What do you do when you’re drunkenly Michael Jackson dancing at a party with your relatively new boyfriend? Well, if you’re me, you decide that it is the perfect time to pick your first fight. In all conflict situations, while something is clearly bothering us in the present, how we respond to it has everything to do with the past. But if we want to feel more confident during these times and to grow our intimate relationships, we need to ask ourselves: ‘What’s the baggage behind it?’. This simple question has the power to completely change our experiences. By asking it, we become more mindful and grow our self-awareness, while also healing old wounds.
Back to my dancing. My baggage was that I was used to feeling unworthy in relationships and changing to fit whatever guy I was involved with. I forgot how I had grown since then and in that moment when my now-husband was laughing at me getting my groove on, I thought, ‘Aha! I knew you were like all the other guys!’, and picked a fight with him about it. Only he wasn’t like the rest. He’d just been amused because he’d never seen that side to me. Thankfully, despite embarrassment and fear that he’d think I was a nutter, I did manage to explain myself and apologise.
A few months later, another of my triggers prompted row number two. He relayed a story including a comment made by his friend and suddenly I was several years younger, with an ex’s friends ganging up on me. Cool Nat had left the building and I’ll admit – it wasn’t my finest hour. After I stormed out, calm descended and I realised that my issue had nothing to do with him. These two experiences weren’t just pivotal in my relationship but also to my life in general. They woke me up to how baggage shows up in conflict situations and how our experiences are there to help us correct old misunderstandings. I clearly had some growing up to do, as my default was to either be super-defensive, super-scared and/or threaten to leave. All things I’d been doing since I was… three.
We think we’re all cool and ‘grown’, until we’re in a situation or around someone who reminds us of our family/bully/co-worker/ex. Fear, insecurity and hurt from the past flare up, and we regress and forget who we really are. Defaulting to our typical thoughts, feelings and actions can mean that we treat people like the enemy. It causes us to behave in ways that don’t reflect who we are and that lead to us feeling embarrassed and afraid by our responses or the fallout. We can also find that we under-represent ourselves in situations where we really need to speak up and show up, because we’re triggered into being fearful and seeking validation.
What we have to recognise is that we wouldn’t respond in the way that we do – automatically thinking the worst, criticising ourselves internally, assigning blame, attacking others, being defensive or feeling as if we have to back down – if we weren’t already in the habit of responding in that way. It’s our baggage talking. Sometimes I hear people claim that they’ve never had an argument. Immediately, a red flag goes up in my mind. Conflict is actually a form of intimacy.
It’s not healthy to be fighting all the time, but not always agreeing, sharing some misfired words or getting on each other’s nerves actually brings us closer together. Coming out the other side of conflict gives us deeper understanding of each other, and we know that we can ‘go there’ emotionally – the places that we don’t expose to others because we fear rejection. But telling people what we think they want to hear blocks that intimacy. Of course, conflict can be intimidating. Often what we forecast will happen is far worse than the reality.
Many of us, for example, will have observed our parents’ relationships as we grew up. This sets our expectations for life. Good, bad or indifferent, these become our associations, informing how we respond internally and externally. If we learn to discuss and fight fairly, we inherently understand the value of conflict but, if we often went unheard, grew up with passive aggressive folk, were bullied, endured silent treatment or never witnessed people talking about their feelings, conflict can be daunting – or even threatening. Whatever our relationship with conflict, we can only move on and grow if we differentiate between the past and the present, allowing us to handle situations differently and update our habits. That means that we have to acknowledge the existence of the baggage, but write new endings to those old stories. We learn, not just about ourselves, but also about others, because we realise how they respond when triggered by their own baggage.
When this happens, try to step back and recognise where the other person might be coming from. If there are recurring themes to arguments (e.g. money), acknowledging respective baggage also helps each of you to recognise the life experiences that inform you both, making room for compassion and deeper awareness. Acknowledge hot button topics and make an agreement with yourself and/or your partner what you will each do in future to avoid escalation – taking a time out can be a good strategy. Differentiate between the past and the present. Remind yourself that, for instance, your partner isn’t the sibling that always tries to get you in trouble or that you’re not a teen being criticised by your mother. Acknowledge that you’re not that kid anymore.
In learning to take ownership of our baggage, it will no longer wreak havoc behind the scenes – and we can finally see it as the helpful teacher that it is.