We tend to make light of our emotional baggage, through self-deprecating jokes or a nonchalant shrug of the shoulder, as if to say, “It is what it is.” But when we keep repeating unhealthy patterns of behavior, the emotional backlash that comes from making the same poor choices over and over again compounds and, suddenly, our emotional baggage isn’t so funny anymore.
But what is emotional baggage? And how do we stop said proverbial baggage from getting too heavy? We’ve enlisted the help of mental health experts to find out what can be categorized as emotional baggage, why it’s weighing us down, and what we can do to lighten the load.
“Emotional baggage can be defined as unprocessed emotions from past experiences, which often have a negative effect on our current thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and relationships,” says Dr. Nakita O’Leary, Clinical Psychologist at Lighthouse Arabia.
It’s human nature to be influenced by our past experiences and have those past experiences affect the way we perceive and respond to any new interactions or experiences. But the difference, for example, between having a bad day and emotional baggage is that the latter doesn’t disappear after a good night’s sleep or a little distance from the situation. Rather, when left undealt with, our emotional baggage gets heavier in small increments until, before we know it, our bags are so full that everything spills out.
When left undealt with, our emotional baggage gets heavier in small increments until, before we know it, our bags are so full that everything spills out.
“We all have bad days; we wake up late, the kids misbehave, we get stuck in traffic, we are late to work, we argue with our spouse, etc. These bad days can make us feel frustrated, angry, sad, annoyed, disappointed, and stressed out. It is normal to have these temporary negative feelings in reaction to the daily challenges of life. Often, these emotions pass as the day improves or by the following day,” says Dr. O’Leary. “Emotional baggage is different. The emotions associated with it are more intense; they have been with us for longer and can influence how we think, feel, and behave whether bad things are happening in our day or not.”
Over time, emotional baggage can even affect our health.
According to Dr. Tanya Dharamshi, Clinical Director and Counseling Psychologist at Priory Wellbeing Centre Dubai, our minds have a direct effect on our bodies. “Our brain can be considered ‘the command center.’ The medulla and the cerebellum are both part of the brain stem. The medulla is responsible for muscle movement, posture and balance, heart rate, breathing, wake and sleep cycles, digestion, vomiting, and swallowing. The medulla has a direct relation to the cerebrum, which is responsible for our reasoning, emotions, and speech. It also houses the amygdala – the tiny brain structure that registers emotions, particularly fear and anxiety. When we are unable to process our emotions, over time, areas of our brain are impacted and we end up with general health conditions such as heart disease and sleep irregularities,” she says.
Emotional baggage also stops us from making healthy lifestyle choices, according to a study by the North-Trøndelag University College in Norway. The study found that participants with substantial emotional baggage were stuck in old habits and found it difficult to change their lifestyle.
So why do we hold onto so much “stuff”?
“When we do not have the tools, time, or people to help us process emotionally challenging moments in our lives, they can get stuck within us. Sometimes, we bury them or bottle them up in an effort not to feel them anymore. These bottled-up emotions then become emotional baggage. We unintentionally carry this baggage from the past around with us, and it can be heavy and get in the way of us living our lives the way we want to,” says Dr. O’Leary.
Emotional baggage can show up in our lives in many ways. That includes via a range of emotions such as fear, anger, judgement, regret, guilt, or insecurities, says Dr. Dharamshi. “We know we are carrying these emotions when we try and move forward in life, but feel stuck or unable to move because we still carry these emotions within us.”
Dr. O’Leary suggests going through the following checklist of emotions to gauge if you’ve got some unresolved emotional baggage.
- Anger: becoming extremely angry in situations that do not warrant such a reaction, finding it hard to calm down after being angered.
- Fear: feeling physically anxious for what seems like no reason, worrying about things that are out of our control, avoiding social situations.
- Guilt: beating ourselves up over choices we have made in the past, or punishing ourselves for past behaviors.
- Shame: believing that we are unworthy as a person, not allowing ourselves to succeed or to be cared for by others because we think we do not deserve it.
- Regret: living in the past, wishing we could go back and change things, missing out on the here and now.
Relationships, work, and our social life are all affected by our emotional baggage. When the same problems keep popping up with different people, when we have unwarranted distrust, when we find ourselves reliving painful memories years later and find that they still have the power to ruin our mood, when we feel like we haven’t gotten closure or truly moved on from past relationships, when we obsess about an argument or a breakup in our minds – all of these are examples of emotional baggage. The problem with it is that, when we do not process our emotions in a healthy way, we never truly move past the issues that continuously hold us down in various aspects of our lives. We become handicapped by our hang-ups.
But imagine what it would be like if we could let go of that really heavy imaginary bag that carries all our issues? Visualize the instant relief when that bag is no longer on your back. You’d finally have the liberty to move freely, without any emotional encumberments.
“Carrying around emotional baggage can be physically and mentally exhausting. It can make us feel low in mood, tired, and anxious. It can prevent us from achieving what we want to in our work, home, and social lives. Emotional baggage can keep us stuck in unhealthy patterns of behaviors, such as being friends with people who do not make us feel good or who are a bad influence on us. It shows up in our relationships, clouding our judgement and getting in the way of us connecting with those we care about. Emotional baggage is also more likely to lead us to make bad choices for our health and wellbeing,” Dr. O’Leary says.
It’s not a great way to live. The good news, however, is that it’s not irreparable. All it takes is a willingness to roll up our sleeves and get a little dirty. The payoff means less havoc in our lives and better posture. Metaphorically speaking.
Here’s a list of ways to free yourself of your emotional baggage.
Notice where you feel stuck in life and be honest with yourself about what emotions may be holding you back. You could try writing down how you feel in a personal journal, talking to your spouse, friend, or family member, or simply acknowledging to yourself that you may have some emotional baggage to deal with.
Accept it and be kind to yourself.
Remember that we all have some emotional baggage; some people’s baggage is just bigger than others depending on their life experiences. You did not choose to have it; it has come about because of some kind of emotionally challenging situation you have been through. You need to accept your past as it is and accept that it cannot be changed. However, you can choose to do something about how it affects you now, so that it has less impact on your life moving forward.
If you know what past experience or experiences caused your emotional baggage, make a practical list of ways you can think of overcoming it. You may be able to address the issue directly by talking to the people who hurt you, by facing your biggest fears, or by simply writing it down. Writing everything you are thinking in your mind (for example those times you feel unworthy, when you are having a one-sided argument with your partner, when you feel you’ve been let down) helps you tangibly see your emotional baggage and process it better. Working on loving yourself also helps to change how you relate to your loved ones and builds up your confidence. Taking a course in a new skill to help you manage the particular issue that caused your emotional baggage, or that your emotional baggage is getting in the way of, is also helpful.
Take a break.
If you find that you are overreacting to things that are happening in your life now, due to the emotional baggage you are carrying around from the past, give yourself time and space from whatever triggered your current overreaction. Walking away, taking deep breaths, and having time to think about how your emotional baggage might be clouding your judgement can allow you to put it to one side when you come back to deal with the matter at hand.
Try yoga or other types of exercise.
It can sometimes feel like our emotional baggage has stored itself in parts of our body. Yoga and general exercises are great ways to temporarily release some of the physical tension it causes. Massages are good for this too.
Forgiving people who have wronged you and letting go of the desire for revenge can free you from the emotional baggage caused by the pain of their wrongdoing. Also, forgiving yourself for past mistakes is central to moving on and not letting that guilt carry over.
Practicing living in the present moment with full awareness helps to reduce the impact that emotional baggage has on your daily thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Mindfulness is a great tool as it forces us to focus on the here and now and on our current emotions, rather than the past.
Seek professional support.
Psychologists are experts in emotions. They can help you to understand your emotional baggage, where it came from, and how it is affecting your work, social life, and relationships with others. Psychologists can help you process challenging emotions and deal with difficult life circumstances in the present. They do this in a way that allows you to feel connected to your emotions and able to manage them without bottling them up.