A while ago I was talking with friend who is single. He says that dating is hell. Some dating site profiles seem more like a sales pitch than a real person. One of the comments that he noticed by several of the women was that they are, “Not interested in a man with baggage.”
The comment felt disheartening. I worried that my friend may never find someone. I met my friend at a men’s group that we were attending at the time. We spent our Monday evening’s talking about, you guessed it, our baggage. My friend is bald. He drives a Harley. He is honest and willing to put his stuff out there. He is real.
Who wouldn’t want that in a man?
If you are alive, you have baggage
The reality is that we all have baggage. It’s called experience. Baggage can cause problems, but mostly when we are in denial. One example of denial is when we make comments on a dating site that we won’t date someone else with baggage. Maybe dating sites should provide mirrors to their customers?
Baggage is evidence that you are thriving. Let me say that another way. Everyone has experienced damage in life. Look at your friends and your family. Who isn’t damaged? But in spite of your “damage,” you can learn to carry a suitcase… instead of a lifetime load of baggage. The key difference is that damaging ‘baggage’ is left unpacked, stored deeply and left to fester. Your baggage becomes your suitcase when you do the difficult work of repacking it.
In 2007, Science Daily reported on a 7 study of 1,420 children by William E. Copeland, Ph.D., and colleagues at Duke University Medical Center, Durham, N.C.. The researchers met with over 1400 children and their parents at ages 9, 11 or 13 and then at 16 yrs. Here is what they found:
- More than two-thirds of the children reportedly experienced at least one traumatic event by age 16, including 30.8 facing one event and 37 percent facing multiple events.
- Of those, 13.4 percent of those developed some post-traumatic stress symptoms by age 16, but less than 0.5 percent met the criteria for PTSD.
- Children exposed to trauma had nearly double the rates of psychiatric disorders of those who were not (except for substance use disorders).
The study underlined how most of us have experienced damaging situations, however, we adapt, we learn and we become stronger. In short, our trauma does not become baggage.
In an article by Jacquelyn Cafasso of Healthline, “Traumatic Events: Causes, Effects, and Management,” traumatic events include:
- death of family member, lover, friend, teacher, or pet
- physical pain or injury (e.g. severe car accident)
- serious illness
- natural disasters
- moving to a new location
- parental abandonment
- witnessing a death
- domestic abuse
- prison stay
Every day you are faced with changing and challenging circumstances. Being emotionally healthy means that you face difficult and painful situations, you accept what you cannot change, you learn to adjust and over time you become stronger. If you are alive, you have baggage… but not all baggage is bad.
Your baggage can be the path to thriving
Jude Miller Burke, PhD (“The Adversity Advantage“) conducted a five-year study of over 300 “high-achievers.” The study revealed that this group of highly skilled, competent and successful men and women were flawed. 40% experienced childhood abuse, witnessed domestic violence, or had an alcoholic parent. Dr. Burke’s research found that most of the men and women in her study had experienced two or more serious childhood events.
Despite their challenging childhoods, their that baggage did not lead to dissatisfaction. Her participants were thriving. How they responded to their experience ended up making them stronger: Their adversity became the avenue that made them better human beings.
There is no question that our experiences, our circumstances can leave us worn out, unhealthy, closed off, fearful or unwell. However, writes Dr. Burke, “early troubles also create positive characteristics such as compassion, ambition, sensitivity, intuition, creativity, resilience and grit.”
The important thing is not whether you have baggage, but what you do with it. Are you becoming resilient or stuck in a martyr mentality? Are you developing flexibility or more rigid or stuck? Are you grateful, open and thriving or demanding, protected and sealed off?
It sounds like a bumper sticker, but it is true: Life does not cooperate with your plans. 2/3 of us have experienced one traumatic experience and many of us have experienced multiple traumas, and have a family (or personal) history of addiction, abuse and adversity.
What the research points to is that your body will heal. Your mind will compensate. You will work through your emotions. Your natural state is to adapt and adjust. Difficult and painful experiences are like a foundry, a personal Spartan course where you run alongside everyone else who have chosen the path of persistence.
So how do you transform your baggage into a suitcase instead of it becoming knotted into self-perpetuating burdens? (You can find these and many more examples of thriving in “The Adversity Advantage” by Jude Miller Burke, PhD):
- Accept your emotions, your story and your reality. The more you resist, you hemorrhage energy and drain away your precious will-power.
- Welcome your experience – “The best way to manage stress isn’t to reduce or avoid it, but rather to rethink or even embrace it” Dr. Kelly McGonigal
- Cultivate humor and wit.
- Reflect and learn from your experience without getting caught up in self-judgment.
- Practice determination and persistence.
- Trust yourself and your ability to be resourceful.
- Learn to communicate productively, collaborate and work with others.
- Find and celebrate your own drive and your desire to thrive.
Take a moment to re-read the list. Do you say to yourself, “I do that one, I ace these two, and I don’t really need that one?” Our minds often run through a list and check it off rather than taking the time to consider how consistently we practice the behaviors.
Resilience isn’t called “grit” by accident. Learning the important lessons will make you grit your teeth, but not because you “push through it.” Acceptance, welcoming, reflection, trust and celebration are gritty practices. Through reflection and repeated practice you learn to digest potentially destructive emotions and mindsets. Resilience means that you have developed a set of flexibility practices that fit you and your unique personality and background. Dr. Ronald Alexander, Psychology Today writer calls it your Mindstrength.
Salvadore Madi, PhD. has extensively studied resilience. He summarized what he learned over a lifetime in his 2002 article “The Story of Hardiness: Twenty Years of Theorizing, Research, and Practice.” He gives four strategies that you can use to transform your baggage:
1.Improve your ability to focus on action: This means learning how to intentionally choose rather than getting caught up in unproductive thoughts or emotional sink holes. Acknowledge your needs and desires. Identify the personalities and situations that “hook” you and pull you away from valued actions. Practice consciously making decisions rather than reacting or pushing your needs or preferences aside.
2.Be yourself by building connection: Accept yourself, and invest time in the relationships that are most important to you. Because of your personal or family background, you may need to invest in coaching, counseling or other personal work to improve how you relate to and respond to the people in your life.
3.Take time to discover your values, and let your values guide your decisions. Brene Brown says that knowing yourself is about “letting go of who you think you are supposed to be and embracing who you are.” “Know yourself” is not just for the granola-yoga types. When life takes you to the end of yourself, you learn who you are. You have to get honest enough to know what Jude Miller Burke calls your “internal landscape.”
She offers some practical tips for navigating your internal landscape in her 2017 book The Adversity Advantage:
- The behaviors (your own and from other people) that cause you to react and that create anxiety for you.
- The situations or personalities (and even specific people in your life) that make you react with insecurity or feel threatened.
- The times, relationships or environments where you get hijacked by your emotions, assumptions or judgments. A clue that you are hijacked is when you habitually react with one primary approach: command-and-control, avoid-at-all-costs or give-up-and-wait-passivity.
- When, and with whom, you find it difficult to set limits or boundaries.
- What type of conflict is most difficult for you to handle.
4.Cultivate a sense of hope and positive belief about yourself and your life. Being positive, cultivating hope is not denial. Hope is practicing gritty courage. You build hope as you fully face your baggage and your circumstances, you take accountability for the choices you have made and for the choices that you have in front of you.
We all have baggage. You can learn to transform your experience into an asset. Celebrate your baggage and how it has given you the strength to live your life. Growth does not have to be a serious pursuit to improve yourself. Be grateful for how you have learned to be resilient in spite of everything that life has dealt you.
After he returned from military service, Britan’s Prince Harry started The Invictus Games. The games inspire men and women who are injured, traumatized and battered to envision and experience themselves as “unconquerable.”
“One US competitor is quoted on the Invictus website: “Up until my awareness of the Invictus Games, all I had been doing was living in memories. In my mind my life has been over and I was just waiting to be done because I’m not capable of doing or living like I used to. I‘m starting to think however, that my game has just begun.”
Your baggage can be your inspiration. The fact that you are still here means that despite what life has thrown at you, you are unconquerable.
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I write articles that talk about the kind of changes I am trying to make in my own life. I hope that my writing also helps you. My topics include addiction and mental health recovery, relationships, and personal growth. I work as an Addiction Therapist, an Editor for the Good Men Project and freelance writer, and Adjunct Professor at City University, Edmonton. But what is most important is that I have a family and I am in recovery from depression and anxiety. My mental health experiences are part of my personal University degree, but they do not define me.
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Keep it Real