Recently, as a client left my office after a session she said, “I feel like I left a whole bunch of baggage, but they’re nice baggage, Samsonite baggage.”
It was a striking image for me. Most of us don’t like our personal or emotional baggage—our painful memories of the past, our history of relationships gone wrong, or experiences of bullying or abuse. The very term “baggage” in this context implies that it is nasty stuff that we’d rather pack away, and we’re working hard to keep it relegated to the past and out of our present or future.
We often see counselling as a place to work through some of our baggage, preferring to unload it and leave it behind us. But I’ve never thought of the possibility that such baggage could be described as “nice” or have value like the top quality Samsonite kind.
But the more I think of it, the more this makes sense. Much of the time, our past experiences—even the painful ones—do have value to us. Rarely is life 100% bad—usually there are some precious and tender memories mixed in with the painful or distressing ones.
Out of negative experiences we sometimes receive gifts of resilience and strength that we might not have otherwise developed.
And even the most painful, negative experiences have value, even if only in showing us what we can survive. And acknowledging this—that we have survived, and perhaps grown through our traumas and past pain—means treating our baggage with dignity, honouring the gifts it has given us, no matter how small, and valuing our pasts rather than discarding them without respecting them.
We may have been in conversations or relationships where our past and the effects of the past have not been treated with the honour and care they deserve. Perhaps we were told to “get over it” or criticized for having baggage at all.
At times the raw spots we have from the past get triggered in current relationships and we find ourselves flaring up or appearing to overreact. Yet knowing the roots of our reactions and the way they trigger feelings from the past can be so helpful. They help us know what is going on, and help our partners, friends and family members to understand where our personal landmines or raw spots are. And that involves curiosity about and respect for our baggage.
When partners or family members become more attuned to our needs, more conscious about what they say or do that triggers us, and respond with compassion, reassurance, and future efforts to avoid evoking that past pain—they are respecting our baggage. Which helps us heal.
To some extent, we all have baggage. How nice to be reminded that it has value.
Susan Winter Fledderus is a Clinical Therapist with Shalem Mental Health Network