I use “old baggage” as a generic term to refer to any recurring motivation that gets in the way of pursuing your goals in the present. For example, writer’s block is caused by old baggage. So is fear of conflict, which stops you from having the conversations you know you need to have.
Sometimes you are surprised to discover that you have old baggage. You notice that your behavior and your motivation make no sense. A client I was speaking with realized he was afraid to talk with his partner about his career plans, even though he was longing for visibility about them. That sounds totally illogical, right? That’s what he thought.
Many people who pride themselves on being logical become distressed when they realize their emotions make no sense. They then criticize themselves for feeling the way they do. Incidentally, this is illogical. All this does is to magnify the distress with shame and guilt. This creates a vicious cycle — a self-reinforcing feedback loop of self-criticism — which, unless exited, becomes intolerably painful. Then they are driven to suppress the whole thing.
I have said before and I’ll say again: the worst thing you can do when you realize that your emotions make no sense is to suppress them. If you suppress an emotion, you suppress awareness of the values connected to that emotion — and therefore cut off any emotions that would be generated by that value. That has terrible effects.
First, suppressing awareness of values kills motivation. For example, in writing, if you suppress your fears about not writing well, you will also suppress any desire to write well. If you suppress doubts about whether you know enough to write, you also suppress confidence that you know enough to write. This is what creates the paralysis known as writer’s block.
You need motivation to act. You need to stay in touch with the values at stake, which means being able to feel the positive and negative emotions they generate. When you discover “old baggage,” you need a way to lighten the load without killing your motivation.
Second, suppressing awareness of values distorts your judgment. Your common sense relies on an awareness of all of the top values at stake, and you’ve just cut yourself off from some. If you have ever suppressed your fear of conflict and had the conversation anyway, you know how that goes. You say things you shouldn’t say, and regret saying them afterwards, because suppressing the fear of conflict also suppresses the desire for genuine connection. That’s why such conversations fail. You don’t feel better, you don’t make the situation better, you don’t achieve any goal.
When you discover “old baggage,” you need a way to be logical even though your feelings seem to be getting in the way.
There are two ways to proceed logically: the action method and the analysis method.
The action method for dealing with old baggage is identical to the method I teach in Do What Matters Most Despite Uncertainty, Temptation, and Resistance. That method helps you introspect the concrete situation you are in now and identify a doable, constructive step forward now, regardless of the source of problematic motivation. Used consistently, the action method ensures you can sidestep old baggage now, and gradually disintegrate it over time. I refer you to my free teaser for that class, Own Your Motivation, which introduces those methods.
The analysis method is appropriate if you have identified a pattern from introspecting a lot of concrete incidents, and want to break it. For example, maybe you notice a self-defeating belief like “I’m not good enough,” which is undercutting your effort toward many different goals. Or you realize you are inordinately afraid of disapproval in many different circumstances, and you want to draw on authentic confidence in those cases instead.
The analysis method requires skill at introspection, a reservoir of emotional resilience, and an investment of time and energy. But it enables you to resolve the conflicts wholesale. Sometimes it feels like you let go of a whole baggage train in one sitting. Here, in essence, is the process:
First, you need to understand the source of the pattern. You need to understand why you feel the way you feel. If the emotions don’t make sense in the present, you need to go to the past to understand them. Old evaluations are triggering emotions in new situations. If you can see how you reached those old conclusions, you can reassess the issue and change the dynamic.
This doesn’t mean you need to go into therapy for years. But you do need to give yourself the benefit of the doubt. Assume there was a method to your madness at some time in the past. And go look for it.
The easiest way to find the source of old baggage is to ask yourself, “When have I felt this way before?” This will bring up a past unpleasant experience. That is the experience to analyze.
For example, I noticed the other day that I became disproportionately upset when a raindrop fell on me as I was trying to put away an inflatable kayak. It didn’t make sense.
When I asked myself, “When have I felt this way before?” my mind went back to an incident involving giving a speech in high school. Still puzzled, I asked myself again, and my mind went back to an incident related to a science project in 3rd grade. I was surprised. Though I’ve thought about many incidents from childhood, never these two. I never would have dreamed these three incidents were related if I had not asked the question, “When have I felt like this before?”
You may not be able to go back to childhood as I did, but you will be able to remember other incidents of this recurring problem. By comparing multiple incidents — involving radically different situations — you can get clearer on what exactly is going on. In my example, I saw clearly what was causing the frustration in all three cases. In about 10 minutes, I got an important insight that will help me avoid overcommitting myself and eliminate approval-seeking. I put all three incidents to rest and inoculated myself against future incidents.
How? I re-evaluated my past choices in a constructive way. There are only three cases:
Case 1: In hindsight, you made a good choice. You would do the same today that you did then. Any lingering doubts dissolve, and you can be proud of your choice. It’s easy to be constructive in this case.
Case 2. In hindsight, you made the best choice possible given what you knew. You know more now, but you didn’t then. You can mourn your lack of knowledge then, accept it as a fact, and take pride in having acted on your judgment. You can also take pride in having learned more, in having grown since then. By making it explicit, you can be confident that you could handle a similar situation better another time. If you understand that knowledge is contextual, it’s pretty easy to be constructive in this case.
Case 3. In hindsight, you clearly made a mistake. You ignored information you had or values you held. You knew better. This case requires a detailed analysis, all the while maintaining a constructive mindset. You do this, not to criticize yourself, but to understand yourself.
In analyzing the mistake, you need to see what you were afraid of, or tempted by, or how you were caught up in conflict. You need to see why the choice you made seemed appealing at the time. And, you need to see how it affected you long term, how it developed into a pattern of problems. You may need to “forgive” yourself, as I wrote about in another article.
Even more importantly, you need to understand how this choice has shaped your values. Some values you didn’t form, and others you did, as a result of this choice.
For example, I believe that if I had been more self-aware in my youth, I would have become a biologist, not an engineer. It would have put me on a completely different path. I would have gotten a PhD and gone into research. Would I have changed careers to psychology? Probably not is my best guess.
Instead, I had 5 years at MIT and 10 years of industry experience as an engineer. I don’t want to become a biologist now — and I wouldn’t give up my engineering background for anything. My approach to psychology is infused with everything I learned as an engineer. That “mistake” shaped my life. I am pursuing values now, in the present, which I could not pursue without that experience. This recognition more than anything is what helps put a past mistake to rest.
This constructive approach to re-evaluating mistakes ensures that you see all of the values involved. Perhaps the most important part of it is to give yourself credit in the present. Your willingness to go back, look at past mistakes, analyze them, re-evaluate them, celebrate values and mourn losses is what matters most. Past mistakes are past and cannot be changed. But you can use what you learn from them to give even more meaning to the pursuit of your goals in the present.
Incidentally, this is another reason you need to use the action method first. You use the action method to pursue goals in the present. Your goals in the present are what motivate the in-depth introspection needed for the analysis method. Your clarity about your present goals and your present progress then mitigates any sadness you feel about past mistakes. If you are stuck or paralyzed, analysis of your old baggage will just depress you further.
Old baggage from the past doesn’t stop you from achieving goals in the present. You do not have to eliminate old baggage or straighten out your psychology to get daily satisfaction out of your life. But if you have sufficient emotional resilience and skill at introspection, analyzing your old baggage can lighten the load. It can help you accelerate your growth, and take your success and happiness to the next level.