When Baggage Turns To Issues

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“I can’t do this right now.”

“It’s not you. It’s me.”

Have you ever found yourself saying one of these lines?

Wait. Let me be more specific…. Have you ever found yourself saying one of these lines sincerely, without using it as an excuse to dump someone whom you can’t think of a better reason to dump?

For some time now, I’ve been pondering what the term “baggage” means. We humans are intelligent creatures. Like the lab rat who learns to press the button that gives him food instead of the one that gives him an electric shock, we quickly learn to avoid situations that have caused us pain in the past. That’s a good thing.

But, what happens if the rat becomes so terrified of getting shocked that he also stops pressing the button that gives him food? This rat has become so traumatized that he is unable to distinguish the good button from the bad button. Well, I frequently see people doing this in their dating lives. They become so traumatized by a failed relationship that they render themselves unable to create a meaningful relationship with a new person. To me, that’s baggage. And whether or not you choose to carry your baggage with you throughout your life is a conscious choice that only you can make.

As I see it, baggage is the sum total of all the experiences that have caused us emotional pain in the past. Unless you live in a fairy tale, you probably have some amount of baggage. (Then again, we never do find out if Snow White develops a fruit phobia… or if Cinderella becomes a sociopathic misogynist… or if Alice is ever able to look at a deck of cards again without cowering in fear.)

Have you ever overreacted to something your significant other said, only to realize in retrospect that it was a totally innocuous comment? I’d be willing to bet your reaction was triggered by baggage from your past. Still, baggage in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s how we handle our baggage that marks the difference between successfully building and hopelessly sabotaging a new relationship. Take the following examples:

1. Let’s say you were cheated on during a previous relationship. Your current boyfriend tells you he has to work late for a few weeks. You call him at the office three nights in a row, but he never answers. The next time you see him, you mention to him that you tried calling him at work. Then, you gauge his response.That’s learning from your experiences and being cautious.

2. Now, let’s say again that you were cheated on during a previous relationship. Your current boyfriend tells you he has to work late for a few weeks. You call him at the office the first night that he has to work late, but he doesn’t answer. When he gets home that night, he finds you sitting on his couch, in the dark. You scream at him and demand that he tell you the name of the whore he was f***ing all night.That’s your baggage taking control.

Now, at this point, I should probably clarify that what I half-jokingly refer to as “baggage” could actually be a serious psychological condition. If you seem to carry so much baggage that it is literally destroying your life, your best bet might be to see a therapist. In that case, my fully unprofessional, medically license-free assessment would be to upgrade your condition from “baggage” to “issues.” I may tease you if you have baggage, but I have to defer to a psychologist if you have issues.

For the rest of us, the line between learning from the past and sabotaging the future is usually just a wee bit more subtle than the examples I gave. So, all we can do is try to be conscious of the times that we respond in an atypical manner to an otherwise typical situation. That, in my opinion, is the telltale sign of baggage. As such, here are a few more quotes, all of which are culled from my friends’ or my own experiences. I offer these as red flags to help us identify and learn to set aside the baggage we carry:

  1. “All men are jerks.” (Actually, pretty much any line that begins with “all men” or “all women” is probably baggage-related.)
  2. “I’ll never date another….” (Musician, marine, lawyer, bartender, relationship writer, only child, married man, stripper, pot addict, insane asylum escapee, bunny boiler, etc.)
  3. “I’m never gonna find someone.”
  4. “Why does this always happen to me?”
  5. “I can’t stop thinking about her. Everywhere I look, I’m reminded of her.”
  6. “Can you wear this shirt that she used to wear? And this perfume? And, and maybe you can dye your hair red? Here, I even got the hair coloring kit for you.”

I hope you thought that last one was obnoxiously over-the-top, to the point of being comical. If you didn’t… you might want to think about checking your baggage. That is, before it turns into issues.

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By day, I'm a marriage and family therapist. By night, I am a relationships and comedy writer, which can be redundant or an oxymoron, depending on your perspective. I'm the creator of Social Savvy Sage, a coaching service that focuses on developing social skills. I am also the creator of Musings, the blog you're reading right now. You can find me on Twitter. (I am not the creator of Twitter.)


  • I don’t know if I have issues or baggage, but I have decided to take a break from dating anyway so I can regroup. I think sometimes the biggest mistake( but other times the best decision) is for someone to date someone else when they are still not over the previous person. But then again how does one get over the previous person without someone else. I don’t know nor do I care to find out, I think I am going to just unpack alone and see where I find myself when I am bag less.

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