I have the privilege of traveling a lot, mostly to judge dance competitions. I remember having a transformative moment of enlightenment once in a hotel elevator, of all places. The elevator was quite slow, slow enough for me to have this transformative experience that I’ll lay out for you here. All these thoughts happened in a matter of seconds.
I tend to overpack for travel. This impulse I think is driven by anxiety, or to be more accurate, a fear of experiencing anxiety should I get to my destination and then discover I am somehow unprepared in the clothes department. What if everyone wants to go to a fancy dinner? What if we hang out in someone’s room and order pizza but I only have two levels of outfit: business and pajamas with nothing in between? You know how stressful this kind of planning can be. So even though I was just traveling for the weekend, my travel bag was an incredibly heavy burden.
In the elevator, I happened to notice that I was doing something that struck me as incredibly odd. I was holding onto that heavy burden of baggage, wishing that the elevator would go faster. An internal voice chided me: “Put it down, stupid.” I set the weekend bag down on the elevator floor and waited.
I was struck by two feelings: first, the feeling of relief and freedom from setting down the bag, and, second, the overwhelming urge to immediately pick it back up again. Where was this second urge coming from?
I realized that several issues were coming into play in this one moment. There was an instinct to control the situation–that having the bag in my hand meant that it was clearly in my possession (not that there was any threat, mind you). But also, there was a level of anticipatory anxiety as I approached my floor. I felt I needed to be ready to escape the elevator the moment the doors opened and that to reach down and pick up my bag might cost me valuable milliseconds.
Another thought occurred to me on that brief but significant elevator ride. I became aware of the effort that it takes the elevator to lift a person (and their luggage) to another floor. And somehow, I thought that I might be helping to ease that burden by holding that bag in my hand rather than letting it rest on the elevator floor. My next thought was “That doesn’t make any sense,” because the weight transported by the elevator was the same whether I held the bag or set it down. It didn’t matter to the elevator (not that the elevator is a sentient being anyway). But I somehow felt that, ingrained in me from somewhere was this old belief that I should carry a burden that was my responsibility, whether that made sense of not. That I had packed that bag and it was now my job to carry it.
I realize how dramatic this minor situation sounds as I recount the thoughts in my head, but I share this with you because it’s a perfect microcosmic example of thought processes that occur to use over bigger and more important situations.
Worry, anxiety, fear, pressure, all those negative feelings are like my overstuffed weekend bag. They are heavy, they take a lot of work to carry around. And, perhaps most significantly, we feel a duty to carry them with us, even if they serve no purpose. Why do we carry that extra weight around?
I think it stems from some kind of false belief that we are more in control if our baggage is firmly in our possession. With those negative feelings of worry and anxiety, perhaps those are such familiar possessions to us that to set them down on the ground feels like a foreign and uncomfortable act. I always need to know my phone is in my possession. Are we the same with our negative emotions? We clutch them desperately, afraid we might be caught without them or some thief might make off with them the moment we let them out of our tight grasp. Note to self: let the thief take the anxiety.
Just like I feel the need to be holding the bag the moment the elevator doors open on my floor, we worry that some unexpected situation will arise and we will be left without our anxieties ready to go. I suppose that means that we believe they serve us somehow. But, really, anxieties do not serve us at all. They burden us. They inhibit our internal resources like our intelligence and creativity. They cause us to carry extra weight around that we don’t need. Set the bag down.
Perhaps even worse, we somehow feel that we have a duty to carry around negative emotions. Just like I had the misguided (though momentary) belief that I should shoulder the burden of my bag since I packed it, we often feel that negative emotions such as anxiety or worry or fear are our burdens to carry around. Often, they have become such familiar pieces of baggage that we cause ourselves more anxiety should we make the effort to set them down.
We simply need to make the effort to become more familiar with the positive sensations of relief, lightness, and freedom that become possible when we set down the baggage. And resist the urge to pick it back up.
We can practice becoming comfortable with the freedom and lightness that comes from relieving ourselves of that burden, at least temporarily. And then, when that positive sensation becomes more familiar to us, we might find it becoming more permanent.
While it takes a conscious effort on my part (practice so to speak) to just set my bag down for the elevator ride, I realize that it takes conscious effort to put down our negative emotions as well.
Put it down. You’ll be free from the burden. And the elevator won’t mind.
In one critically important sense, this metaphor fails because unlike baggage for a weekend trip, we are NEVER going to need our negative emotions. That’s baggage that we can toss out for good!