What’s the difference between being “right” and being “happy?” Could you be sabotaging your relationships without realizing it?
At 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.
Unable 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.
Do 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. 😛
How do you stop smuggling?
There’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!