As a social worker, I attend several conferences a year. Bowing to an underlying fear of not having the right outfit, I used to grossly over-pack.. For example, if I were attending a two day conference, my suitcase would likely contain:
Dresses for 2 days;
Pants for 2 days in case It rained or was windy;
6 blouses because I couldn’t decide;
1 back-up dress in case something malfunctioned on the planned one;
Back-up pants for the same reason;
Cardigan in case it was cold;
Jacket in case cardigan was too casual.
And then there was the lingerie, toiletry items, hair products, styling wands and vitamins etc.
AND A DIFFERENT BAG FOR SHOES.
A casual observer of my mountainous menagerie, would assume I was headed on a world tour rather than a 2 day conference.
But, I prided myself on being prepared
A mentor of mine gave me some advice several years ago. She had seen me struggling to load all the bags from my car into a hotel cart. After assisting me in loading them, she invited me to dinner that night.
During our meal, she asked me about the over-packing. When I complained about the hassle of dragging so much baggage around, she challenged my reasoning.
“All those items are not necessary and are causing you stress rather than relieving it.”
Surprise must have transformed my face. I told her that, as she was always so well put together, I had assumed she was a member of the over-packing club. She gave a small chuckle and said that she used to be.
“I found, however, that with a little strategic planning and a hand held steamer, I did not have to pack so much.”
She told me how she planned out her wardrobe for trips by selecting a few outfits and committing to them. By using the mix and match technique and the right accessories, she could totally transform the outfits into different looks for the duration of the trip.
I tried her method. She was right. Now I have learned to plan more thoughtfully so that I can pack light. The result of this change has been much less stress around traveling.
This concept can be applied to our personal/professional life as well.
We all have baggage. Maybe not literal suitcases but negative memories and unprocessed feelings that we have lugged around for years. We started packing our bags when we were just kids, adding every hurt. trauma or angry moment we experienced. Not able to process those negative events and work through them, we stored them in our mental suitcase. Layer by layer, the load grew.
Dragging multiple cases through an airport caused me to become frustrated and irritated, leaving me exhausted by the time I arrived at my destination. Similarly, dragging our internal baggage behind us can also lead to negative outcomes.
This can be especially apparent when working in a helping profession. I read an article this week on the prevalence of ACES in social service workers. ACES, for those not in the field are “Adverse Childhood Experiences”. These include, abuse, neglect, death of a loved one, domestic violence, drug abuse and alcoholism just to name a few.
The article concluded, citing published studies, that almost 60% of social service workers had experienced at least one ACE. Many had actually gone into the profession because of their ACEs with the mission to help others.
While I wont get into all the clinical inferences drawn, I will say that working with a traumatized population can be emotionally taxing for anyone. This toll is compounded if the social service worker still carries emotional baggage into the field.
Suppressed trauma can contribute to missed cues on assessments and a skewed view on appropriate behavior or acceptable parenting practices. I have seen this happen on more than one occasion with staff.
I an NOT saying that a less than perfect childhood makes you a bad social worker.
Not at all.
In fact, those experiences (recognized, addressed and processed through appropriately) can enhance your empathy and your ability to form collaborative partnerships with your families.
But suppressed, unaddressed trauma can become like an overstuffed suitcase, tethered to the worker, hampering their freedom in moving forward. Moreover, when faced with situations that were similar to their past experiences, the suppressed trauma could resurface, impeding their unbiased assessment of the situation and leading to a poor outcome.
Part of self-care is being present: being honest with yourself and knowing your limits.
Many of us have addressed and worked through our ACEs. It’s difficult to get a Master’s Degree in social work without learning about yourself and dealing with your baggage. But what about those who have been unwilling to unlock or unpack that part of your mind?
How do you unpack those experiences? How do you process them?
First of all you have to be aware of the internal conflict. Awareness that you are carrying excess baggage is the beginning of unpacking. Talk to someone. Your supervisor can be a good support for you during these professional dilemmas. If you are working a case that causes you conflict, he/she can reassign the case for their benefit and yours.
But you may also want to talk to a professional counselor to help you process your ACEs and work through them. Holding on to those events without processing them could be the thing that is weighing you down.
Letting go of past hurt and ACEs, can be very freeing to your inner peace but also to your professional life.
By taking steps to work through and fully process those events, exploring your feelings and cognitively shifting your thinking, you are learning to pack light. The freedom is real.