As human beings, we tend to take on the emotions and perspectives of our friends, family, and colleagues, and we tend to place our own on them in exchange. For everyone, it can feel like carrying extra weight.
Psychotherapist, Holly A. Schneider, describes how to manage such burdens in her new book, Carry Your Own Backpack: Simple Tools to Help You Live Peacefully. On Author Hour today, Holly discusses the importance of boundaries, why sharing your truth isn’t always a good thing, and how to cope with the common disorder of being a human being.
Jane Stogdill: Hi Author Hour listeners. I’m here today with Holly A. Schneider, author of Carry Your Own Backpack: Simple Tools to Help You Live Peacefully. Holly, thank you so much for being with us today.
Holly A. Schneider: Thank you for having me, I really appreciate the time.
Philosophy of the Backpack
Jane Stogdill: What is the philosophy of the backpack?
Holly A. Schneider: I’m going to give you a little backstory before I share that with you. When I was a clinician in an outpatient clinic, which I had done for many years, I started using this principle of how we carry what belongs to us to help people set emotional boundaries. I worked in outpatient mental health doing something called DBT groups, dialectical behavioral therapy groups, and a lot of the people coming into the group really struggled with what other people said, how other people thought about them, and they would rumble over, “Why did this person say this to me?”
I used an analogy with them that went kind of like this, “If you and I met up in a coffee shop and we were sharing time together, when it was time for you to go, you would pick up your belongings and I’d pick up mine. You wouldn’t steal my backpack that has my phone, my computer, my books in it, and I wouldn’t take yours because it’s stealing. But whenever we leave somebody and we’re frustrated or triggered by them, we put their perception, their thoughts, their feelings, their ideas in our backpack, and then we emotionally carry that around.”
I shared this philosophy with my clients, and they would refer to it as, “Oh wow, I didn’t put that in my backpack, I met with my sister-in-law and she was really triggering for me because she said this but I decided not to put it in my backpack.” I continued to really mull over this idea of how useful this phrase would be. When I was hired at a local organization, I started sharing this philosophy, and because we all see each other on a regular basis, it just went viral.
People were talking left and right about, “Wow, I didn’t put that person’s reaction in my backpack last night,” or, “My husband said this to me and I was able to take that out of my backpack and not focus on that.”
Those phrases started happening all the time, so that really inspired me to put this in written form because so many people were using this term. I was hearing it daily, and then they would come back to me and say, “Hey, I shared your backpack philosophy with my partner, and they took it to work and now they’re using the term.” It became so common in my day-to-day life that I was encouraged to put it in book form.
Jane Stogdill: Okay, great. The idea is the stuff in the backpack is all emotional?
Holly A. Schneider: Yes, it’s what you think, what you feel, what you choose to do, your perceptions of the situation, the values that you carry, the expectations that you hold, those items are all things that we sometimes take personally from other people. When you can separate that and say, “Hey, these belong to me, this is what I think about the situation, this is what I feel,” you can focus on what you carry, and you let other people carry the same thing, there is a freedom that comes that I think, creates peace. When you don’t have to worry about what that other person meant or felt, you can ask, “Hey, what did you think about that or what did you mean by that?” But it stops the assumption that happens and the bias that we carry that our perspective is the only perspective.
Jane Stogdill: Tell me more about that idea, perspective.
Holly A. Schneider: Yeah, our perspective is based on how we’re raised. It’s based on the thoughts that you’ve had, it’s based on the experiences, good and bad, that you have grown with over time. We tend as human beings, as very flawed human beings to see things only through our own lens.
If I’m sitting down with a group of friends and I am sharing a view that I might have, if somebody says, “I don’t agree with that, I don’t think that’s correct.” You have the option of recognizing, well, that backpack carries different thoughts and experiences, and values than the one you carry. You don’t have to take that personally, you can ask about it and say, “Well, tell me more about how you see things.”
Rather than leaving that situation, putting their view in your backpack, and harboring negative feelings or insecurities in the way that experience happened. Not allowing that to trigger you, or allowing that to take over your negative thoughts in your mind and drive insecurities that don’t need to be there.
Jane Stogdill: Yeah, it’s bringing me to my next question. You write a lot about boundaries and the role they play and the backpack. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Holly A. Schneider: Yeah, boundaries are where you basically begin and where it’s your thoughts of who you are and how you see things, it’s a limitation that’s different from how other people see things. We say, it’s where you end and somebody else begins. There’s a line that’s there and we don’t all have the same boundaries, but what I’ve seen in my clinical work over many, many years is there are a lot of people who have really poor boundaries.
They speak their truth in every given situation, we do this on social media, we do this in interactions with our friends, and it’s your opinion about things, and knowing when that opinion is asked for and when it’s appropriate to give, and when you sit and listen and just hear and learn from other people.
Your boundaries have to do with how you communicate, with what you take personally, with what you say yes to, and what you say no to.
I call all the three areas of a concept in my book called the wellness GPA and that’s your thoughts, your reactions emotionally, your feelings that live in your body, and it’s your choices. All of those you’re responsible for and you need to understand clearly because if you don’t, you start to compare yourself to other people and you drive your choices based on potential insecurities about what others think of you or feel about you.
Jane Stogdill: Okay, as a result of having taken on some of their perspectives into your backpack?
Holly A. Schneider: Correct, absolutely.
Jane Stogdill: How do you advise your patients to manage boundaries?
Holly A. Schneider: We start typically with understanding what your values are because your alignment with your values is the key to wellbeing. Instead of in the moment, feelings or reactions, thoughts that might be riddled with insecurities or habits that are driven by the expectations of other people but they might not be aligned with how you really want to be, and your values. Your compass is your set of values that allow you to be in your absolute best self.
One of the things I’ll have people do is I’ll have them make me what I call a BVS list. A BVS list is your best version of self. Who are you in your absolute best self? What are the beliefs that you have? How do you react to people, what are you trying to accomplish, what are the goals you’re trying to accomplish?
When people start to work on their best version of self list, they have the ability to create that alignment. When they are triggered, they now develop the boundaries not to confuse that with what everybody else carries.
Intention and Time
Jane Stogdill: You said something earlier that is sticking with me about speaking your truth because I feel like we hear that phrase a lot in regards to being told that we should, and it sounds like you’re saying maybe that’s not always the case.
Holly A. Schneider: Right, I think we get that confused. It’s a really great question because I think people will sometimes have a justification story about why they spoke their truth. But one of the tools in my book is, in order to know if you are actually aligned with your compass, your values, your backpack, you have to examine intention and time.
If you look at your intention, “Why am I saying what I’m saying, why am I sharing this opinion or this belief right now?” That’s really critical because you could take a situation where you just had an argument maybe with your partner and said some really horrible things, and the justification story you have in your brain is, “Well, I was speaking my truth,” and that’s a dangerous situation because your truth isn’t the only truth.
If you examine your intention first and say, “When I’m communicating this truth to somebody, am I in my best self? What is my intention in sharing this?” If your intention is to be right, that’s not a healthy intention. If it’s, “I am going to share what my belief is so that somebody understands me, and equally at the same time, I’m going to search for that in them.” You have a really good intention because it’s about connection, it’s about closeness, rather than being right.
The story you give yourself is really critical in your brain because you need to have that moment with yourself that aligns with your intention, that’s important.
The other piece I always share is that of time. Anytime we’re in binary thinking, all or nothing, we tend to run into trouble. If every time in a social situation somebody disagrees with me, I have to share my truth, and I have to be heard, that’s a time element.
If I never share my truth, I am always silent and I always stuff my feelings inside, that’s also a red flag. But if I’m pretty skilled at knowing who my safe people are to really be able to open up and share what I believe, ask questions and disclose how I see things in any particular situation, that’s likely to be healthier.
Intention and time become partners in helping you reflect so that you are sharing your feelings and what belongs to you and hearing what belongs to others in a really healthy way.
Jane Stogdill: Thank you, that’s helpful. I want to ask you about the chapter, your backpack. You write in here about five rules or guidelines I guess, can you take us through those?
Holly A. Schneider: Yeah, absolutely. The five elements–number one, know your backpack, focus on you, not other people. That is really knowing what you carry, what belongs to you, and what doesn’t. Somebody else’s opinion about a situation, how they’re viewing it is really important as a basic principle.
Knowing your backpack is about understanding your past and what triggers you. What creates reactions for you or negative thinking for you? What has driven negative habits? Knowing your past and being really present in your now. What I find from a lot of people is they’re not very present. They’re thinking about what they’re doing next instead of being with the person who is in front of them.
It’s really a balancing act between understanding what bothers you, what triggers you and how you resolve and let go of things that don’t belong to you, how you stay present in your now, really connecting with authenticity, with the person who is in front of you, and really knowing your future, what are your goals? Are you keeping alignment with that best self growth? Because sometimes when we are frustrated or irritated or insecure, we lose that alignment quickly, and we are no longer responding in a way that’s in alignment with the values that we keep, so that’s the first element of knowing your backpack.
The second one is not comparing yourself to others. When we compare ourselves to others, we stop, we halter growth. I see that from people all the time. It is like a place where people get stuck. They start to worry about what other people think. They are making assumptions and errors in the way they see other people because what other people think of us is not really our business and it is not helpful to us.
When we start to focus on beating our own personal record that helps us. When my kids were young, I have three daughters, they’re all grown up and out of the house and living great wonderful lives. When they were young, they would run cross country and when they were running cross country, I would always remind them, “Don’t compare yourself to any other runner on the course. Compare your time to your last time. You just beat your personal record, you just grow from the last time you ran.”
I think when we do that in communication and in relationships–so if we have a big fight with, let’s say our child, our goal can’t be to worry about who is a better parent than us. It has to be, “How can I communicate next time in a way that’s better than the last argument that we had and how can I be open and honest about that growth pattern with the person who is in front of me encouraging their growth at the same time?” That’s not comparing yourself to others.
The third one is clean out your backpack. That’s really on a regular basis when we get stuck or hung up on things. We really struggle with hanging onto things sometimes or blocking because when it comes to wellness, the danger zones are when you block emotion, you put up a wall, and you don’t deal with it because it is going to keep coming back. You are actually carrying it in your backpack–when you attach to information and you carry that around repeatedly in your thinking all day long.
We get stuck and we really want to be able to examine what’s in your backpack. Take that out and know, “What am I going to do more of or less of tomorrow that helps me be even healthier and better?” That’s cleaning out your backpack. It is not hanging onto all the terrible things that have happened to you, and it is really resolving and directing those frustrations and those negative experiences from a place of hurt through a place of release where you can let go and move forward. That’s the third one.
The fourth one is when you’re tired, put your backpack down. That’s about resetting. Our backpacks get heavy. We have a lot going on. I don’t know if you feel that way Jane, but I feel that way all the time like I am always adding things to my backpack, and some days, I can barely keep my eyes open by 7 PM because there’s so much going on in my emotions and in my thinking and in what I am actually executing throughout the day.
It is important to have these reset moments where you take off your backpack and set it down and you reset, so that when you have to pick it back up and carry it again, you are carrying it with strength, not exhaustion.
Jane Stogdill: What are ways you can reset?
Holly A. Schneider: One of my favorite tools actually is that I will talk to people about that wellness GPA. The wellness GPA is all over my book, but it really covers the theme of that to reset is managing three areas in alignment.
They are managing your emotional life, so how you’re carrying emotion in your body that’s either going to be speeding up adrenalin or reducing adrenalin based on where you’re at. If I am plum exhausted and I can’t even stand, I’m so tired, what do I want to do? I want to sleep, right? Or shut down and sit and veg out on a couch watching Netflix for three hours. That’s actually not helpful. At the moment that we’re exhausted, we have to turn up our energy so that we can reset back into balance and when we are in anxiety or stress or high irritability, we have to slow down our adrenaline. Turn that down, sit, get quiet in stillness, slow down your heart rate, relax your muscles, slow that energy down. That’s part one.
After we do the body, then you can flip into the mind, and you have the ability to align what you are thinking with the energy system you want to take, and also make sure that your behavior is in alignment with that. For example, if I am super tired and it’s the middle of my day, it’s 15:00, I’m kind of digesting my food and I am getting slow, I can say, “Oh my goodness, I am so tired,” and if I say that over and over, “I’m so tired, I’m so tired,” how do you feel? Tired, right?
What I would do at that moment is I would find alignment with that wellness GPA. I would recognize, “Oh my energy is really low. I am going to have to speed up some energy. I am going to have to move around a little bit and create some more energy in my backpack so that I can feel good again.” Now, if I go for a walk and the whole time I am saying, “When is this day going to be over? I’m so tired, I’m beat. Is it only Wednesday? I wish it were Friday.”
Now, that movement is not in alignment. I have to actually move around and say, “You can do this girl. You know you’ve got superhuman strength. Sometimes you’ve been tired before, you’re going to create this energy and finish out the day strong because that’s exactly who you are.” Now, my mind is coming with my energy system, so I have the reaction part taken care of because I’m moving. That’s my body.
I have the mindset part coming along in alignment saying, “You’ve got this girl, go do this. This is who you are in your best self,” and I am actually going to get my butt out of the chair and go for the walk, and finish that walk and tie my energy internally with my mind and my behavior. That’s alignment, that’s exactly what I mean by reset.
The toolbox part of my book is really about doing things from all three sections, knowing the internal part, which are your thoughts or your feelings inside, and the energy you keep that lives in your body. It’s your mindset that deals with your thoughts, your internal dialogue, and your belief system, and your behavior, which are the things you actually do, and these are healthy habits to live your best life. So that’s how you communicate. That’s how often you move.
It might be what you do in your routine, the rituals that you do throughout your day that really keep that alignment so that you are in your best self. That’s resetting.
Then my last bullet point of the five was–wear your backpack securely without complaining. Complaining with your internal dialogue is where we go off-track. Nobody can see your internal dialogue but when we’re in a place of complaining, what we’re doing is reviewing the things that are going wrong.
The mantra that lives in my backpack is whatever you pay attention to grows. I’ve been saying that since I became a clinician back in 1993. What I say to myself all the time is the mantra, “My backpack is Holly. What are you paying attention to right now?” That is my reset mantra that allows me to wear my backpack regardless of the circumstances without complaining, because the goal is to love your life, not to wish you had a different life, not to complain about what’s going wrong, but to carry what you can securely because every bit of suffering we go through, every difficulty is a gift when you unwrap it.
It’s your chance to say, “What’s this teaching me? How is this growing me? How can I keep alignment at this moment, so I carry this in a way that I’m proud of?” That is wearing your backpack securely.
Changing the Way Things Are Done
Jane Stogdill: This has been such an interesting conversation, I am finding a lot in here that I need to start practicing myself.
Holly A. Schneider: I hope everybody feels that way. Jane, I’d like to share with you the story of how I came into my current organization, if that’s okay with you?
Several years ago, I was working with a client. He was coming to see me for significant losses that were going on in his life and we were using some of the backpack philosophy and the tools that I had shared in the book. He said to me, “I think you need to bring this information to my organization.”
I kind of chuckled, I laughed at him actually, and I was like, “Well, that was kind of cute.” Really, I’m not going to go and be in an organization. I’m an outpatient licensed clinician and at the time, I didn’t take him seriously, but over time he said, “No, no, no we need to change the way things are done in the workplace. There is so much stigma around mental health. People are so afraid to share their insecurities and be vulnerable and transparent. I really believe we can do something special here.” I agreed.
When he introduced me to his entire organization, he introduced me as his psychotherapist, who is now going to be available to each and every person in the company so that they are learning how to manage things at home. Because if you are healthier at home, you’re healthier at work and vice-versa. He has this openness to being transparent about what we’re really going through inside, so that we can lean into that quickly and apply tools and manage that situation in our absolute best self without harboring resentments and anger and frustrations, which interrupts your ability to do your job. And then you take it home and it interrupts your ability to manage your relationships at home.
What I found here is that this concept–and I teach people that everybody has a disorder, that they have the disorder of being a human being full of flaws, full of insecurities, and when we hide that or block that information or attach to it, we end up being either superior to other people or we end up having low self-esteem where we’re not as good as others. But when we can just talk about that openly, open up our backpacks and say, “Hey, this is what’s going on with me. I had a fight with my husband last night and I feel really crappy,” and we can open that up and ask, “Okay, what is this teaching you? What do you need to work on?” What was your part in your backpack, and you have to be really open and acknowledging and admitting the things you can lead, so that there is resolve instead of just a pattern of being unhappy?
We can do that in every aspect of life from our relationships personally, to our relationships in the community, to our relationship with self, and our relationships at work. We’re breaking down stigma.
I can walk down the hallway at work and somebody can peak their head out of a meeting that they’re in and they can say, “Hey, Holly, if you get a cancel, please get me in as soon as possible,” and they can do that in front of a room full of 12 people and there isn’t embarrassment about being open, about working on your mental health. I think that is one of the greatest gifts of me coming to this organization and being able to share my philosophy of the backpack, and the tools that belong in each and every one of our backpacks.
I just needed to share that with you because it is such a cool thing to see, coming from a place where everything was so quiet, and you have to be so careful about privacy. And although we have a HIPAA compliant way of doing that here, our organization really opens up the backpack to each other and we carry our backpacks securely.
Jane Stogdill: Wow, that’s fantastic. Hopefully, all organizations will follow suit.
Holly A. Schneider: Yeah, I would love that. I hope that my material helps people be willing to examine their backpack and be more open about the backpacks of other people too.
Jane Stogdill: Well Holly, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you. Again, listeners, the book is, Carry Your Own Backpack: Simple Tools to Help You Live Peacefully. Holly, in addition to reading the book, where can people go to learn more about you and your work?
Holly A. Schneider: Yes, people can go to carryyourownbackpack.com. They can find me on Instagram and Facebook. I have blogs and tools for people to use and share articles on various topics of mental health, and also a link to be able to buy my book.
Jane Stogdill: Great, thank you.
Holly A. Schneider: Thank you so much, Jane, it was a pleasure spending time with you.