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December is the time of year conducive to looking back at the year that was, a time for a little bit of soul searching and summarizing what went well and what could be improved upon. Psychologist, Katrzyna Popiołek, Associate Professor at SWPS University in Katowice, uses a suitcase metaphor to help you go through this process.

The Suitcase Rule - What is it?

The suitcase rule, though not a part of school curriculum, is well known to everyone from experience. The rule consists of several truths:

  1. The only items you can unpack from the suitcase are those that you have put there earlier.
  2. If you keep adding things to the suitcase, it becomes fuller and fuller.
  3. A suitcase packed to the brim, loses its original shape.
  4. Tightly packed suitcase becomes cumbersome and too heavy to carry.
  5. An overstuffed suitcase will burst open sooner or later.
  6. It will probably happen when you least expect it.
  7. As the consequence, the contents of the suitcase will spill out and lay bare (often in front of random audience).
  8. When it happens, you may be surprised and ashamed.
  9. And you may wish that many of the things that have become visible, never found its way to the suitcase in the first place.

Why the Suitcase Metaphor?

Because of pre-holiday cleaning and decluttering. Throughout your life, you keep adding to your emotional baggage. You select some items carefully, giving it a lot of thought, while others are thrown in at random and chaotically. The baggage is growing and you drag it along.

Most of the time, you avoid looking inside the suitcase. However, now is the time to review the contents of your luggage and repack it, before it bursts open and drowns you in negative emotions and past hurts. The emotional baggage often explodes in a bad moment or when you had one too many at a party.

What does spill out when it happens? Bad relationships from the past, unforgiven hurts, problems, mistakes, and unmet expectations. It is very hard to carry this load with you all the time. Therefore, forgive yourself and others.

Nobody is perfect. People learn from their mistakes. There is no other way around it. Look at your mistakes the way Thomas Edison did. After hundreds of failed attempts to produce a lightbulb, he said that these attempts were not failures, but hundreds of valuable pieces of information on how not to make a lightbulb.

It’s Hard to Forgive and Forget

Other people are not perfect either. They also make mistakes, so forgive them. The past is the past. It continues to bother you, because you did not remove it from the suitcase and you keep reopening old wounds. Why?

Life is not a walk in the park and other people are mere mortals, not angels. Regardless of these difficulties, life is still an interesting journey. You must admit it. There are many unexpected events and plot twists, just like in an action movie. Sometimes sunshine, sometimes rain - it is a natural way of things.

In bad times, rely on your friends, and repeat by Wisława Szymborska (a Polish Nobel Prize winner for poetry):

Why do we treat the fleeting day
with so much needless fear and sorrow?
It's in its nature not to stay
Today is always gone tomorrow.*

*translated by Stanislaw Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh

Share good times with other people

Holidays may be the most wonderful time of the year, but sometimes also a difficult time, because your holidays may not look like the images of perfect Christmas presented in the media. However, it can still be a magical time, if you try to make a nice gesture or send a warm signal towards at least one person. Do not get discouraged, if you do not receive a reply. Try again. Someone will respond. Do not forget about the people, who are less fortunate than you and who might need your help or your presence.

Do not think that only a stable and loving relationship can provide happiness. Fleeting moments of close encounters with others, a meaningful conversation with people met by accident may also be very valuable, if you know how to appreciate them. If you are feeling blue and do not see a way out of a difficult situation, follow the words of Viktor Emil Frankl, who wrote about horrible times in his life: “It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.” When you change your perspective, you will notice many possibilities.

So, let’s repack our suitcase, throw away the useless baggage and start the holiday season with a much lighter heart.

The Polish version of this article appeared in Śląski Magazyn STYLE.

258 Katarzyna Popiolek


Associate Professor Katarzyna Popiołek – social psychologist, academic lecturer, Dean of Katowice Faculty of Psychology. Her professional interests include relationships, psychological support, determinants of close relationships. And perception of time and its consequences. Human behavior in crisis situations. She authored over 100 publications. As an educator and expert Professor Popiołek, often appears in the media to popularize psychological knowledge and to provide expert commentaries.
In 2012, she was awarded a Platynowy laur Pro Publico Bono [Platinum Laurel Pro Publico Bono] for her engagement in the local community in Silesia. In 2016, she was in the top ten most influential women of Silesia.

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