Social and emotional baggage is what we bring with us and, like the real thing, it’s all in what we pack, how we pack it and how aware we are of what we’re packing it for. And like the real thing, individuals and organizations can’t go on much of a journey without carrying some of it with us.
Social and emotional baggage is a concept that has been drawn from psychology to metaphorically represent the things — memories, expectations, experiences — that we bring from our past into our present context, usually in a negative, debilitating or otherwise limiting way. It’s something that is attributed to individuals, but may also fit organizations, too. But baggage is a part of any trip and looking at it as part of the journey might provide us better ways to use it, rather than ignore it.
Metaphors are useful ways to take what we cannot see or touch, but nonetheless are experienced as real and makes the concept more tangible. The metaphor of baggage is useful because we can look at it in many different ways.
Baggage is what we bring with us on our journey and, like real baggage, it matters what we bring, how much of it, and how amenable it is to being moved.
What’s in your carry-on?
Let’s consider what we might bring with us this journey of ours and consider what roles these items play in our lives and organizations. What’s going in our bag?
Clothing: Different outfits allow us to transform our appearance, to stand out or blend in, or express ourselves in creative ways (along with keeping us comfortable while avoiding the whole “naked in public” thing that’s a bit problematic in most cultures). Spare clothes provide us with the ability to envision ourselves in different forms. They represent our ability to adapt and to dream new futures. There’s a difference between having the latitude to transform and having so much stuff that either it’s not all that different or is so different, we lose our sense of who we are. When we’ve packed too much of anything, we get lost in choice and focus. If we don’t pack the right stuff, we lose our ability to adapt to changing conditions.
Toiletries: A basic toiletry set allows us to care for ourselves, maybe even make ourselves up a little. These are the things that repair the damage from day-to-day wear and tear on the body, heal, and protect ourselves from the wear to come and prevent future damage (hello, sunscreen!). We might also wish to make ourselves up a little sometimes, too (hello, lipstick or cologne!). If we pack too much of these things we can get vaingloriously trapped in what others might think of us and present a face that’s less authentic than our true selves. We might also be so focused on repair and prevention that we fail to recognize what’s in front of us in the present moment (the only moment when we can do anything to change the game).
Gifts: These are things we bring to others based on our experience and are shared best through acts of service, kindness, generosity and love. They may be souvenirs, stories, photos and keepsakes – things given and transported with care for others and might include sharing our knowledge (tacit and explicit) and experience with others through storytelling. Our fellow travellers benefit from our gifts, and so do we as they often bring joy to the giver through the giving. However, if we pack our bags with too many we may wind up looking more after others than ourselves. Our focus is on giving to others at the expense of caring for ourselves. Our bags only have so much room and gifts take up some of that room.
Memories & Experience: This is our past. This is the part that accumulates over time as we get older and experience the world. It builds on and continually adds to our carriage, meaning we need to consider how we pack it, what we choose to hold on to from this vast collection, and what we might want to discard. This is where wisdom resides. It’s also a seat of some of our biggest problems. If real healing — that integration of experience with understanding, reflection and growth through our social life — doesn’t take place, we might find ourselves with things in our bag that we’d thought we’d discarded, but didn’t. It’s like finding the scorpion that might have hid in your luggage from your tropical vacation as you go home. If we’re not careful and mindful about what we pack, we might let in things we thought we’d left behind.
Cargo: This last element is cartage from one space to another. This is the stuff we bring from one place to another that may or may not have any purpose. It’s ‘stuff’. It’s trivia, the news, pop culture, or the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life. It seems like this would be the easiest thing to disregard, but it’s not. It can take up a lot of room. Consider where you put your attention and what you consume in a day — your social media feeds, gossip at the office or the dog park, advertisements, broadcast media — and what you hang on to. This is the stuff that can make us lose sight of what we think is important, so it’s critical that we are mindful about what cartage we add to our baggage.
As my colleague Alex Jadad says:
Nothing really matters apart from what matters to us. Therefore, we must be very careful about what we choose to matter to us.
Packing what matters most
Our baggage represents a system. We create the boundaries by the shape and size of the bag (or bags) we choose to bring with us and all of what goes in the bag interacts (it all has to work together to fit). What happens when we pack piecemeal, we throw all of the stuff above into a bag and try and organize it. Sometimes we seek to bring more bags or getting a bigger suitcase; maybe that will work. But things don’t fit, it doesn’t go together. Or we find ourselves laden with luggage, slow to move, strained in the back and joints from carting it around…but at least we have our stuff, right? (if we can find it).
The problem with that ‘add more’ strategy is that, the more we have, the slower we are, the more encumbered, and the more confused. We add to complexity, rather than create simplicity. We need to design better.
The best packers are those who create extra space for things they’ll pick up along the way, put in things that go together (e.g., outfits that mix and match), and they determine their essentials ahead of time. They spend the time considering what is most important, most used, most necessary and organize around those things: they employ strategy (and they adapt their strategy along their journey). They know what they need, what they like, and what makes them comfortable, safe and happy on their journey. Why? They’ve paid attention and collected data to support that decision (e.g. through ongoing evaluation, reflective practice, mindfulness, personal therapy).
This is all about being mindful about our work and life. For organizations, there are things you can do to create mindfulness in the way you work to help understand the choices you make and their consequences. For individuals, it’s about doing self-development work and engaging in reflective practice — in work and life.
If we don’t know what’s in our bags, we might be surprised what comes out. The subconscious works that way: it will pop things out at times of its choosing when we are often not expecting it or desiring it. Subconscious processes work at the individual and collective levels — it’s not just a personal thing.
We are contributors to the story of our lives, but not the sole authors (despite what many seem to think). What has happened to us because of others matters as much as what we create for ourselves. It’s not about labeling those experiences as ‘good’ things and ‘bad’ things, rather dealing with the consequences that those experiences bring to our life in the here and now and asking if they are helpful or unhelpful to living the life we want.
Were you under appreciated by your colleagues or family? Bullied? Neglected? Think it’s all in the past? Replicate that situation in the present and see how you feel — it might not be all in the past. Abuse and neglect are common experiences at home and work and how we integrate that into our lives — or whether we do at all — can be a key factor in determining how we relate to the experiences in the present.
What about that project at work that got everyone excited and failed to deliver the value that everyone expected or felt promised? Is that going to temper the willingness to try again, to innovate or risk something new again? Organizations and teams might be tempted to ‘lower the bar’ to avoid disappointment, despite suggestions that an organizations’ settling for ‘mediocrity’ drives quality people away from work.
What about that romantic relationship that was perfect, but ended because it was too perfect? How is too perfect even possible, you ask? If you’re not accustomed to being loved and cared for you might find it very uncomfortable to get exactly what you want (and need) and find (invent?) reasons why the relationship won’t work and end it (or sabotage it so you don’t have to end it). The issue isn’t that you don’t aspire for this ‘perfect love’, it’s that you’re not used to it; maybe the only way you were loved before was through neglect, abuse, or simple disinterest and partner disengagement. When that changes, so does our narrative about what real love is all about and if we don’t ‘flip the script’ we’ll write the new story into the old one and that just won’t work. (And if you’ve not experienced this in romance, how about a job? A friendship? An opportunity at work? — self sabotage is very real and underexamined).
None of this is crazy-making: it’s just how some people deal with the intense sadness of not knowing how to be loved or to achieve real success.
Like anything in life: change challenges us and these experiences (fears, hopes, unrequited dreams, and victories) go into our luggage and often not by choice — or awareness. But knowing this can happen will help us understand our baggage and how our past and hopes for the future affect the present.
The temptation is to make some sort of judgement about baggage and assume its a problem. We bring what we need with us and that means that we each will have and will need baggage differently. What we wish is for it to serve us, not debilitate us or keep us from growing. Being mindful, reflective and careful about what we have already packed is another critical step.
The next is realizing that, like real baggage, we can re-pack. We can discard things, re-organize, re-prioritize what goes inside. It’s never too late, but it does require work. The best thing of all is that, when we reorganize our baggage we create more of what we want — what matters to us — and less of what we don’t want or others want for us. Our baggage is our asset if we allow it to be.
Reflective practice, healing (to be covered in a future post in more depth), compassion (because we all have things we wish weren’t packed for us in our bags – be good to ourselves), systems thinking (and design thinking — creatively considering how we pack, not just what we pack) and healthy social engagement are all ways to improve our relationship with baggage.
And that’s something to hang our hats on.
Happy, healthy travels.
Image credits: Author