeating yourself before you start the battle.

If you’re worried you’ll fail, do one small thing to make that less likely. For example, prepare your work clothes and bag the night before.

Do one small thing to change how you face the day. Learn relaxation skills, or take up mindfulness. Start gentle yoga, or jiggle around in front of a Zumba DVD (don’t even think about trying to follow the steps).

You have hidden reserves that are untapped. Can you uncover and use them to gain mastery over your fears? Over time you’ll move forward to rebuild your life gradually, using skills you’ve forgotten you had. 

9 You can’t do it in one day

Muffy didn’t learn to trust me in one go. At times I despaired we’d ever make it, because she lost confidence and regressed so often.

Then I started to see setbacks as necessary. Rather than be annoyed, I trusted we’d succeed eventually.

Sometimes she needed to process new information, and take a break from yet more challenges.

Setbacks are part of life

You can’t strive on an upward path without pause. It’s too exhausting.

Setbacks are times when it seems nothing is happening. But they’re part of learning and developing.

The lessons in resilience teach us not to give up when you’re discouraged. 

Take a few slow breaths when you’re frustrated. Breathe out any anger or disappointment. Steadily keep doing what you’ve been doing, even if it feels you’re not getting anywhere.

Trust you’ll move forward soon. This will only be a temporary setback. 

10 Don’t try to be perfect

As I’ve said, Muffy is great at climbing trees. And at rushing from one end of the yard to the other. But sometimes she tumbles down stairs. And she can’t catch flies, no matter how high she leaps.

It doesn’t seem to matter though. She doesn’t care if she’s good at some things and not others. Either she’ll get better, or she’ll decide she’s not interested.

You can be the same. 

You don’t have to be good at everything

Work out what’s important to you. Don’t expend energy on things that aren’t necessary. What makes you think you need to do or be good at everything? Be sensible instead! Be selective, and use most of your energy on the things that are really important. 

What activities or ambitions add value and meaning to your life? Focus on mastering those things to develop greater self-confidence. 

Finish trivial, repetitive or less fulfilling activities quickly. Or drop them if you can. 

So be polite to that boring neighbour, then make your excuses gracefully after 10 minutes. Only wash floors when they’re dirty, not weekly out of habit. Skim read newspapers, magazines or internet articles for the important bits.

Buy the same item of clothing in several different colours if it fits well, to save time shopping. Who’s going to notice? Who cares if they do?

Do what works

Not what you think you should be doing.

Resilience is making life work for you, and not feeling you have to conform to what others seem to expect. So don’t feel guilty if you don’t wax your eyebrows, or have the latest shade of lipstick, or buy the latest fashions.

You’re more than your appearance. Why should you spend your precious hours agonising over your outer self, when it’s your inner self that’s important. 

Who says you have to be or do everything, and do it all perfectly?

Reduce pressure on yourself

Don’t waste valuable time or energy on trivia. Focus on the important stuff in your life. Let the rest get done when it’s convenient.

Resilience is getting the job done: doing what works and not stressing about whether it’s perfect. 

These are only a few of the lessons in resilience that my kitten taught me. She’s brought joy and wonder into my life. It’s been an education watching her gain mastery over her fears. 

Want to read more lessons in resilience my kitten taught me?

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