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How are You Smuggling Your Emotions?

What’s the difference between being “right” and being “happy?” Could you be sabotaging your relationships without realizing it?

donkeyAt the border between two South American countries, a patrolman stops a man with a donkey. He acknowledges the man and lets him proceed without suspicion. The next day he does the same thing, finding it odd that the man traveled through two days in a row. By the third day the patrolman is officially suspicious and asks the man, “Are you smuggling something?” The man denies that he is. He says, “Hey – check me, check the donkey. You aren’t going to find anything.” The patrolman checks the man, checks the donkey and, finding nothing, says, “Okay, but you better not be smuggling anything.”

This same thing goes on for a week, a month, a year. Every day the same man with a donkey crosses the border, and every day the same patrolman  – convinced that the man is smuggling – asks the same question, “Are you smuggling something?” Every day the man says, “Check me, check the donkey,” and every day the patrolman finds nothing.

After twenty years of this same dance, the patrolman tells the man with the donkey, “Look, I’m retiring today. I know you’ve been smuggling something every day for twenties years, but I can’t figure out what it is. This is my last day – if you tell me I PROMISE I won’t reveal it to anyone else. But you HAVE to tell me if you’ve been smuggling, and what it is.”

The man with the donkey says, “You promise? You won’t tell your replacement?”

The patrolman promises on his mother’s grave.

The man with the donkey says, “I can’t believe you haven’t guessed already. I’m smuggling donkeys!”

This story was told to me by a mentor of mine, and I find it a charming metaphor for any attempt we make to hide things in the open.  In the context it was taught to me, my mentor explained that we smuggle our personal issues which we haven’t yet taken care of (or sometimes even addressed!) passed other people all the time. And we get so good at it that the people in our lives don’t even think to look for them.

For example, I read a statistic recently that said over 40% of couples fight over how to load the dishwasher. While this may seem relatively petty, it’s serious business to anyone convinced their strategy for playing Plate Tetris is the superior way. There are a lot of different reasons why the dishwasher can be a platform for frustration, but if my household is any indication of how these things play out I’d say dollars-to-donuts most people are frustrated by something totally unrelated.

dishwasherUnable to understand or communicate this frustration, stacking dishes after dinner suddenly takes on a whole new meaning. It’s not really about whether or not the forks and spoons absolutely should be placed in their own basket (making unloading easier) or absolutely should be mixed together in each basket (thus preventing utensil ‘spooning’ and decreased washing quality). This is just a safe red herring. It’s far more likely to be about not being able to pay the rent in five days, or that we haven’t had sex in a week and I’m feeling undesirable, or that I’m in a fight with a family member which has nothing to do with you but you’re safe and I can yell at you knowing you’ll still be there at the end of the day.

These are all smuggles. We smuggle what’s really going on with us in every day mundane occurrences, and we get really REALLY good at it. To a point where we almost fool ourselves, though somewhere underneath it all our brains know better. This is why we feel like assholes when we smuggle, and then we smuggle that feeling, too. It can get into a pretty vicious downward spiral.

How do you know when you’re smuggling?

The best way to identify a ‘donkey smuggle’ is to notice when your reaction to a situation is disproportionate to the cause. For example, if you lose your shit at a toothpaste tube that hasn’t been properly capped (or squeezed from the bottom, or [fill in maddening toothpaste behavior here])… you’re undoubtedly smuggling something.

Some people have been smuggling for so long they no longer have a proper sense of what ‘disproportionate’ looks like. Screaming, yelling, losing their mind over the small stuff doesn’t seem to be that big of a deal.

It IS a big deal.

Any amount of tension you have in any relationship tests it, and there’s a threshold at which it will snap. Now, there is very legitimate tension when you and your partner (or friend, or family member) walk through issues for the purpose of solving and growing from them. Doing inner work isn’t easy, and some really icky stuff will often rise to the surface. Pretending a relationship is always going to be roses is ridiculous, and that’s perfect fodder for smuggling. “It’s all okay, there’s no problems!” is what you say when you’re either coming from or going toward a nervous breakdown.

However, if you use yelling and fighting as a standard, daily way of interacting then you’ve lost touch with what is ‘proportionate’. The first step is to recalibrate to what is appropriate, and if you grew up in a household of yelling it may be a real struggle for you.

respect your mateDo you know anyone with a relationship you really admire? Maybe a couple that have been together for a while and still seem to be truly in love? Are they kind to each other, and talk with respect? Ask them if you can shadow them for a day. Request they be themselves as much as possible and observe what they’re like in a moment of tension. Most loving couples aren’t quick to accuse each other, take the role of a victim or feel entitled to a self-indulgent shout.

It’s important to have a properly calibrated instrument since you’ll be using ‘disproportionate’ as your primary gauge for smuggling. Meaning – if you start shouting about the little stuff, you know you’re smuggling something underneath that is struggling to be heard and get out.

I’ll use myself as an example. I have a strained relationship with my parents and it’s been a source of profound sadness for me for a few years. Since I reasoned I couldn’t sit around and feel sorry for myself, I shelved any trauma I felt and decided I would address it/heal from it slowly over time. While this has been a good strategy for me overall and I’ve healed from it quite a bit, it also means there’s an open loop of pain inside of me that isn’t entirely resolved. While I continue to heal from it slowly, I have to keep a close eye on it if I suddenly feel depressed or angry. Since the relationship with my parents is so fragile, I’m likely to feel that the actual source of pain – that relationship – is too delicate to blast anger at. And that’s perfect fodder for smuggling.

My poor husband has been on the receiving end of these smuggles. My personal flavor of smuggling tends to look like a soul-draining, energy-sucking self-loathing (with a big side of fatalistic pessimism) and less like an all-out anger-fest. If my issues with my parents make me feel unloved, I’ll smuggle that donkey in the open by accusing him of not loving me. (It gets really ridiculous – I’ll accuse him of not loving me while he rubs my shoulders after making me dinner.)

There’s nothing worse than pouring love on someone and have them deadpan reject it – that breaks up marriages all the time. If we as a couple didn’t recognize a smuggle when we saw it, this could be a truly toxic poison that could destroy our relationship. Knowing it’s a smuggle, though, arms us with information. When I start going down this road Joel can identify the pattern and ask if I’m ready to talk about my feelings about my parents. Since I know it’s a smuggle, I don’t bite his head off for ‘misdirecting’. I recognize I’M the one misdirecting, and he’s diagnosing accurately.

He has his smuggles, too, but I’ll let him reveal his when he has own blog. 😛

RELATED: 9 Toxic Behaviors That Suck the Life Out of You

How do you stop smuggling?

tea kettleThere’s good news and bad news. The ‘bad news’ is that smuggling seems to be a universal strategy, and I’m not sure I know anyone personally that doesn’t smuggle on some level. It’s the result of having something bigger than we can currently handle, while all the time building internal steam that needs to be released. None of us are immune, and completely stopping the strategy doesn’t really seem to be in the cards.

The good news is that ‘donkey smuggling’ can be an amazing guide for development and growth. Some of our issues are so big and scary our mind goes to extraordinary lengths to hide them in the shadows, chain them to walls in the deepest recesses of our minds. Hitting them head-on can be challenging to say the least, and in some cases almost impossible. Smuggles aren’t just there to let off steam, they also can provide cookie crumb trails to things that don’t want us to see them directly.

A smuggle can be the best clue to an issue you don’t even know you have.

It’s also some of the most rewarding and tiring inner work you’ll ever do. Why tiring? You have to do what most people can’t even dream of doing: you have to realize that just about every moment of oh-so-satisfying righteous indignation in just about every fight was actually a smoke screen for your emotional immaturity. Or, simply put, all those times you were convinced you were RIGHT, you weren’t. You were being a big baby.

The key to the whole enchilada is asking yourself the question “Would I rather be RIGHT, or would I rather be HAPPY?” The only way to solving the Conundrum of the Smuggle is to answer “happy.” “Right” will get you nowhere.

What did you smuggle today? Leave a comment!

About Antonia Dodge

Seeing how people tick is at the heart of Antonia’s natural ability to understand how people systems work. She is an author, thought leader, coach, trainer, systems thinker, and personality profiling expert.  At the age of 15 Antonia picked up a book on personality psychology and her world changed forever. She began to see the patterns of why people do what they do – not based on behavior alone – but based on how the mind works. Antonia has co-developed a 6-month profiler training course that teaches coaches and business professionals how to "speed read" people, understand how their mind works and and then work with the unique personality for achievement, life purpose, or team building.
  • André

    It may sound silly, but just before Whitney Houston died, in a vision she showed me her feelings and that she couldn’t go on no more and decided to really give up. Until these past days, I did not understand her message, but I do know now. Smuggling the urgent need of love or being loved by the one you really desire to be with, is a really big smuggle. I really love to hear Whitney’s version of : “I will always love you” and a week ago, I saw that she was born on the 9th of August 1963. Very close to mine. From my perspective, we both have the same way of feeling towards love and we are endangered to give up ourselves completely, with destructive consequences. To my fortune, some 3 years ago, I started working and tried to find a way to change this wrong attitude. I believe now, that I’ve come pretty far and for sure it saved my life. A possibility to find a way to get rid of the smuggling is to let light shine through your complete being/awareness, then you will see where it goes wrong. Be patient on yourself. Pretend you are looking at a crystal,
    when investigating yourself, the dark places or where there is a shadow are the spots to work on. Put your love right and quit a lot of all the other smugglers will disappear. And you know what: They lived happily ever after………..

  • Janet

    Hi Antonia,
    In the first place, I was raised in a “I’m Right & you are most likely wrong…let me prove it!’ family… So my take is that if you choose right over happy, then only half the time or way less will you be right,.. or will you at all?

    I just went to watch Braco in Portland this weekewnd.
    (The Dali Lama was in the same hotel!~)
    I find that when bathed in the intense feeling of love, kindness, compassion, purity and joy the donkey just vanish. Over time watching the BracoTV strewaming, I have found a less stressful way of releasing those wild donkeys!

    250,000 others a year have found this valuable also. Each person finds their own niche!
    Thanks~ Janetwin

  • Beautifully written Antonia. I often find that my smuggles point to an unmet emotional need (mostly attachment related).

    The whole field of Attachment Theory parallels nicely with smuggling. You may be interested in reading the book, ATTACHED by Amir Levine.

    Love ya

  • Dear Antonia,

    I am always appreciative of your insights and musings. Your posting on “Smuggling” hits home with me today as I recall coming home from a difficult time in taking care of elderly 92 year-old parents and going absolutely, “bat-shit” crazy on a neighbor who picked me up at the airport.

    My time of intense care-taking with parents found me on a path of loving service, but the resentment of a life-time of “perceived” caring for everyone else, and receiving little in return sent me into a spiral of deep-seated rage. I was unaware of my smuggled emotions until my neighbor picked me up late at the airport and then instead of taking me directly home after my cross-country daylong flight, with me being bone-weary and depleted, she insisted on going on some out-of-the way errands before we would return home (me – after a month-long absence). My intense reaction to her pronouncement ignited a flurry of emotionally-loaded barbs and nasty accusations.

    I realized two things in that exchange: I was holding on to grudges and resentments that took place between my neighbor and me, and I was not acknowledging my lifetime pattern of behavior where I set up my own silly martyrdom. I did things for others on a regular basis to feel good and to control the situation.

    Being right? Oh yes, I always was “right” in my mind. “Happy?” – not hardly. And, thus, this incident was the beginning of illuminating my subconscious resentments and hurts, and childhood behaviors that developed to cope with this. As an elder myself, it was time to look at all of this and begin to choose my path to happiness. About time, right?

    Thank you!!

    • sarah m

      I so identify with the concept, behaviors and your comment in particular. Long story short, I never had the opportunity to be an actual child, 5 kids, alcoholism, front line combat vet father etc. After years of my own self destruction, gaurded with expert smuggling skills I knew nothing of, I was forced (and blessed) to have to get to know myself. Years of exhausting, frightening and intense work with many angels put in my path has kept me alive and given me moments of truth, absent the need to be right, and belief that there is indeed such a thing as happiness. Yet i must have a laugh at myself,as I so often still catch myself crawling defensively back to the percieved safety of smuggling and “big baby-dom”
      Thank you

  • Let me please smuggle another perspective to this presented subject. Yourself and your partner having chosen the path of awareness and most certainly by that attracting a list of people with the same intentions of being probably where already introduced to the experience of creating your own reality. Since I have integrated this experience into the way I relate to any manifestation being my reality which will include any level of awareness and all spectrum of consciousness my state of being is of a big baby 🙂 meaning by that a sense of curiosity and ability to allow the synchronisation of my being with all eventualities regardless conceptual judgements, emotional state or physical sensations. Experiencing on all dimensions the Cocreation involved in any circumstances you are experiencing as your reality integrated with the way all other involved in this reality and the way they are experiencing it. I sometimes can observe myself acting in a way and in the same time experiencing my inner critic, my emotional anticipations and my physical reaction while the background understanding/realisation that is already translated to experience is “whatever is happening now is an accurate merging of all vibrational fields available manifesting through your own unique composition of being, it is the gift you are offering to this moment in all lives”

  • Very nice!!! BRAVO!

  • Chohan

    I read the article thoroughly. The example of the “Donkey Smuggle” is commendable. The way the patrolman could not notice the smuggle of donkey for the past 20 years so our thoughts are smuggled unnoticed either to your own mind or to the minds of others. The learned author through various explanations has built up her case that being happy is important to life than to asserting being right. When we assert for being right the fragile minds explode with the load of excessive steam of our thoughts. Thus, the relations break.I fully endorse the views and the expressions of the wise author.She always gives good lessons to teach the way of happy life. My regards to her.

  • SF

    Thanks ! Happy it was for me afterwards, when she blew up the smuggle to me. Reflection of her anger was an enormous accusing mirror of herself (I though) and resulted in me walking away for good and as she requested. I did wondered about right and wrong…. Maybe I was the her stubborn donkey ? I hope she will face it or I might need to otherwise.

  • Marie Melite Kaajan

    Dearest Antonia, ho how I can relate to that feeling of parents, I always felt adopted, and have never been one with the family. I have managed to smuggle with people, sometimes I feel ashamed, but it works for me. Like I would Tel them the very truth about something meaning very word ! As a bit of a comedian, they will laugh themselves in a frenzy. That is
    when my party starts, as the smuggling works well, the last laugh is usually mine.Just don’t be mean.

    It was with
    Gratitude that my son and his wife had an incident, that he recommended her to phone me. As I had a lifetime of rejection,I could give her the best advice. Be extra nice to nasty people, not for them-for yourself ! Overcome the human hurts, set your goals and go towards them, as nasty people stay nasty, but see that you can propel yourself and move to greatness that is what you were born to achieve. They entered America with 2 suitcases very little money, had to sleep on someones flat floor. Now 8 years later they had some red carpet events. Will people in who’s flat they slept, appreciate it ? No as they are just where they where 8 years ago… Think about peoples reactions, and fetch your dream ! With giftedness we still need encouragement and appreciation and love !

    Love, Marie Melite

  • Angie

    “you have to realize that just about every moment of oh-so-satisfying righteous indignation in just about every fight was actually a smoke screen for your emotional immaturity”

    Brilliant. I do love that moment of indignation but its always fun to discover how long it takes me to recognize it was silly & apologize. Thanks for the post 🙂

  • Dreasan

    I believe that I have smuggled discontent into my present relationship. Someone is going to get arrested, tried and convicted, and then imprisoned and it isn’t going to be me!

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