I just returned last night from a short weekend trip. As I was frantically navigating the airport gauntlet, jumping onto trains and dodging other passengers desperately trying to get to my gate, my shoulders began barking in agony. Turns out, my trusty carry-on, a hanging bag that I’ve had for nearly 20 years, is on its last leg. Carrying that bag with its broken handle and poorly padded shoulder strap painfully reminded me of two things about us:

1. We’ve all got bags that we carry around with us through life with many of us using the same bags our parents’ used (we carry the same patterns or dysfunctions).

2. Those bags might have done the trick early on, but they often become bulky, worn-out and sometimes painful to carry later in our lives (as our lives become more complex, our baggage can not only get in the way but cause a lot more damage to ourselves and others).

Let me share with you two stories that nicely illustrate how our “old bags” can be limiting as we try to make our way to our “terminal” (can you tell I’m liking this analogy?).

Darlene’s Story

Darlene grew up in a very unstable household. Her mother was very distant and her dad suffered from untreated Bi-Polar disorder. Darlene was left to take care of her dad while her mom worked and largely distanced herself from the household dynamic. Darlene became uniquely adept at managing dad’s emotions. When he would get agitated, she knew how to calm him down. When he became depressed she could always be counted on to perk him up. Somewhere in the back of Darlene’s mind, she got tremendous meaning out of “saving” dad. Even further back in her mind, she thought she could one day save him from his illness if she could be good enough – perfect enough.

Fast forward. Darlene married a man suffering from Bi-Polar disorder as she repeated the pattern she started with her dad. Even more interestingly, throughout Darlene’s career she was attracted to working with larger-than-life entrepreneurs. She had several roles working for unstable bosses that she was uniquely equipped to emotionally manage. Sounds like a good fit for Darlene given her background, right? Wrong. In the end, she found herself caught up in multiple co-dependent relationships with emotionally needy and unstable individuals counting on her (her husband, her boss, etc…). Oh, and those unstable bosses also tended to cross ethical and legal lines in moments of desperation. Ultimately, Darlene found herself and her reputation in very dangerous and precarious positions (professionally and personally).

Sanchit’s Story

Sanchit had a challenging childhood with its own forms of instability. The oldest of five children, Sanchit saw his parents struggle to make ends meet and ultimately divorce. Sanchit watched all this unfold and concluded that in the end, you can’t count on others. Others are simply threats to be managed. One’s best strategy is to be on the offensive and hold as much control as possible over others.

Sanchit chose “risk management” for a career. In particular, he went into the credit lending profession for small businesses that were struggling. Sanchit was uniquely good at what he did. He could tell who was going to default and he always knew how to catch them in the act. The problem? Sanchit thought everyone was eventually out to get him. He was critical of anyone and everyone in his life – his spouse, his kids, his employees, and even his good customers. He believed that unless he was watching and judging everyone like a hawk, even the best people around him would turn on him eventually. If he didn’t stop soon, he was going to be losing a whole lot more than he wanted to. Ironically, Sanchit was running the risk of repeating the story he was so desperately trying to prevent from becoming a reality.

The Dysfunction

Just like my old ratty carry on, we all carry those “familiar” bags with us trying desperately to make them work. We repeat patterns in our lives that we are familiar with little thought to how those patterns typically play out in the end. Ultimately, if we aren’t careful, our baggage (our patterns) can lead us down some devastating paths. Darlene found herself sucked into the delusion that she could save others from themselves – costing her her own identity. Sanchit created scenarios that supported his belief that everyone was out to get him – costing him stability and trusting relationships, the same pattern his parents had to face.

The Treatment

In order to get rid of those old bags and start new, you have to do a few things first:

1. Look at all the jobs you’ve had. Is there a pattern of dysfunction that you are drawn to? Consider both the kinds of organizations you work for as well as the types of roles you’ve selected.

2. Where does that pattern come from? Where did that story first start for you and what were the beliefs that you formed about life and your role in life? Think back to your family dynamics growing up.

3. What do you get out of continuing to perpetuate that story? What does it cost you?

4. Given your answers to the above, what do you want to do? You could continue to choose the pattern you’ve lived out or you can make a change. It’s never too late.

We all are given “bags” as we enter into adulthood. Sometimes those bags work just fine and carry everything that we need. Other times, they are bulky and cumbersome digging into our skin as we try to drag them along the floor.

I’ll end with this great moment from last night that sums it all up. As I was finally making my way across the boarding ramp and onto the plane, the flight attendant whispered to me, “See that woman down there. She is convinced she can fit her bag into that overhead bin. Look, now she’s got another passenger helping her and they are pushing and pulling at her bag. I told her it wouldn’t fit but rather than check it, she was convinced she was going to make it fit. All she’s going to get accomplished is a torn rotator cuff. I promise that will cost more than $25 (the fee for checking a bag).”

Are you about to tear something trying to make your bag fit? Ditch the old bags and get something that’s more comfortable. I promise you’ll be happier in the long run.