Lose the Luggage

updated 03/29/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/29/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

Clinical psychologist Judith Sills had to cope with a little excess baggage of her own during the two years she spent writing the best-selling Excess Baggage: Getting Out of Your Own Way. "It was a difficult undertaking, "she says, "because its subject is self-defeat, and that's the source of a lot of pain for all of us." Part of the struggle for Sills, 45, is that she feels her ideas are out of sync with those of many of her colleagues. "I really dislike professional jargon, "she says. "And I believe that people are basically healthy, that most of us function as best we can. So that was my goal—to show readers enough of what's wonderful about them and then show them how they're making their own lives harder." The author of two previous self-help books, A Fine Romance and How to Stop Looking for Someone Perfect and Find Someone to Love, Sills got her doctorate from the New School for Social Research in New York City and now maintains a private practice in Philadelphia, where she lives with her husband, Lynn Hoffman, an assistant professor in hotel, restaurant, and institutional management at Drexel University, and their daughter, Spencer Maeve, 6. Sills spoke with senior writer Elizabeth Gleick.

What do you mean by "excess baggage"?

It's the source of those mistakes we make over and over again. In my private practice I see person after person coming in with the same complaints. They say, "I can't find a relationship; I'm stuck in a job I hate; my husband docs nothing around the house." OK, that's probably true. But if someone says, "Is he lazy, or am I a nag?" my answer is, "Honey, he's lazy; now let's talk about you being a nag." I want people to look at the things they do that exacerbate the situations—the part of each of us we can't quite see.

Don't these things vary a great deal from person to person?

In general, people are struggling with one or two of five basic blind spots. They are: needing to be right, feeling superior, dreading rejection, creating drama and cherishing rage. The reason these arc so tough to recognize in ourselves is that they are our strengths taken to excess.

Can you give some examples?

Well, the person who needs to be right is competent and organized. But it's one thing to need to be right when you're testing rocket fuel for NASA, quite another when you come home and don't allow your son to express an opinion. If you feel superior, your standards are so high that you—and everyone else—often fail to meet them.

People who dread rejection take loyalty to excess. They're scared to go after what life might offer them. For example, a woman who got married at 20 may stay in a marriage for 25 years just because it's there.

The person who creates drama lives to make emotional connections with other people. But he or she can make his or her life into a soap opera, being unable, for example, to make a decision without consulting a board of directors of their friends. And anyone of us can get caught by cherishing rage—whether it's a person who can't get past a real blow, like divorce, or someone who lives in a state of suspicion, seeing every small gesture as an insult.

How can people break these patterns?

You need to catch yourself in the act of tripping yourself up. So if you need to be right all the time, don't choose the movie, don't make all the plans. Or if your problem is feeling superior, puncture the bubble of your puffed-up, striving self: For example, don't say you've read the book when you read the book review. This way, you can get an idea of what it would feel like if you we're just you. If you tend to create drama, try disconnecting your answering machine or going shopping alone. My message is simple: Resist your impulses.

Isn't this just a quick fix? How can these exercises create fundamental change?

I strongly believe that most of us do not need years of restructuring. When you do these small things I suggest, the rewards are immediate. I hear people say all the lime, "I used to always tell my kid what to do, but I let il go." Well, that mom has a better relationship with her adult daughter than the one who didn't.

Do you then never face any excess baggage again? No. This is not about how to get perfect. But yes, you can slop doing what slowed you down. And when you stop, a new set of paths will open up. What you meet in yourself as you go down them will be another set of challenges. I see the world as layered with so much opportunity.

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