The Suitcase of Pain: Facing the consequences of ignoring painful problems

When I was growing up, my dad had a battered old brown suitcase under his desk. It was full of unopened bills.  Pretty much every time a windowed envelope arrived that looked like a bill, it went straight into the suitcase. He never opened those letters. Ever.


My dad was an Anglican priest at that time and we were poor. Money was always an issue. Eating out was a really big deal (whatever you do, don’t ask for a second drink!). There were four children in the family and we cost a lot to keep.


So every now and then debt collectors would rock up at the front door and Dad would be forced to deal with his debts. He never had the upper hand because he had lost total control of the situation. The situation controlled him. He also had to deal with the terrible and painful shame that went with having strangers turn up on the doorstep asking him to pay his bills.


Dad hid it well most of the time. We kids didn’t know what was going on; but as I got older I worked it out. I overheard the conversations with the strangers; I felt Dad’s shame and despair at having been caught out again.


It didn’t make sense to me because Dad was one of the toughest people I knew. In his younger years he had been a farmer. He knew how to hold his own; he was strong, intelligent and well read. He was passionate about his work and his favourite football team (Norwood Football Club); he seemed to be in control of his life. He was also our Dad, he was meant to know how to deal with this stuff and we trusted him to be on top of everything.


But when it came to money, he was hopeless. He didn’t know what to do to change the situation and he was too ashamed to ask for help. So the debt collectors kept coming to our house imposing the rules on him and that just magnified his sense of shame.


For many managers and leaders there are situations that they too just don’t deal with. They have their own old suitcases full of problems that they don’t know what to do with. They won’t open the suitcase because it’s too painful and they won’t ask for help because they’re “managers” and they should know how to deal with this stuff. So they continue to walk past the suitcase of pain.


Ignoring the suitcase of pain means that from time to time you will get caught out; that someone will make a formal complaint about that inappropriate behaviour you are ignoring; that a valued staff member will leave the team because of the problems with staff culture; that the bully will bully you into doing something you usually wouldn’t do and you then have to justify your inappropriate behaviour.


We all have a suitcase of pain. We all have some area in our lives that we don’t want to deal with; that we push down, ignore. But we also know that this one thing is always going to raise its ugly head at some stage and remind us that we have lost control of the situation once again.


Opening the suitcase and dealing with the issues that we keep in there may be painful, confronting and stressful; but it can also be cathartic and rewarding. We take control of the situation; rather than the situation taking control of us.


We have the upper hand and the power when we manage the issue. We give our power away when we pretend there isn’t an issue. We will always get caught out.


Call me if you need help to open your suitcase. We can share notes.

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