Why Self-Love Can Feel Difficult: Polyvagal Theory for Cat Lovers

Why is self love so hard?

If you’ve been following me for a while, you’ll know that I’ve mulled over this question a few times.

I’ve talked about things that get in the way of our self love like our trauma histories and not having safe role models for love (outside of our cats).

We might also add things like our natural negativity bias, and the overwhelming feeling that 'in order to truly love myself, I need to fully accept all of who I am.'

What could also be floating around in the background is the idea that ‘loving yourself is selfish and will make you arrogant.'

But this morning, while I was sipping my beloved coffee, I thought of something that felt new.

Here it is.

“I think we actually do love ourselves, but it feels confusing or frustrating when our behaviors aren’t quite consistently aligned with that love.”

Stop and think about it: do you have family members that you know you love, but your behavior towards them isn’t exactly congruent?

When I was 6 and my brother was 8, he’d punch me in the arm, hard, and say, “Don’t be such a girl!” At the time, I thought he didn't like me, but then I realized he loved me, and in his 8-year old way, was trying to make me stronger, more resilient.

We do this, too.

We beat up on ourselves.

We beat up on ourselves with how we think, and we punish ourselves for not “doing more, being better, doing differently.”

But at the core, I do think we love ourselves.

But we’re up against old patterns, many of them formed during childhood.

So what’s really going on?

Did you know that our feelings, thoughts, and behaviors are informed by our nervous system?

This is an oversimplified statement of the Polyvagal Theory by Stephen Porges, PhD, which I have been finding so helpful, along with the work of Deb Dana, LCSW who wrote the book Anchored: How to Befriend Your Nervous System Using Polyvagal Theory (Amazon affiliate link, Bookshop.org non-affiliate link).

There’s a lot to it, but the rest of this blog post is sort of a quick-start guide.

The word “vagal” in polyvagal comes from the vagus nerve which starts at the brain stem and expands throughout so much of our body. (Vagus means “wanderer” in Latin.)

Polyvagal Theory is a theory about our autonomic nervous system, which is the part of our nervous system that regulates involuntary processes like heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, and so forth.

Polyvagal Theory is a theory of how we can maintain healthy social and emotional connections…or not. 

Why is this important?

We are a species that needs to connect.

Our survival and our thriving depends on it. We need to connect! With ourselves, others, the world, and spiritually. Connecting in these ways is part and parcel of our well being, and can lead to our greatest potential, our highest self.

Here’s a quick overview of our autonomic nervous system.

It is composed of the parasympathetic (many of us know this as “rest and digest”) and the sympathetic (often called “fight or flight”).

In Polyvagal Theory, the parasympathetic is further divided so it looks like this:

  • Parasympathetic can either function as a system of Connection (where it's called Ventral Vagal)
  • and the Parasympathetic can also function as a system of Shutdown (where it's called Dorsal Vagal)

Now we're ready to put these into a simple chart that shows the Polyvagal Theory Hierarchy.

And the hierarchy part is key! I'll tell you why in a bit.

Here's the hierarchy again from top to bottom:
  • Ventral Vagal - System of Connection: where we can rest and feel anchored, safe, loved
  • Sympathetic - System of Action: where we’re ready to attack, or, simply act with deliberate intention. In this state we can also feel angry, anxious, or driven.
  • Dorsal Vagal - System of Shutdown: where we’re just going through the motions, we’re drained, disconnected, numbed

And here's why the hierarchy part is key!

In order to move to from one state to another, we must get there by traveling along this hierarchy.

We can’t skip over the Sympathetic System of Action!

For example, if I'm feeling Shut Down (Dorsal Vagal) I can’t go from that feeling to then suddenly be in a state of safety and Connection (Ventral Vagal). In order to get there, my system needs to travel through Action (Sympathetic) first, before it can begin feeling anchored, safe, and secure (Ventral Vagal). This also helps to understand why we can't just "snap out of it!" when we're shut down or depressed. We need gentle movements (movements are Action) to help slowly travel from Dorsal through Sympathetic, then to Ventral.

With this knowledge, we have a map that can help us know where we are in any given moment, and also point us towards where we want to go, and how to get there.

To be clear, the goal is NOT to live or stay in Ventral Vagal 100% of the time.

First of all, it's impossible.

And second, it's not healthy, anyway.

What's healthy is being able to move between these systems appropriately.

It's about cultivating awareness of where we are and how to get to where we’d like to go.

Our nervous system has our survival in mind and always automatically works towards that end. If we can learn our own personal nervous system language, we can shift between states with more ease, allowing us to connect more, in ways that matter, in ways we crave.

What do I mean by our own "personal nervous system language"?

Well, to help explain, here are questions to ask yourself, about what makes your body's nervous system go into a particular state:

  • What makes you feel safe?
  • What triggers you?
  • What makes you shut down?

And here's the question I've been asking myself a lot lately:

  • “Is my state directly connected to my current situation, or is it more connected to the past?”

Having an idea about the answers to these questions sheds light on our own personal nervous system language.

This is all about connection with ourselves.

And to be clear: we’re only capable of genuine connection when we’re in Ventral Vagal - The System of Connection, when we’re feeling anchored, safe, loved, calm, at ease.

When we’re in Dorsal Vagal, we’re shut down.

When we’re in Sympathetic, we can become more self-critical because our reptilian brain is telling us we need to be, in order to survive. Self compassion cannot exist in the same space that we’re being critical of ourselves. (When I say "critical of ourselves" here, I'm not talking about simple "critical thinking" which is about analysis and assessment. Here, I'm talking about self-flagellation.)

According to Polyvagal Theory, If we have trouble thinking, feeling and acting like we love ourselves, it’s because our nervous system is in a survival response.

In Polyvagal Theory, if we have trouble acting like we love ourselves, it's because we're in sympathetic “fight or flight," on a hair-trigger, and magnifying any speck of danger or pain.

If we pay more attention to where we are on the hierarchy we can gently start to move to the next rung. With time and practice, we’ll be retraining our nervous systems and we’ll become fluent in its language.

We’ll no longer be tourists getting lost, but locals of our own system…finally, at home.

An Invitation: Think about where you feel most at home. Do you have a memory of a time you felt completely and truly safe? What brings you great ease? Noting this can provide a bridge to Ventral Vagal – The System of Connection. I feel great ease with Bear, my cat, and often, anytime I’m with animals. I feel at home when I’m near or in water. And Christmas memories make me feel connected and safe, too.

Feel free to share in the comments below!


  1. Playing with our cats can help us to move from Shutdown (Dorsal Vagal) to Action (Sympathetic).
  2. Petting or brushing our cats can help us move from Action (Sympathetic) into connection and safety (Ventral Vagal.) Even just watching our cats groom themselves can be very soothing.
  3. I might name my next cat Vagal so I can call him/her “Vagal-Bagel.” 😉



  • Hope Wright

    Thank you, this is so me at this moment. It’s 6 am and cold this morning. I so appreciate your analysis but thought this was forwarded to me (appropriately) by my RN
    Love and Above Cat Club replied:
    Hi Hope! Thanks so much for taking the time to read this blog post and for commenting. The whole process of learning to love ourselves while also learning how to regulate is quite the journey! We’ll continue sharing as we discover and uncover new gems! Welcome and thanks again for joining our list!

  • Alex

    This is amazing information! It really resonates with me and I look forward to your upcoming series. Here’s another vote for Vagal-Bagel. Can’t wait to meet her/him!
    Love and Above Cat Club replied:
    Hi Alex! I’m so glad this topic resonates with you! Thanks so much for sharing that. And yes, noted: another vote for Vagal-Bagel! So much love is going out for this already-beloved furry! I love it!

  • Susan

    This is intriguing, and you are inspiring me to learn more about this. And with my cats as my teachers and guides, it will be an amazing journey for sure! Thank you so much.
    Love and Above Cat Club replied:
    Hi Susan! Thanks for sharing! I am still always amazed that so many of us have our cats, the best safe role models and co-regulators (if you ask me! 😺) I’ll be preparing a free email series to share more about Polyvagal Theory, in bite size chunks! Stay tuned and thanks so much for reading!

  • Sam

    I love that you combined polyvagal theory and cats. I love seeing stuff like this, keep it coming! Vagal bagel cracks me up. 😆
    Love and Above Cat Club replied:
    Hi Sam! Thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment! Glad you enjoyed it! And you all will be the first to meet “Vagal-Bagel!” 😁

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