We regularly talk about recognizing old baggage in relationships. You may have stated at some point that you didn’t want to deal with someone else’s baggage or conversely been told, “You have too much baggage.” But what is old baggage? And, how do you recognize baggage in yourself as well as in others? This clarity applies across all relationships; we may find our baggage popping up at work, at home, with friends, and with strangers. So, let’s dig into what is baggage.

In conversations with clients, I find we talk about the idea of baggage as it relates to the issues that cause us problems. Frequently it’s tied to the concept of sides of the street. For example, in any relationship you have, there is your side of the street and the other person’s side of the street. You are only responsible for your side of the street. Likewise, you are only responsible for the baggage you bring into the relationship. Some of the baggage that you are carrying may be healthy, and some may be detrimental to what you want for your life and what is useful in relationships.

My Baggage.

This concept speaks to the idea that none of us make it out of childhood without some crap crammed in our bags. As we are at the complete mercy of our caregivers, we have to find ways to survive. The survival strategies support us in making it to adulthood and then when we skip the nest, shut our bags and head off into our life. Alas, not all the stuff we are carrying is useful for the life we want, and some dysfunction typically finds a way into our luggage.

For many of my clients, once the bags are packed, it’s easier to drag the bags along, versus unpack them and riffle through them to assess if the crap we packed is even worth dragging around. That means that we may be carrying around garbage without being aware of it. If any of the bags have painful experiences, we may find ways to drag the bags, but ignore them at the very same time. “Oh, those bags? Hmm, not sure to whom they belong. Maybe they’re yours…” These disowned bags are what gets triggered and lead to problems. And, how you deal with complicated baggage is essential.

What We Pack in our Bags.

Let’s do a little breakdown on what we tend to pack in our bags. Most of what we pack tends to fall into the areas of past experiences, biases, beliefs, expectations and, the stories we create to make sense of our past. Understanding what you’re dragging around can help you to decide if the stuff is useful or if it’s time to shake it out, take a look if it sparks joy or not, and then decide if you’re ready to let it go or you still want to drag it around with you.

Past Wounds.

This idea is probably apparent. Your past wounds may not define you, but they do set up your tolerance meter, and they tend to fill your bags. Depending on how you navigated surviving the wound, you may have a high or low tolerance for certain things.

I was having a conversation the other day with a friend. As we were exploring what seemed to be an interesting pattern that kept showing up for her, she realized that she has a pretty high tolerance for some bad behaviors. She takes on, not only her side of the street, she takes on the other person’s side of the street too. She stated, “The pattern in all these situations, is that I am too accommodating. People then feel ok to continue with the bad behavior, because I haven’t set clear boundaries.” Yep, that’s the baggage to unpack, shake out and determine how you want to either repack it or let it go.

It could swing the other way in a childhood where people behaved badly. You might determine you won’t take crap from anyone and thereby shut down relationships anytime there is any transgression. Either way, overly accommodating or overly unaccommodating, both offer a doorway into being curious about the baggage you’re dragging behind you.

Survival Strategies.

In my family to avoid getting in trouble, discomfort, feeling upset, people being mad at me, I learned to disappear. I have a vivid memory of being about 7 or 8, sitting high up in our Magnolia tree, while my mother called my name on and off for several hours. I just ignored her, sitting in the tree and being disappeared. Fast forward 20 years, I was still using this tactic in my relationships. If things got too painful or uncomfortable, I would leave, either physically or emotionally. I didn’t see it as running away at the time. I saw it as taking care of myself. And, to be fair, it was a form of self-care. It was also a form of avoidance, keeping me from figuring out what was going on, on my side of the street — leaving situations instead of figuring them out.

This particular survival strategy was difficult to overcome, it took a lot of self-reflection and ultimately the courage to show up, even when the situation was emotionally uncomfortable. My husband and I joke that we got married so fast so that I wouldn’t run away… there is some truth there.

Riddle Me This Bagman.

List five of your favorite experiences from growing up.

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List five experiences that were your least favorite from growing up.

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Write down five values that your family taught you were “good values.”

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And five things your family taught you that haven’t been useful.

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And five things your family taught you that have been useful.

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When you look at these five lists what do you notice about your expectations regarding how the world is supposed to be? What is the common theme in each section? What beliefs and biases are operating in your life, based on these expectations? And how are the negative experiences riding shotgun as you navigate your life? This is the place to start getting curious.

Our expectations about life, about how things are supposed to be, about how people are supposed to behave, or treat us, come directly from what we were taught and experienced. If we had an emotionally neglectful childhood, we might decide to avoid emotions, or we may hungrily seek emotional connection. If we had a physically neglectful childhood, we might feel like we will never have enough or that we don’t deserve to have anything. Where you fall on the spectrum is unique, and how it serves you, only you can decide what story you have aligned.

My Experience.

When I looked at my lists, my favorite experiences as a child all had a common theme of freedom. My least favorite had to do with being not good enough or being told to “shut up,” feeling stupid and unimportant. The values had to do with respect, not necessarily self-respect, but rather demonstrating respect towards adults, regardless if I didn’t like, believe, or respect them, and setting aside my intuition.

My family also taught me to avoid discomfort, as I watched their addiction and other avoidance behaviors. And, tolerating emotional discomfort to get curious has been something I have to teach myself to do. It was the antidote to numbing out or running away. Instead, I pushed myself to choose to learn about myself, before I decide to leave. Something brilliant my family taught me was to pick out lies and manipulation with precision. Ultimately this skill allowed me to learn that my survival required boundaries and the willingness to set a definite “NO.”

In Conclusion.

Packing and unpacking bags is what we naturally want to do. When we set out on an adventure, we have no problems thinking about what we need to take with us. We also may find that we overpack and our bags can weigh us down. I recall dragging 75 pounds through a month in Europe. It might have benefited me to lighten my load.

When we get home, we naturally unpack our bags, sifting the dirty clothes from the clean. Tossing out the shoes that hurt our feet, hanging up our travel outfit, and putting our treasures where we can see them.

So, ask yourself, what benefit might you get from opening up those heavy old bags that you’re dragging around? And, what might support you in re-evaluating what you need to take with you as you adventure on into the future?

Your Turn...

I would LOVE to hear from YOU!

  • What are you curious about now?
  • What baggage have you unpacked and what did you learn?

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