The Invisible Backpack

Acute crises and the burdens of illness and major life changes all impact our behavior in ways that can temporarily or permanently alter who we are. While this is an important thing to consider when you think about yourself, it can be even more important when you deal with other people. A friend who successfully has no evidence of disease after extensive treatment for ovarian cancer shared a phrase with me that she learned from another friend who was confronting a cancer diagnosis: everyone carries an invisible backpack. In other words, you never know what someone is carrying.

This idea of an invisible backpack immediately resonated with me as I reflected on my past mediation practice and my work with breast reconstruction patients. In those settings, I am mindful of the fact that the person I see may not be reflective of that individual’s premorbid state. Stressful, life-changing events can entirely alter personalities and coping mechanisms. In my practice, I have found that patients can be entirely different people after a divorce is finalized or after cancer treatment. As I turned what my friend had said over in my mind, I started to think about the broader implications, everyday of this idea, beyond the boundaries of divorce and cancer. After all, those are not the only challenges that exist in the world.

We cannot choose the people or situations that confront us, but we can choose how we respond to them. If someone is abrupt, agitated, or impolite, the natural reflex is to respond in kind. Unfortunately, this completely understandable impulse often escalates the situation and can lead to unnecessary arguments or altercations. While it is difficult, when met with this type of behavior, it truly serves us to take a beat, take a breath, and consider our response carefully. In most cases, the right response can diffuse a highly charged individual. We’ve all heard the expression, kill them with kindness. It is difficult for the offending individual to continue on their path if they are met with consistent kindness behavior that rises above their transgressions rather than engaging with them. To gather the patience you need in order to do this, remind yourself of the invisible backpack. Remember that you do not know its weight. The next time you’re greeted by a less-than-friendly merchant, cashier, phone operator, friend, colleague, teacher, or physician, consider their “invisible backpack” and that it may be heavier than usual that day. A gracious response that offers that person the benefit of the doubt may not only make the interaction easier for you, it may also help lighten that load just a little bit!

NYBRA Plastic Surgery's Mental Health Awareness Month: Accepting Unconscious Limitations blog with head vase and floating colorful flowers.

Mental Health Awareness Month: Accepting Unconscious Limitations

May 11, 2023

When you first experience a cancer diagnosis–or any type of trauma–it can feel as though you have been hit by a stun gun. You move…