Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Always Check Their Baggage

Always check their baggage. No, I'm not training you to be a TSA agent. This is much more important than that.

Old luggage - source: Wikimedia Commons

I regularly see online memes exhorting me to get rid of the negative people in my life so I'll be happier or at least less stressed and annoyed. Yes, that's good advice, but it's not always easy to pick out which people to distance yourself from. Some are obvious - the ones who bully you, who take advantage of your good will, who take without ever giving. Others are not so easy to identify. Step one: check their baggage.

Everyone (you and me included) has two types of baggage, metaphorically speaking: the stuff we carry around inside ourselves and the people we accumulate around us. Yes, people can be a kind of baggage as well. Stay with me here and I'll explain.

First, the 'interior baggage.' No, you can't make everyone take a personality test before you befriend them. But as you get to know someone, you can look for signs that they are seeking more from you than just friendship. Do they give you gifts or lend you items over and over, keeping themselves in your good graces, as if they were eventually expecting something from you? A romantic interest who brings you flowers is one thing; a casual friend who brings you an item to add to your favorite collection or a new book to borrow every time they see you is another. This is one that caught me by surprise, not once but twice (since then, I've learned to pay attention). It's actually a marketing technique, though the people doing it may not be using it that consciously.

The point of enlightenment, for me, was realizing that these people were expecting me to 'pay back' their generosity in ways I wasn't comfortable with. I'm not saying you should automatically drop anyone who gives you gifts; just pay attention to the implications of the situation. The other person might be expecting you to enter into a relationship with them in some form - be their student, or teacher, or lover - or pay them back with a job opportunity or other beneficial situation. This is underhanded manipulation, whether the person doing it realizes it or not (it's amazing how much we do that we don't even admit to ourselves). Best to back off and let them find another target for their 'generosity.'

Gift box - Source: Wikimedia Commons

Then there are the people who want you to 'save' them. You may not realize it until you have invested a great deal of time and energy in the relationship, and often these folks don't even know they're doing it. What do I mean by someone wanting you to save them?

We all go through rough times in life, times when we need a shoulder to lean on. That's what friends are for. But some people never manage to lift themselves up out of the hole, so to speak, and expect someone else to do it for them. Someone who can't let go of grief after years and years, or whose life regularly falls apart socially or financially (or both), or who is so wounded they can't manage a relationship - these people may seek a savior. Yes, we all need help sometimes, and friends can be as valuable as trained professionals in many cases, but a person you must continually bail out emotionally or financially, who needs constant support and encouragement and can never seem to get ahead for themselves, is a problem.

I have a friend who calls this sort of person a 'project,' in other words, someone you need to work on so they can improve. If you have the emotional wherewithal and the time and energy for them, then that's all right. But most of us don't. And here's the thing: many of these people have no intention of actually moving forward in their lives. They are stuck, for whatever reason, and go from person to person seeking a savior to fix their lives for them. And in the process, they drain us. They use up our time, our energy, our goodwill and our emotional (and sometimes financial) reserves.

Sometimes it's hard to identify people like this, and it's even harder to step away from them because we feel sorry for them. They are experts at attracting sympathy and pity. It's not unusual to feel like you're a bad person for dropping someone like this from your life. But believe me, you're better off in the long run if you do.

Now for the exterior baggage: the other people each friend brings into your life.

Open air crowd - Source: Wikimedia Commons

We don't often consider our friends' wider circles of acquaintances as baggage, but in a way they are. The other people they bring into your life affect you and may change your quality of life. Here's a simple example: You add a friend on Facebook, maybe someone you've recently met in real life. They seem perfectly nice in person, though you haven't spent much time with them yet. But their posts in your News Feed are full of their friends having inflammatory arguments. If you comment on any of it, you become the target of the ire. Maybe you can't even ask a question without someone suggesting you have a lower-than-average intelligence. Not a good situation. You have a fresh headache before you've even finished your morning coffee.

In this case, you could simply delete this person's Facebook posts from your News Feed. And if you only see them, and not their friends, in social situations, it might work out all right. But consider this: your new friend thinks this kind of behavior is acceptable. They may even enjoy the drama and the flame wars. How are you going to interact with them over time, especially if there's a chance you may meet some of their extended circle of friends in person? Will you be able to relax around them and be friendly or will you always be on your guard, concerned that you'll become the center of a firestorm simply for making a casual comment? Maybe it's best to back off and find friends who don't collect such drama-prone people in their lives. They're out there, I promise.

Ultimately, it's not as easy to clean up your circle of friends as a Facebook meme would have you believe. But it's possible, and the process will help you clarify what you really want out of the people you know, and what you're willing to give them. There's a lot of pressure on us (women in particular) to be friends with anyone who asks and help them whenever they need it, but we need to value ourselves enough to know where to draw the line. That way, when our friends need our shoulder to lean on, we'll have the strength to hold them up.