Are you carrying around feelings and memories from your past that no longer serve you? Do you have fears and anxieties that stem from bad experiences in the past that always come up in your relationships? Do you find yourself with a great partner, only to sabotage the relationship by becoming too paranoid or insecure? If so, you might be carrying around some emotional baggage.
If emotional baggage is impacting your happiness and well-being, you’re in the right place. In this article, we’ll help you develop a better understanding of what emotional baggage is, where it comes from, how it impacts your life, and what you can do to understand how to let go of emotional baggage for good.
What is emotional baggage?
All of us carry around at least a little bit of emotional baggage. For some of us, our baggage is light, and it doesn’t always negatively impact our relationships. However, some of us have heavy baggage to carry and makes us feel exhausted, isolated, and afraid for our future.
Emotional baggage is a term that refers to unresolved emotional issues from our past. It may stem from distressing or frightening childhood experiences or a series of unhealthy relationships. It may relate to how we were raised, or it could stem from instances of abuse or infidelity by partners from the past.
Wherever it comes from for each individual, baggage can be difficult to release. Though few of us would admit it, we have a tendency to wear our pain and hardships on our sleeves as an identity badge. We identify as someone who was cheated on or someone who was hurt. We tell ourselves our own story over and over and solidify it in our minds. Sometimes letting go of the past is tough because we identify so strongly with it, and we fear a lost sense of self and the unknown if we were to truly let go.
On the other hand, traumatic experiences can mold themselves deep into our psyche. According to trauma experts Peter Levine and Bessel van der Kolk, the impact of trauma is such that its memory gets stuck in the body, stored deep within the implicit memory of the nervous system. It remains dormant there until it is resolved and released.
In The Invisible Lion, British psychologist Benjamin Fry explains in simple terms the way that unresolved past experiences, which he terms ‘unfinished business,’ get stuck in the body. When something frightening or disturbing happens to us, our nervous system reacts with its hardwired threat response. We enter fight or flight, if escape or victory is possible, against the threat. If feeling or fighting are not viable options, we enter a third threat response – freeze.
This set of nervous system threat responses is present in all mammals. In most other animals, the freeze response looks like feigned death. A gazelle or a possum might die to prevent themselves from being further attacked or eaten. When the threat passes, they leave their freeze response and return to normal.
The human freeze response is a little different. We don’t play dead but instead dissociate. We retreat to some safe space in our minds where the threat cannot reach us. The problem is that when we freeze, we might not come out of it. We may stick in that frozen state for long after the threat has passed. The result is that we react to events today not in the present, but as though they were that same threat from the past happening all over again.
Causes and examples of emotional baggage
A cheating partner
Past relationships are a common source of emotional baggage. For example, if your ex-partner cheated on you multiple times, but you only found out months after the relationship had already ended. You may not have had the chance to vent your feelings to that person and fully process how you feel about what they did.
Those feelings and emotions might linger within your mind, even if they’re not so obvious. You might move through months or a year or two of being single and perhaps occasionally feel angry or upset when that memory comes up, but not lose your focus on your day-to-day life when it does.
However, once you enter a new relationship, you might find yourself inundated with memories of your former cheating partner and start to suspect that the same thing will happen with your new partner. As a result, you become possessive, paranoid, and even invasive of your new partner’s privacy.
Of course, this is not always the case for those who have been cheated on. Still, the above example shows a possible outcome of carrying unresolved emotional pain from a past relationship and how it can manifest later on.
Insecure attachment is the original source of emotional baggage. The term insecure attachment refers to one of four attachment styles theorized by attachment researchers John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth in the second half of the twentieth century. Below we will take a look at the secure and insecure attachment. If you would like to read more about Attachment Theory, there is a wealth of resources available online.
When babies are born until around 3-5 years old, they develop what is known as attachment style. Suppose the primary caregiver (usually, but not always, the mother) can consistently meet the baby’s need for food, attention, and affection and respond in good time to their cries and other signals of distress.
In that case, that baby will likely form a secure attachment style, in which they learn how to trust and have hope. Young children who develop a secure attachment style typically go on to have healthy relationships in adult life, relatively free from childhood emotional pain.
However, if a caregiver fails to meet the baby’s physical and emotional needs or does so inconsistently, that baby is likely to develop an insecure attachment style. They may become dismissive of their caregiver whenever they do respond to the distress signals or panic and show even greater signs of distress when the caregiver is not around.
Insecure attachment creates an attachment rupture, which buries itself in the child’s psyche and may stay with them all the way into adulthood. In adult relationships, people with an insecure attachment style may show tendencies such as obsessiveness, possessiveness, dismissiveness or neglect, anxiety, and paranoia.
Do I have emotional baggage?
Since all of us carry around at least a little baggage, it would be unusual if you were to have none whatsoever. However, some people’s load is heavier than others, and the weight of heavy baggage becomes apparent over time. Baggage can show up and manifest in many different ways. One of the greatest provocations of our emotional baggage is a relationship with another person.
When we enter relationships, romantic relationships, in particular, we become vulnerable. Sooner or later, we begin to let our guard down around our new partner. Our troubles, fears, and even our projections start rising to the surface. We feel the all too familiar anxiety that comes from anticipating our partner’s rejection of our true selves.
If you’re carrying around a lot of emotional baggage from your past, whether it came from a hurtful childhood, a narcissistic or neglectful parent, or an abusive ex-partner, the remnants of those echo experiences might still echo and even amplify when you find yourself in an intimate relationship.
You may be wondering if you have emotional baggage. It’s not always easy to identify, since many behaviors and perspectives that stem from held baggage we typically attribute to our ‘unique’ or ‘quirky’ personality, but rather they are ways we learned to survive our distressing past experiences, such as childhood abuse or narcissistic manipulation.
Understanding and being able to recognize the signs of emotional baggage ultimately helps you move forward. As with all things mental health, learning about an issue and developing the ability to recognize it is usually the first step on the path to health, recovery, and happiness.
What are some signs of emotional baggage?
Emotional baggage can manifest in several ways. It can rise to the surface in many life situations, such as in our family, work, friendships, or romantic relationships. Navigating your way through life with baggage weighing you down can be tricky, but one of the first steps to releasing it is recognizing that it’s there.
Below are some of the common signs and symptoms that indicate you’ve been carrying your baggage for too long.
- Paranoia: suspicion about your partner, obsessing over what they’re doing and who they’re with
- Guilt: Feeling guilty for prioritizing your wants and needs over those of others
- Projection: believing that your partner or someone else is out to get you or betray you even if they’ve shown no signs of such an agenda
- Negative thoughts: low self-esteem, low self-worth
- Fear of commitment: avoiding intimacy in closeness in relationships, usually out of fear of later rejection or abandonment
- Emotional walls: not allowing a friend or partner to get too close to you, fear of being vulnerable
How to let go of emotional baggage for good
Often our baggage gets the better of us before we realize what’s happening. Something triggers the baggage, and we enter a state of reactivity. This is where many unhealthy conflicts, defense mechanisms, and projections come out to play.
To get the upper hand on your baggage and prepare yourself to ultimately release it, practice becoming aware of what’s happening in your mind and body when you get triggered. For example, if your baggage relates to harsh self-criticism from a parent when you were younger.
Perhaps they constantly criticized your intelligence and decision-making skills, making you feel stupid – then you might feel triggered if someone new, perhaps your partner or a coworker, criticizes you or questions why you do something one way instead of another.
In such a case, it would help to take a moment before you react. Step back, breathe, and acknowledge that what has just happened reminds you of an upsetting experience. Take a mental note (or write in a journal) about all the sensations you feel in your body. Do you feel tense? Hot? Shaky? Teary?
Noticing our reaction to triggers helps eventually overcome them. We can begin to acknowledge our reactions as our own and take ownership over them. We don’t have to spray out all that negative energy onto the other person and end up making things worse. We can simply acknowledge to ourselves that we’ve been triggered and take a moment to breathe and find our center.
The more you practice self-awareness, whether you’ve been triggered or not, the easier it will become to recognize all of your potential triggers. Eventually, you’ll be able to anticipate when a potential trigger is about to happen and better prepare yourself to deal with it.
Another key part of self-awareness is diving into the source of our emotional pain. In the example above, we looked at how harsh self-criticism from a parent as a child can reduce one’s ability to take criticism in their adult life. Similarly, a parent’s neglect or inconsistent meeting of a child’s needs can lead to that child fearing abandonment and becoming anxious in their adult relationships.
The more you learn to recognize the source of your baggage, the less reactive and more grounded you will become in the present day. Your relationships will likely improve as a result because you will have learned to own your emotions and healthily contain them, rather than suppressing and shutting yourself down or becoming over-reactive and hurting your friend or partner.
Accept how you feel
Many of us feel guilty for having negative emotions. We tell ourselves that we’re supposed to be positive, happy, and easy-going and berate ourselves for not adhering to that unrealistic expectation. As mentioned, all of us carry at least a little emotional baggage, so it’s completely natural to feel sad, paranoid, or even project some issues onto others every now again.
Sitting with difficult emotions is no easy feat. We tend to push away or suppress unpleasant emotions, but that only exacerbates them in the long term. Instead, practice sitting with your emotions and allowing them to exist. It might seem counterintuitive since your goal is to let go of them. Acceptance is a prerequisite to letting go. The further we push them down or the harder we try to escape, the stronger their grip.
Resolve the past if possible
It’s not always possible to confront those who hurt us in the past. Sometimes we hold onto our emotional baggage for so long that the person or people involved are no longer around. Perhaps you’re not in contact with them anymore (for good reason), or perhaps they’re parents, but they’ve since passed away.
Still, if the person or people who abused you emotionally and caused you pain in the past are still in your life, it might be worth speaking to them about how you feel. For example, let your mother know if you struggle to take criticism today because of how she treated you when you were younger. She might resist such a confrontation and berate you for bringing up the past, but if you need to get something off your chest, then it’s vitally important to do so.
However, confronting those who were a cause of hurt in the past is not always a wise option. Sometimes they’re still the same as they were before, perhaps they lack the emotional maturity to admit that they were wrong and talking to them might lead to more frustration. It’s up to you to discern whether a confrontation is wise or if it would be best to take an alternative approach.
Remember that if something is deeply bothering you and impacting your current relationships and your life in general, you can seek professional help. Don’t be afraid to speak to a counselor or therapist about what you’re going through.
There are many evidence-based psychotherapeutic modalities led by licensed therapists that help clients safely explore their past issues and begin to work through them effectively. A therapist can also help you develop healthy coping skills and self-management techniques to prevent your past emotional baggage from impacting your life today.
Finally, let go
The process of letting go of our emotional baggage takes time and patience. So much of our baggage has been weighing it down for so long that to release it all at once would be overwhelming. Remember to be kind and compassionate to yourself on your journey to emotional health because that is your responsibility to yourself.