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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  • Here we go again….

    As before, if you’ve been tagged, it’s because you’ve shown a willingness to read my writing. Of all the pieces I’ve written so far, this one is probably the most representative of my snide, sarcastic sense of humor. I’m not sure if I come across being a little insensitive in this article, though. I certainly don’t mean to belittle those who do need psychological counseling. Thoughts, anyone?

    As always, any and all feedback is appreciated!

  • Margaret Da' Magnificent

    Dennis, the meaner the better. Embrace who you are. lol

    The funny thing is that today I just so happen to be talking to my coworker about baggage. You couldn’t have defined it any better than I tried.

  • I only wish more men would read your stuff…

  • I only wish more women would read your stuff…

    [Sorry had to say that to keep the scales balanced 😉 ]

    Great observations, although I start wondering…in “some” cases (like my qualifier?) do folks who acquire “baggage” over time through several “bad” relationships bring it on themselves by a combination of poor judgement, lonliess and desperation it choosing a bad relationship over no relationship at all? [or am I digressing?]

    What I’m trying to get at is, one bad relationship can be exaggerated unintentionally into “baggage”, but several common traits in failed relationships reveals real “issues”.

  • I should’ve specified…. i wish one man in particular would read and realize they do what you’re talking about with baggage…. I think I got the screaming reaction from him due to patterns of past women w/ other intentions than what i did when i accidently triggered the reaction.
    Carl, yes and yes, you’re not the only to seek a ‘bad one’ vs not having at all.

  • Margaret Da' Magnificent

    Amy – that is terrible that you had to experience someone screaming at you. The only time I had to suffer thru that was work related and I hung up on the asshole.

    As for the saying a bad one vs. not having one at all, I rather be “lonely and happy, rather than with someone and miserable”

  • Laura Sheppard

    Here’s a related question: when does “I’m still in love with him/her” go from a natural part of the grieving process for an old relationship that has ended to being “baggage” that’s holding you back from a new relationship?

  • Amy, I figured it was that your “one” was what you meant 😉
    ..and actually I’ve thankfully not found myself in a bad one over none…by the grace of God.

  • I don’t understand why boiling rabbits or sitting in the dark and then launching into some long tirade on why all men are jerks is considered “baggage!” I mean, if a guy doesn’t answer his phone he deserves what he gets, right?

  • Oh, totally. Even if he’s on the toilet in mid-pinch, he’d better pick up the phone if he knew what was good for him… and his pet bunny.

  • And Laura… I think that’s one of those questions you can only answer on a case-by-case basis. No blanket rules, remember? 😉

  • oh I think I’ve had atleast two guys scream at me… quite the experience let me tell you 🙂

  • Amy Lauren Gettys

    But Dennis, blanket rules are what allow us to hide from our baggage. . . . Come on, maybe we don’t want to put our blankies down yet!

    In all seriousness, past experiences – good and bad – help form us into the people we are today. Hearing “I don’t know if I don’t want to have children, or if I don’t want to have children with you” may have caused me some baggage (OK, I can admit it, maybe even some issues), but if I hadn’t been handed that oh so loving line, it would have taken me a lot longer to realize that children were non negotiable. . . . SO, much as the bad moments in relationships suck, they can save us from worse heartache down the line…. I think….I hope…. no, I’m sure.

  • Lisa Rae Hawkins

    So I’m a little confused. You defined baggage as “the sum total of all the experiences that have caused us emotional pain in the past”. But then you give examples that imply that baggage is only the subset of the first definition to which we overreact when triggered by similar circumstances later on. So is it still baggage if we don’t overreact, or isn’t it?

    IMHO, I would agree with your initial definition, and then bump the distinction to ‘issues’ for those to which we overreact. My two cents… 🙂

  • No, you’re right, Lisa Rae. I caught that myself, too, as I was writing it. The only thing is, I was trying to lead up to the term “issues.” So yes, Example #2 should have been “issues,” but I hadn’t introduced the term yet at that point, and I wanted to give as extreme an example as possible. I guess if I really tried to nail it down, I would stick with my original definition for “baggage,” but then also clarify that by its very nature, baggage will ALWAYS create some kind of knee-jerk reaction. It’s what we do AFTER this initial reaction that reveals whether or not we have “issues.” Do we acknowledge our baggage, take a breath, and move on? Or do we dwell and dwell and dwell on it? So, does that clarification work for you then?

    Sheesh, I was hoping nobody would catch that, though. Now, I’ll have to figure out how to retool it. Thanks a lot there…. :-p

  • And, hmmm… also taking into account your comments, Amy Gettys… maybe I should revise the piece to say that baggage is not necessarily a bad thing. Again, it’s not the baggage itself. Everyone has it. It’s how you much you let your baggage consume you that makes it good or bad (hence, the analogy of carrying it with you vs. setting it aside)….

    Thanks! You’ve given me some food for thought here…. Any more feedback for me?

  • Lisa Rae Hawkins

    I’m good. Sorry Dennis! I did let it slide for awhile. But when no one else questioned it, I felt the need to instigate some clarification. Besides, I can’t let you be the only one on here that calls people out. 😉

  • “Um, I have issues with your baggage.”

  • Ok, Lisa Rae, I edited the article slightly to adjust the inconsistencies. This work better for you now?

    And yes, Denice… the baggage analogy works in so many ways, doesn’t it? Duffel bag vs. designer collection, carry-on vs. checked, etc., etc., etc…. 🙂

  • dennis, are you a bunny boiler? you can ‘fess up.

  • 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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