Despite what this title would suggest, this is not a warning from the TSA or Metro (see something, say something). It’s not folks’ actual bags that I’m concerned about, but their emotional ones. And I’m suggesting, asking really—that, unless they belong to you, put them down.
I think I’ve resisted writing about this topic in the past because it’s somewhat nuanced, and much easier to explain in person than in a simple blog post. But considering how rampant this problem is, I thought it might be helpful to give it a shot. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you stop caring about other people’s feelings, or not consider how your actions or words impact others. What I am advocating for is we each accept accountability for our own emotions, instead of trying to take them on for someone else.
For example, my husband and I recently endured a rather arduous home-buying process. At points along the journey, each of was stressed about various issues that arose. Often, we wanted the other person to feel what we were feeling, to experience the problem in the same way that we were. We would say something like, “aren’t you worried about the new mortgage payment,” or “don’t you think that kitchen is too small?” The phrasing seems fairly innocuous, but there’s actually two things happening under the surface here: 1) we’re implying that the other person should feel a certain way (don’t you…) and 2) we’re not fully admitting or accepting responsibility for our own feelings around the issue. Instead of saying, “I am worried about the new mortgage payment,” and starting the conversation from an honest place, we begin the discussion by trying to force the other person to take our position.
In other words, as opposed to accepting that the other person might feel differently, we make them feel defensive for not sharing our emotional experience. Of course, this phenomenon does not only occur in marriage. In fact, the true maestros of passing the feelings bag are our mothers. Our moms can lead us into carrying their emotions with a deftness that rivals that of ballerinas. Often, we don’t even realize we’re doing it. For instance, instead of saying, “I would really like to see you at Christmas,” a mom might say, “aren’t you going to miss us if you don’t come home?” Instead of owning the fact that she feels hurt and disappointed that you’re not making the trip, she shifts that emotion onto you, and puts you on the defensive. (Obviously I have no personal experience with this scenario…)
I could go into a long segue about why I believe moms of adult children are often guilty of this, but that’s for another post. The point is, we each should bear the burden of recognizing and communicating our emotions. It is not the job of our child or parent or lover or whomever to anticipate or even feel the same way as us. Read on as I discuss how we can avoid, or at least exit these scenarios.
Start by Not Being a Bag Passer Yourself
Of course, this begins with us. We have to start by taking a clear inventory of how we actually feel about a situation, preferably before the conversation with our loved one. Once we do know how we feel, we often avoid stating our emotions plainly because we’re uncertain as to how they’ll be received, or don’t want to risk being vulnerable. But, speaking as a therapist, if I could tell you how much heartbreak you would save yourself and your loved ones by speaking in an honest, direct (and respectful) manner…well, I won’t say I wouldn’t have a job, but my workload would certainly be lighter. No one does this perfectly all the time, but if you can learn to at least recognize when you’re doing it and change gears, it makes a big difference.
For instance, I have said, mid-conversation (or argument), ‘you know what, I was scared to before, but I should have been more direct about how I feel. Can we start over?’ It really can be that simple; typically, the person appreciates that you’re no longer putting them on the defensive, and that you are making your own case for whatever plan or goal you’re advocating.
Confront the Other Person
If someone has tried to pass their emotions onto you, gently but firmly call them out on it. You don’t have to be a jerk, but you can say something like, “I’m actually not feeling [ ], but I’m wondering if you are? Maybe you can tell me about your concern?” Depending on who you’re talking to, this may have various degrees of success in the moment, but if you do it repeatedly, it will make it much more difficult for the person to hand you their emotional luggage. They’ll ultimate realize that strategy does not work with you and will be forced to do something else. Hopefully that something else will be communicating more honestly about how they feel. At the very least you’ll model more effective communication, and set the boundary for what you are and aren’t willing to take on emotionally.
Probably my chief goal as a therapist is to help others become more comfortable with being open about what they really feel and think. I don’t know anyone who does this all the time, and certainly there are spaces where it is not safe to do so. But, with those whom we care about and trust, when we start from an authentic self, when we show who we are and what we feel, that is when connection and healing begin. Your feelings are yours. Don’t force them onto someone else, and don’t take them when they don’t belong to you.