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Apr 25 2009

Hey You Dropped Your Baggage

Published by at 4:50 am under Advice

The top three dating complaints of single men in their 50s:

· Dating partners who have a lot of “baggage” (42 percent)

· Women who “become difficult to get along with” after the first few dates (28 percent)

·Women who want to get too serious too fast (18 percent)

The top three complaints of women:

· That baggage thing (35 percent)

· Not having a clue where to meet men, and meeting too few new men (23 percent)

· Overeager guys who want to get real serious real fast (21 percent)

· Have not had a date in the last year. (43 percent)

The other figures are interesting but we’re talking about baggage. You’ll notice that all the men’s complaints come down to baggage and the first and third of the women’s complaints are about baggage.

(I don’t know about you, but I also noticed that 70% of men complain about baggage and 35% of women. Twice as many. What’s that about? Let’s bookmark that question.)

“Baggage” is not really a technical term and so it’s one of those things that we all know what it is when we see it but are hard pressed to say exactly what it is.

I’m not going to do a survey of literature, but I do want to acknowledge that what I’m going to say here is only one position in discussion, a discussion in which soothing voices of healing professionals can become quite sharp.

I like the position I’m going to put forward. It comes from one of my favorite psychologists, Alfred Adler. His term for baggage was Protest. Protest is a technical term and in every day speech it means more less the same thing as “a chip on the shoulder.” Someone with a “chip on their shoulder” is someone who is always ready to argue about something. And that’s what baggage is about.

Very precisely if you are protesting, it means that you are against one thing because you are for something else. It means you are taking a side in an argument. It also means that you know both sides of the argument very well.

One of the things that protesters do is they take one side of the argument so intensely that they can force otherwise neutral people to take the other side.

There is a Monty Python skit called “The Argument Clinic,” A man pays to go have an argument with someone. (Looking for a particular argument is a form of protest and a form of baggage.) He goes into the Argument Room and asks the man at the desk, “Is this the right room for an argument?” And the man at the desk says, “I told you once.” And the other man answers, ”No you didn’t.”

“Yes, I did.”

“No you didn’t.”

It happens so fast, you don’t even see how it starts. The man at the desk says, “I told you once” as if he were responding to something that already happened. That’s how baggage and protests work. They are habits and habits are unconscious. What is unconscious always feels like it has always existed; timeless.

When I first started studying this, I used to think that things which were unconscious were vague and murky. Not so. Unconscious knowledge is very precise and complex. When a concert pianist plays Beethoven she is mainly conscious of the music. But the mechanics of making the music are all so well mastered that they are unconscious. Most people drive their cars unconsciously. In fact, the most dangerous driver is one who has to think about how quickly to take the foot off the accelerator while pushing in the clutch, and slowly pressing the brake while steering gradually over to the slower lane. The one who does this best does it so smoothly because the individual parts are integrated into unconscious knowledge. And it’s the same thing with these interpersonal protests and arguments that we call baggage.

Let’s look at a real example.

Genevieve had an over bearing mom. When she grew up she married an over bearing man. And then she got a divorce and it seemed that she was “attracted to overbearing men. Nice guys never showed up. This is an example of baggage and here is how it works.

First, you have to look at her protest. What was her protest? It started out with her mom. The way she handled mom’s nagging, demanding, insisting, snooping and punishing was to protest in her head. The protest was a like a poster only she could see. It went like this, “F U. I will do anything I damned well please.” Down with Oppression! Up with Personal freedom!

“We fill our lives with proceedings which at first seem reasonable until they later become a habit.” Samuel Beckett

Genevieve, for her sanity and survival as a child, developed the habit of being super-alert to possible demands and super-prepared to challenge them. If you were going to deal with someone as over bearing as Mom, you didn’t want to defy her in big ways. That would be like Iraq trying to stand up to the U.S. Military, or like Apache’s trying to stop the US Calvary. A losing proposition. You wanted to handle it like guerilla war and defy her in millions of small ways. And so Genevieve became very good at taking millions of small stands.

Baggage, in this case, was the difference between saying, “F— you, I will do anything I damned well please,” and the simple, quiet, non-combative and direct approach — “I do what I please.” The simple way, which is the mature way, leaves out the protest part, leaves out the FU and the damn well.

Adler called this extra attitude, the Protest. Another pioneering psychologist, Karen Horney, called it the “Constant Attitude.” I like that phrase, too, because it is a kind of attitude that people carry constantly, regardless of the situation, something they impose on the situation.

There is a famous joke by Henny Youngman about that. “A man walks into a therapist’s office and says, “Hey @$$hole. How come people don’t like me?” A constant, yet invisible attitude.

One of the strange things about Baggage is that it attracts baggage. There are men in this world who carry matching pieces for Genevieve’s set. She has baggage that says, “F U & D W” on it and there are guys out there who have the attitude, “F this, I’ll Damn Well decide who is going to the boss.”

If I understand Harville Hendricks correctly, he seems to be saying that matches like this are matches made in heaven. That’s because the two people challenge each other on their baggage and, if they really love one another, they will have to give up their baggage in order to make the relationship work. Therefore, it is the force of love that heals them of their protest attitudes. (He describes the dynamics a little differently, but I think we are talking about the same stuff.)

For a while, one of my teachers was collecting phrases that summarized such matched sets of luggage. “He worshiped the ground she walked on and she treated him like dirt.” “He was a man who claimed to know best the difference between right and wrong and she helped him by reminding him of how wrong he could be.”

Genevieve had carried her baggage so long that she’d gotten used to it. The proceedings which at first seemed reasonable, had become a habit. However, she’d read my “Souvenir Memories” article on the web site and the first memory her soul handed her (she spontaneously produced it) was about an encounter with her Mom in which she responded with her brave FU stand. Even then she wasn’t sure what to make of the memory.

Why did I remember that?

And this is where I think it helps to talk to someone else about this stuff. I could hear the protest in the story and draw her attention to it and to its implications. She’s smart and it didn’t take much more than that for her to make a lot of connections.

So what do you do with baggage?

First you unpack it and that probably is work best done in a conversation with someone else. You don’t always notice your own constant attitude. Usually, because it’s so constant. Second, because it’s hard to look at the unattractive side of your personality. It just is.

Second, you don’t try to change it quickly. I know this is counter-intuitive. There are a couple reasons for not trying to change it quickly. First of all, when you first a habitual protest that you’ve taken for granted for many years, you don’t know where it’s been. And you don’t know where it goes. So the first thing to do is watch how it works in you.

Third, once you’ve watched it work for a while, then you’ll have all sorts of ideas about how to drop it. It really is an unnecessary add-on to your social skills and, as you get better at anything, including getting along with others, you learn to succeed with less work. You’ll find ways to drop it. Again, it really helps to talk about this with someone who knows what they are listening to. Real change is a kind of lightening up. It isn’t that dramatic.

Here is Robert Bly’s translation of Rilke’s poem about the Swan. It is about the difference between the way the swan walks on land and the way it moves in water. I think about this when I think about the difference between carrying baggage and letting baggage drop. If you read it aloud you can feel the deliberate clumsiness of the first two verses and the grace of the third.

The Swan

This clumsy living that moves lumbering
as if in ropes through what is not done
reminds us of the awkward way the swan walks.

And to die, which is a letting go
of the ground we stand on and cling to every day,
is like the swan when he nervously lets himself down

into the water, which receives him gaily
and which flows joyfully under
and after him, wave after wave,
while the swan, unmoving and marvelously calm,
is pleased to be carried, each minute more fully grown
more like a king, composed, farther and farther on.

And then I also think about another Paul Simon song, This one about mastery, a quality of people who’ve made it through their midlife transformation.

“He makes it look so easy, look so clean,
He moves like God’s Immaculate Machine
He makes me think about all these extra moves I make
And the bag of tricks it takes
To get me through my working day,
That One Trick Pony.”
From One Trick Pony by Paul Simon

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