Relationship baggage—the difficult and painful things we’ve gone through in past relationships that tend to follow us into future relationships—gets a pretty bad rap. And for good reason. Left unchecked, it can completely sabotage even our healthiest and strongest relationships. It can cause tremendous pain for us and overwhelm anyone we try to love. If we don’t deal with it, it gets heavier and heavier over time, as we accumulate new items and stuff them in with everything else. But we aren’t doomed to this ill fate. It’s possible for us to make the best possible use of our baggage and repurpose it to great effect. When we unpack our baggage, we get to use it as a way to expand our awareness and actually improve our relationships.
To use our baggage in a positive way takes intention and commitment. It requires a willingness to take a good hard look at ourselves and examine our patterns with an open mind. More importantly, it requires us to take responsibility for ourselves and be accountable for the role we play in our relationships. Instead of trying to push out the past or believe that all of our issues ceased to be when our last relationship ended, we can seek to understand what we’re bringing into our relationships and work with that material in a direct way. This can sound like a tall order, but it’s something all of us can do. And when we do it, we can transform our relationships in powerfully positive ways. Here are five of the many reasons why our baggage, when we manage it mindfully, can be beneficial.
1) It gives us experience to draw from. Our baggage is something we’ve carried with us from previous relationships; it’s a collection of artifacts from our past experiences. This alone is valuable, because it means we’ve lived through things. It means we’ve been willing to experience connection; we’ve let ourselves play—or, perhaps, at times do battle—in the relationship arena, and we have the scars to prove it. As it goes with anything in life, having experience can be a tremendous advantage, if we know what to do with it. When we tap into the rich repository of our relationship past, we can gain meaningful insight and the kind of clarity that can serve our relationships in countless ways.
2) It helps us learn about ourselves. Since our baggage is ours, looking at it naturally has us turn our gaze toward ourselves. Sometimes it’s tough to look at ourselves or revisit certain things, but if we know how to do it, it can be really useful. The point of exploring our baggage isn’t to beat ourselves up or anguish over things that can’t be undone. It’s to deepen our awareness of the way we approach our relationships. If we choose to, we can use our baggage to help us identify core beliefs about relationships that may not be serving us, or to identify certain patterns in the way we relate. If we can take a direct and honest—yet still compassionate—look at ourselves, we can turn our baggage into a means of knowing ourselves more deeply.
3) It puts us in touch with our triggers. Our past predisposes us to experience our relationships a certain way. Sometimes, something happens that pokes an old wound or triggers an emotional reaction. That’s when our baggage becomes most apparent. If we don’t address it, the unresolved material from our past will set us up to re-experience things we’ve experienced before. This can be deeply painful and extremely confusing. Take, for example, someone who was once cheated on and is now triggered to paranoia or panic every time his partner picks up her cellphone. This can be torturous and totally destructive; it’s certainly some burdensome baggage to carry. But it can also present an opportunity to recognize a significant trigger and mindfully look for ways to cope with it. When we can hold our baggage up to the light of our conscious awareness, we can use it to manage our reactions with more awareness and grace.
4) It lets us do things differently. Approaching our baggage with an eagerness to learn is a valuable practice we all should adopt. With an open mind and a willingness to break maladaptive patterns, we can use our baggage to strengthen our relationships. This is ultimately what that baggage is for: to enhance our understanding and give us a chance to do things differently. Our current and future partners don’t have to be saddled with the stuff we’ve gone through in our past; instead, they can be fortified by it. They can be the biggest beneficiaries of it. Because when we use our self-awareness to shift into new modes of being, we create deeper bonds and healthier, more stable relationships.
5) It guides the way to healing and growth. Over the years I’ve spent working as a therapist, I’ve come to see how damaging relationships can be. Most adults have had at least a couple of heartbreaks, and the pain of them can run deep. But the fact of the matter is, we can’t enjoy the spoils of intimacy and connection without taking the risk of feeling heartache and loss from time to time. The key is to recognize that although we might get hurt sometimes, we don’t have to carry around that hurt forever. When we own and examine our baggage, we get in touch with the parts of ourselves that need healing and open ourselves up to tremendous growth—the kind that can transform us, and our relationships, for the absolute best.