Whatever it is that’s brought you to Baggage Reclaim and got you exploring the subject of emotional unavailability and emotional baggage, if you want your circumstances to change and for you to break your pattern, you will need to become more emotionally available..
I’m going to assume that you have empathy or certainly the ability to develop it —some people don’t and are highly unlikely to be reading this!—and what I have listed below are next step suggestions for what to do now that you are aware of the issue, and all are about taking action. Some will involve you doing some research to find out more or to explore options for professional support.
There is no magic solution, so I can offer you nothing that is going to be the equivalent of being at one of those sermons where the person leaps out of their wheelchair and declares, “I can WALK!” Contrary to popular belief, nobody can make you spontaneously combust into an emotionally available person. You have to do the work.
Oh, and yes, before anyone asks, I have done everything on the list over the last 12 years!
Right, here we go!
1. Which emotions do you try to avoid or shut out? It might surprise you to know that there’s more than fear, anger, hurt and happy. Lots of shutting down causes numbness or even ‘deadness’. In a nutshell, here’s how emotional unavailability versus emotional availability works: When you don’t feel a range of emotions you act as if you have a switchboard where you can turn off the ones you don’t feel like feeling. In actuality, there’s one switch for all emotions, so if you switch off what you think is one or a few, you’re affecting the circuitry to all of them, limiting your ability to feel even the most joyous of emotions. It also confuses your emotions because avoiding some, intensifies others, while some get misinterpreted. It’s this reason why I hear from so many people who don’t know the difference between fear caused by underlying familiarity with a pattern… and attraction. You’ve got to feel to heal.
2. Keep a Feelings Diary. I’ve been teaching people to do this for more than a decade, and it works. Your emotions are there to help you, not hinder you. If you consistently have a sense of how you are feeling, not only do you become more conscious, aware and present, but you are not going to become overwhelmed by suppressed and repressed emotions. Download my free Feelings Diary Guide.
3. Work out your pattern. Write down a list of the positive and negative traits of past partners, and do the same for family members and anyone significant from childhood. Compare simulates and notice the themes. Remember that patterns occur when you’re living unconsciously hence by becoming more conscious, aware and present, including about recognising the things that you have been doing automatically and without questioning the relevance to your current self and life, you are already breaking patterns.
4. Arrange to see a therapist with the aim of helping you to heal from your past. Work with somebody who encourages you to talk and to take action. Or work with a coach (yes, I do offer coaching), or look at alternative therapy options if you’re open to that, or look up personal development workshops. Throw whatever you can at it. What works for you might be different to what works for someone else. If the net result is that you wind up happier and healthier, the method is irrelevant. I didn’t go down the therapy route, but many others have. I opted for the holistic approach because I was seriously unwell at the time and implemented boundaries and committed to healing for the sake of my health. I’ve been doing acupuncture for over 11 years, kinesiology for almost 12, plus I visit an osteopath. In committing to self-care and moving old stress and trauma out of my body, I have been plugged into me for almost 12 years.
5. Identify your Relationship Character. Who do you become when you’re attracted to somebody, or you begin dating or are in a relationship? Make a note of the things that you say, do and think, noting in particular, the things that are a real departure from who you really are and that also cause you to feel anxiety, resentment and even deep pain. Note what you avoid and the boundaries that you suddenly forget — this is your Relationship Character. Any role you play is a block to intimacy so losing the mask makes you emotionally available. Give him/her a name and a backstory. Now you can note where he/she shows up and why, so that you can become more conscious, aware and present, plus you can compassionately but firmly tell them to have a seat.
6. Identify your common frustrations including the things that you consistently complain about —these are all things that you need to be and do for yourself. If it frustrates you that partners, friends etc., are always indecisive, examine your indecision. If you find that you’re consistently invalidated, where are you invalidating you in your attempts to gain their validation? If you feel unheard, where are you not listening to you?
7. Get conscious about your habits. Spend a week or two evaluating your daily routine. How much of your time is spent being truly present and connected to you and your life? How much of your time is spent feeling pissed off but then feeling powerless to do anything about it? How much of your time is spent being and doing things that distance you from your emotions or that help you to avoid getting ‘too close’ to people? Are there any habits that are having a knock-on effect on your wellbeing? For example, I have a client who was anaesthetising with food and drink because she was demoralised by her work. It turned out that it was because she was doing something that was someone else’s responsibility which in turn meant that she was never able to do her job within work hours.
8. Are you overdoing something in your life? For instance, if you’re a workaholic, which feelings/situations does work provide an escape from and why? If you have concerns that you’re exercising as a means of avoiding your feelings or limiting intimacy with others, acknowledge what is behind this so for instance, what are the origins of this habit? Feel that you’re comfort eating too much or that a few glasses of wine have become your go-to every day to cope with, for example, an unresolved work situation? Eating uncomfortable feelings or silencing the words that might slip out with food, drink, drugs etc., or using, for example, alcohol or drugs to get outside of yourself and adopt a persona, are very prevalent ways in which we make ourselves emotionally unavailable. Compassionately exploring these habits, possibly with the help of a professional, will help you to address the baggage behind these habits but also help put you back in touch with yourself.
9. Take a dating hiatus. I typically recommend 3-6 months although I’ve also had quite a few people do a year. If you tend to lose yourself in relationships or you get very triggered by dating, taking a clean break, so no collecting attention online, texting loose connections or exes, or sex, gives you the space to get into a monogamous relationship with you. You will learn a hell of a lot about yourself during this time, including where you might have been using romantic attention as an escape from uncomfortable feelings. Read more about dating hiatuses.
10. Delete exes from your phone. If you’re genuine friends with your ex(es) and you’re not harbouring a fantasy about getting back together while secretly auditioning to get your old job back, knock yourself out. But if all you’re doing is holding out hope that one of these people will spontaneously combust into the person you want or that they will come crawling on their hands and knees begging for another chance so that you can tell them to jog on, it’s time to cut ties. Note: deleting exes includes deleting loose connections from dating.
11. Call time on a booty call/friends with benefits situation. Rest assured, you won’t get cobwebs down there nor will you die from lack of sex for a while, but you will be available. As long as you’re knocking boots with someone else and are on some level, hoping that you’ll have a Pretty Woman ending, or are avoiding intimacy and being genuinely open for a mutually fulfilling relationship, you can’t be emotionally available.
12. Instigate No Contact with toxic exes and any ex who triggers you into being less than your authentic self. Worrying about the feelings of someone who does not treat you without love, care, trust and respect, is over-feeling, which, ironically, is you being unavailable to your feelings. This brings me neatly to…
13. Own your own and let others own theirs. Instead of taking responsibility for other people’s feelings and behaviour and then trying to please them into feeling and acting a different way so that you feel better about whatever is going on or that you’re putting up with, take responsibility for your own feelings and behaviour so that you are in a position to do something. How does that work? Bob wants you to do something that you already know that you don’t want to but when you consider saying no, you worry about hurting his feelings or him being angry. Going ahead and saying yes will mean ignoring your feelings and ignoring reality. It’s OK for Bob to receive no and even for him to be uncomfortable with it, and it’s also up to him to manage his feelings about it. You taking responsibility for your feelings is recognising that if you say yes when, in truth, you feel no on the inside, you’re creating your discomfort, not the other party. It’s also recognising the feelings you’re trying to avoid by focusing on those of other’s — and acknowledging the medium to long-term consequences. There is no point in saying/showing yes to dispel tension in the short term if you hate yourself for far longer!
14. Are you afraid of losing independence or being too independent? If it’s the former, being more emotionally available will be about allowing yourself to be ulnerable enough to be interdependent, so being able to let people in and retain your sense of self. If it’s the latter, emotional availability will also be about interdependence but about you developing some independence by learning to stand on your own two feet. Committing to identifying the baggage behind your pattern is about acknowledging which experiences from earlier in life taught you to fear losing independence or to fear abandonment.
15. Buy a book (or several) on the subject, and make sure you read them. Answer the questions posed, especially the ones that you’re tempted to skip or you pooh-pooh as ‘unnecessary’ or ‘too easy’. Try my own, Mr Unavailable and the Fallback Girl or try The Journey from Abandonment to Healing by Susan Anderson, which quite a lot of readers and students have recommended.
16. Identify what dating and relationships, so going online, being in a relationship, or even the drama that unfolds during or after is distracting you from.
17. Who have you felt pissed off, resentful about, disappointed and hurt by for longer than a few weeks? Write a list. Anything that either still feels pretty intense right now or it’s lasted for more than a year is a direct block to being emotionally available. Everyone has emotional baggage and yes, we are allowed to get angry at people – it’s necessary – but holding on to it and not processing it so that we heal, makes us unavailable. We only have so much space. The more anger we have, the less space there is for 1) self-esteem and 2) loving relationships. What needs to happen for you to process that anger? Is there anything that you can choose to be done with right now? Download my free Unsent Letter and Letters To Your Younger Self guides, which are all about processing and releasing anger so that you can forgive you and move forward.
18. What do you feel the need to protect you from happening again? If you made a vow at some point that you would never _________ again or that you would always ensure that you __________, or whatever it is, this is a wall, not a boundary. A wall says, ‘I’ll be damned if I let any of you muthers get me again so I will guard and defend myself against the past happening again’ and a boundary says, ‘Right, I recognise what happened, and I am allowing myself to grow. I acknowledge my part no matter how teeny tiny it might be in what went down and I recognise the healthy boundary I need to ensure that I am not open to that situation going down in the same way that it did before. At the same time, though, I’m open to moving forward with love, care, trust and respect.
19. Journal. Got a busy head? Need to download? Feeling anxious, confused, resentful, worn out etc? Feeling on a high, joyful, like there’s possibilities? Journal. Be available to your emotions and what is going on in your life. Open up an ongoing dialogue with you instead of being afraid to know you and what you’re feeling. Don’t overcomplicate if you’re not sure where to start. Start by answering the question, How am I doing today? You can download my free journaling tips. Also, check out 100 Days of Baggage Reclaim which has one hundred lessons including tips, tools and journaling prompts, to help you grow your self-esteem and become more emotionally available by building an emotional connection with you.
20. Write to your intuition and ask questions. For example, ‘Why do I struggle to open up to someone?’ or ‘Why don’t I feel worthy of being in a relationship with an available, loving partner?’ Write back to yourself. Answers will come up and it won’t feel as if they’re coming from your head. If there’s anything snarky, mean-spirited, shaming and trying to force you to have all of the answers to life until the year 2050, that’s not your intuition — that’s ego, including your inner critic trying to stop you from opening up. Make a note of the ego stuff in brackets so that you come to know the difference and are more available to your inner truth.
21. Note the highlights – this opens up your perspective and range of emotions. Noting the good things that have happened brings perspective and gratitude to each day, having a profound impact on your emotional wellbeing. It doesn’t mean that you’re ignoring things that might not have been so good about the day or how you’re feeling, but it is about recognising that the days are not complete darkness and ‘suckiness’.
22. Commit to ‘done’ with an ex. Often when I speak to people who are struggling with emotional availability, they have at least one ex that they’re still hung up on. They might be the biggest assclown on the planet in their eyes, but they are stuck on this person having got away with something, or feeling that they didn’t get the last word, or even feeling that this person has their dignity and that they need to get it back. If this is you, it is time to let go. Let. It. Go. Holding on to your ex in this way is secretly a means of protecting you from having to feel, grieve and move forward. It’s a way of protecting you from having to take the next step or move on to the next stage in your life. See #17 and #18. Commit to ‘done’.
23. Cut your hinting in half. Hinting is not only a form of indirect communication but also passive aggression. Save your hinting for surprises, not for what you want to get across. Hinting is our way of trying to achieve 100% of the job by going what we feel is most of the distance, but it just leads to more resentment, confusion, misinterpretation, criticism, conflict and delay, to name but a few. It’s also important to point out that what might feel like, for example, 70% of the way to us, might only be 30% or 50%. Don’t make it other people’s job to figure out what you mean and feel. If you cut it in half, it will feel super weird on the other occasions when you try to hint.
24. Got something that you need to say but tempted to bung it in a text or super long email? Pick up the phone or meet up with the person. Or, at least be honest with yourself about why you are opting to send it by text/email so that you can acknowledge what you’re afraid of confronting or having to do.
25. Ask for help. This advice is for the over-responsible folk who often act like superhumans and have believed since childhood that they have to be “strong”. Asking for help is vulnerability because you’re letting yourself be seen and you’re letting people in. Also, don’t just ask for help once – get into the habit of making it a part of your life. And yes, it is OK for people to not always be able to help but in other instances, people will be able to.
26. Don’t just say, ‘I’m fine’ when close friends, family etc, ask you how you’re doing. Also, don’t just say, ‘I’m fine’ or quickly gloss over your life and then focus on their lives. Show up!
27. Quit rehashing. Been telling a story over and over again? It’s a distraction from something else. Catch yourself next time and be vulnerable enough to entertain the feelings behind it or to talk about something else. Rehashing will not provide us with new insight or make us feel better, so we’ve got to quit it and take the positive lessons so that we can move forward.
28. Notice other people’s emotions without getting lost in them. Or, better still, ask them how they’re feeling instead of making it up in your head and coming up with a judgement or a [people pleasing] ‘solution’ that isn’t accurate or necessary. Remember that empathy is very different from over-empathy.
29. Practice genuine compassion and empathy. Mean to you but consider yourself empathetic and compassionate with others? I hate to break it to you, but lacking empathy and compassion for you while claiming to do it for others, is emotional unavailability. You’re refusing to recognise yourself, plus, in avoiding you, you will be doing what you think is empathy and compassion for others when it’s, in fact, a cry for help and distraction from you. Compassion and empathy are full circle actions and mentalities – if you’re doing it for others, you have to do it for you too. This will significantly reduce shame which is behind a lot of the things we do when we’re looking for attention, affection, approval, love and validation in the wrong places, trying to right the wrongs of the past, and persistently feeling unworthy.
30. Make people real and take them off the pedestals that you’ve put them on in your mind. Make people real and take them off the pedestals that you’ve put them on in your mind. Romantic partners, friends, family, colleagues – they’re all human. Nobody is an authority over you and if you genuinely want to be emotionally available, engage with people on a level instead of coming from a place of inferiority (or superiority). This leads neatly to…
31. Make your family human, and that includes your parents, who each have a backstory. Engage with your family members based on them being human not based on roles, which again, are a block to intimacy. Here’s an example of how roles play out: You are my mother so you should act this way and I’m going to behave in this way (e.g. The People Pleasing Ideal Son/Daughter) so that you feel obliged to meet my needs, expectations and wants. In playing the role, you ignore the truth of who that person is and keep setting yourself up for a fall plus you’re doing things, not because it’s who you are but because it’s what you think others expect of you or to generate a reward. Giving up roles allows you to develop emotionally and become more of who you really are.
32. Check up on your motivations. Consistently doing things with a hidden agenda, no matter how well intended, is the domain of the emotionally unavailable. Check yourself before you wreck yourself. Would you still do that certain something if you knew that you were not going to be able to get the reward you want or that you wouldn’t be able to avoid, for example, conflict or criticism? If not, you need to be honest with the person about your intentions and expectations, or you need to revise your motivations.
33. Go on a Social Media Diet. Are Facebook etc., a crutch or source of validation and attention? Do you end up feeling bad about yourself when you go on there and yet, oh there you are scrolling through the feed and judging you (or others)? Catch yourself and turn it around into a less critical thought. Or minimise your time on there so that you can be more present in the real world. Also remember that what you see on Facebook, Instagram etc., is a snapshot of what people want to put across, not real life.
34. Become conscious of ‘inverted narcissism’ thinking and behaviour. Narcissists have delusions of grandeur about their self-importance. What many of us aren’t aware of is that persistently putting us at the centre of other people’s thinking and behaviour and blaming ourselves for it, making ourselves responsible for ‘fixing’ it, and using being ‘not good enough’ as our go-to reason for everything, is inverted narcissism. More on inverted narcissism.
35. Take your time. Get to know people. Don’t take a mental picture on day 0 and decide that you know someone — be vulnerable enough to get to know people and to allow yourself to be known, instead of trying to do the equivalent of putting an interaction in the microwave for 60 seconds and calling it a relationship.
36. Notice intensity. We substitute it for genuine intimacy because we’re afraid of showing up and trusting ourselves to do due diligence. The intensity experienced with Fast-Forwarding and Future Faking is a sign of trust issues, which is a sign of intimacy issues. You will never learn to trust yourself or learn how to get to know others if you’re always trying to skip the getting to know.
37. Be willing to listen to your gut. To be emotionally available, you must have an emotional connection to yourself. Your gut has your back. Your ego, your inner critic, tends to rely on scaring the bejaysus out of you, trying to control the uncontrollable, and making you feel bad about yourself. If you consistently listen to your gut, you will feel more confident and emotionally available. You will also find that you are better able to get a gauge on decisions because you have a consistent experience of listening to you instead of only listening to you when your back’s against the wall.
38. Notice and act upon code amber and red behaviour. Emotionally unavailable people consistently ignore boundary issues because it means having to show up and do something. It means having to feel. They not only ignore their boundaries but also, in ignoring their feelings, end up inadvertently or intentionally crossing other people’s boundaries. Ignoring issues and proceeding ahead anyway is also about ignoring the intimacy of truth. Being emotionally available is about being vulnerable enough to be OK with the intimacy of healthy boundaries.
39. Make a decision about your current relationship. Either commit to showing up or commit to being done. Note that working on your emotional availability is either going to enhance a relationship because the other party also values being emotionally available, or it’s going to flag up to you that you are in something that is at a lesser level of availability than what you need and want. Either way, you will be available for something better.
40. Commit to being your primary caregiver instead of looking for parental replacements or trying to get attention etc., from parents or other family members. Owning your responsibility to you brings you into the present and allows you to grow up. See #30.
41. Do a mental run-through. Let yourself imagine the scenario that you’re afraid of for thirty seconds or a minute and let the feelings surface. Try to sit there with it and then come back to yourself. Note that the sky hasn’t fallen down but also note what it felt like to experience the run-through. I’ve done this many times and discovered that I’m able to experience emotional pain and contemplate something, and also ponder another option. This has really helped in getting over my old fear of abandonment and rejection. Obviously, don’t use it to relive traumatic events and if in doubt, try something else instead, or work through this type of exercise with a therapist.
42. Expand your emotional vocabulary. There’s a vast range of emotions. They’re all on equal footing, as opposed to fear being the biggest and everything else beneath it. Expanding your vocabulary beyond “hurt” when life fails to live up to your expectations, will help you gain emotional clarity so that you can better understand what it is that you need.
43. Reduce assumptions by focusing on gathering actual knowledge. It forces you to show up.
44. Catch your negative self-talk and try to respond positively or at least realistically. You don’t have to chase negative thoughts and then feed them with even more negativity. Let them pass or even more importantly, start truly listening to what is running through your mind each day and respond and correct this stuff. Not every thought is a fact. Just because you think that you can’t do something, it doesn’t mean that you actually can’t.
45. Develop a meditation practice. Headspace teaches you mindfulness in bite-sized 10-minute lessons. There’s also the Buddhify app and countless books and courses. I like a simple meditation that I picked up from Jenny Blake’s career book, Pivot – follow your breath and say ‘rising, falling, sitting’. I like to do belly breaths (yoga breaths) when doing the latter, and it’s so easy and if your mind wanders, just go back to mentally saying the words.
46. Grieve. If you’ve never come to terms with a particular loss (or any), this is hogging up a lot of your emotional and mental resources, including blocking good feelings, disrupting your sense of self, and exacerbating loneliness and fear. Releasing the emotions and allowing you to process them will leave you feeling lighter and open to giving and receiving love, care, trust and respect. You may find that grief counselling or some form of additional support is helpful.
47. Stop telling people what you think they want to hear (or what you want them to hear but don’t mean). Instead of giving a knee-jerk agreement about something and then panicking and even trying to figure out how to get out of it, be OK with pausing for a beat, saying ‘Let me get back to you’, and be OK with the discomfort that might follow. Then set a time limit of X amount of days (or hours, depending on what’s appropriate to the situation) and try to tune in to what you want to say/do, and then do that.
48. Spend time around emotionally available people. Spend time with people that raise you up, that inspire you to stretch yourself, but also who demonstrate authenticity because they live by their values even though theirs will be different to others.
A few key things to note:
You do not need to get rid of all of your emotional baggage; you just need to be healed enough that you can be conscious, aware and present enough to differentiate between the past and the present. It will also feel uncomfortable to do what you used to do before.
Don’t try something once or a few times and deem it useless because you didn’t get instant results.
It’s not the case that you do one or a few things, and because it feels like it’s a significant effort (outside of your comfort zone or there’s resistance), that the relationship (or whatever it is that you want) should be hand-delivered to you in a silver bow.
Strive to show up emotionally, not to be rewarded for doing it X amount of times, but because you want to live your life happier and authentically.
Commit to healing the baggage behind the pattern. This means that you have to be OK with what commitment means — making the decision to do something even though you don’t have an end-to-end plan nor do you know every single step involved or how things are going to pan out in between.
Keep in mind though that what you’ve been doing so far emotionally, doesn’t ‘work work’, so it might be safe and familiar, but it’s not going to get you anywhere that you haven’t already been.
Becoming emotionally available takes time and experience.
It’s really about the type of person you strive to be, your intentions, and how you live up to them each day.
Some days you might slip into old ways. Fact. We’re all human after all, and show me someone who hasn’t tried to run away from their feelings. But if you consistently strive to show up and be present in your own life instead of living in the past and doing variations of the same things and expecting different results, you will experience the cumulative effect of being a more open, empathetic, compassionate, intimate and boundaried person, to name but a few.
All suggestions involve you doing something, and while there will, of course, be plenty of thinking involved, in the end, it’s about taking a step, no matter how imperfect it might be, with the intention of showing up emotionally.
Until you’ve been trying out options for as long as you’ve been in your old habits, you haven’t given it enough time yet.
Discomfort from change doesn’t mean that it’s wrong; it’s a sign that you’re stretching out of your comfort zone.
P.S. Please share this post if you have found it useful or you know someone who could benefit from it. Also, if you have tried something in your own life, I’d love to hear your suggestions.
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