Paul Cockayne – 07791 970406 – firstname.lastname@example.org
Welcome to my counselling blog. You can find more information about me by clicking one of the links at the top of this page
I have never counselled a meerkat, but I did find myself thinking about them this morning. I don’t know why I would suddenly find myself thinking about meerkats but it’s not something that happens too often and so I am not (yet) seeking help on the matter.
But what of meerkats? They seem lively, bright, affectionate, loveable little creatures. They seem very human, the way they stand on their hind legs and look around. Their big eyes seem friendly, they are interested in us.
What I feel about meerkats may not be true, of course. Their big eyes and their habit of standing on their hind legs – these behaviours are probably more about looking out for predators than about trying to make friends with me, I suspect, but it is very easy to make assumptions about animals from their appearance – to give them human characteristics – to anthropomorphise.
I am reminded of Johnny Morris on “Animal Magic”, who constructed amusing anecdotes to explain the behaviour of animals. We can easily assume that animals experience human-like emotions, and maybe they do, to some extent, but we can easily read things into their body language that are more about us than them.
Reading body language can be a hazardous business, not only in animals, but also in humans. The signs we are seeing, and the deductions we make from the clues we pick up, do not necessarily represent accurately what the other person is actually feeling.
Frowning – is it a sign of disapproval or of concentration? Crying – tears of sadness or of joy? Raising your voice – anger or a desire to be heard? Staring – criticism, attraction or just a daydreaming?
Behaviours, too, can be misinterpreted. Silence can mean different things – anger, withdrawal or contentment? A slammed door – fury? Or did the wind catch it? Folded arms can be defensive or just comfortable.
We can’t avoid making assumptions, we are doing all the time, in every interaction we have with everyone we meet. Most of the time this doesn’t matter – I may think the bloke serving me in the local shop looks a bit grumpy, and we maybe he is, but there’s no need to follow up on my intuition, it’s not up to me to fix him, I only want to buy a newspaper.
When we make assumptions about people who are rather closer to us than the local newsagent, however, those assumptions can affect our behaviour, which in turn can affect the other person and their reaction to us. If I get a sense that my partner is annoyed with me I may attempt to justify my actions in a way that then seems to annoy them more which feels unjust to me – and so I get impatient and storm off. But if they weren’t annoyed in the first place, what was all that about?
If you find yourself making significant assumptions about your partner’s mood, it can be worth checking it out. “I get the feeling you’re worried. Is that right? Can I help?”
Don’t bother trying that on a meerkat, however.