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WHAT IS EMOTIONAL BAGGAGE, AND HOW CAN YOU START TO DECLUTTER YOURS?

illustration of emotional baggage by Natalie Lue. baggage with thoughts like'I failed','This is as good as it gets','I can't move forward','I'm so ashamed'Emotional baggage is the stored-up emotional responses to the past.

Every person effectively carries the emotional residue of each of their experiences, building up the equivalent of billions of files containing the associated emotions, stories, judgements and beliefs.

Now, you know how opening loads of programs and files affects a computer’s performance? Well, humans are the same. There’s no way that we could have every file open (nor do we need to). We’re also inclined to bury our feelings and shut out painful events. And then forget that we buried them. As a result, we’re unaware of everything that we’re carrying around.

Our ‘files’ are stored in our subconscious.

It’s like a big-ass mental filing system. Or one of those evidence lock-up rooms that you see in crime shows. Cabinets and boxes upon cabinets and boxes stuffed with a lifetime’s worth of information. And much of it’s misfiled or didn’t belong there in the first place.

Think of each file like those plastic ones with a clear cover and the documents inside. The contents are the events and the plastic covering is the associated emotions. The latter is based on how we responded at the time as well as anything we told ourselves, after all, thoughts precede feelings.

What we tell ourselves affects how we feel, which affects our subsequent responses (thoughts, feelings and actions).

We access our files as and when our mind and body think that we need them. Our nervous system, for example, stores previous nervous responses so that it ‘remembers’. Of course, if like me, you had a stressful childhood (ahem!), your fight/flight/freeze response might be out of whack or a tad hyper.

When our subconscious perceives us to be in a similar situation to a past one, the relevant file comes forward. i.e. our subconscious sends the associated emotions and other needed physiological responses. This might be because, consciously and unconsciously, we pick up that we’re in a familiar situation. Or… it’s because we’re experiencing feelings or behaving in ways that are associated with something we’ve filed. Keep in mind that ‘relevant’ might mean a file that was originally created in our early years.

The subconscious isn’t based in the present or even in our recent past; it’s way back in our childhood. 

If like me, you’re in your forties, it’s probably back in the eighties with frizzy perms and an epic era of music.

It’s vital to note the subconscious’ spot of time-travelling, especially where we’ve freaked out and behaved uncharacteristically and disproportionately to the situation at hand, or we’ve virtually sleepwalked through an experience. In these instances, it’s highly likely that when we try to go against the grain of our pattern, it will feel wrong to do so. It’s not because it actually is wrong but because it isn’t on file and is, well, habitual. The part of the brain that manages habits is a hoarder. It doesn’t distinguish between helpful and harmful, instead clinging to habits as if our life depends on it.

We start dating again. Because we’ve typically ignored our gut and got carried away, our subconscious registers that we’re dating and sends anxiety. We’ll feel caught between a rock and a hard place if we’re using old habits. But we’ll also feel increasingly anxious, but also won’t walk away.

We feel insecure and fearful, something we’ve typically associated with rejection and not fitting in. Next thing, those feelings heighten. Our mind becomes busy with stories and predictions of rejection even though the feelings don’t necessarily match the situation. We might behave in ways that create a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Our boss ignores our efforts and praises our co-worker instead. We feel passed over just like we did with our sibling. Even though the situations are different, they elicit the same feelings. They might also trigger similar child-like responses if we’re not mindful.

We find it very difficult to say no and to create healthy boundaries despite desperately wanting to. Each time we try, we experience paralysis and fear of abandonment and alienation. Somewhere in our filing, we picked up the message that saying no to people we want to love us is ‘bad’.

We need to express our feelings, but instead, we shut down. When we [unconsciously] scan our files, we see that our family rarely expressed themselves and plenty of instances of silencing ourselves.

These are all examples of emotional baggage in action.

Particularly with anything that we’re copying from family, learned from them, or that feels very material to our identity, we’re likely to feel loyal to the pattern even if we’re aware that it’s harmful.

And here’s the kicker: if we keep responding to events in the same way(s) that we have on file, it strengthens the responses.

What’s inside our emotional baggage?

  • Guilt, regret, blame and shame
  • Persistent worry and anxiety
  • Old stress and trauma
  • Drama
  • Inner critic
  • Past relationships
  • Excessive fear
  • Narratives and reasoning habits (rehashing, patterns, misunderstandings, old judgements and criticisms)
  • Buried/unprocessed/ignored/hoarded emotions incl. anger and grief
  • Roles we play including harmful habits

These can all be summed up as pain, fear and guilt. 

When left unresolved, they lead to destructive and painful habits that block intimacy. They also interfere with us becoming more of who we really are and leading a fulfilling life. These include:

  • People-pleasing, perfectionism and overthinking 
  • Being out of tune with our needs and desires
  • Emotional unavailability including numbness or deadness due to not feeling our feelings
  • Fuzzy or absent boundaries
  • Over-empathy and hidden agendas including trying to fix/help/change others to get what we want
  • Unhealthy and downright abusive relationships
  • Our money story (our relationship with money and how we interact with it): overspending, neglect, getting/scraping by, poverty mindset, negative language, shame around money or having more, or using it to control others and ‘win’.
  • The overs (e.g. drinking, drugs, eating, spending, exercise, gambling, work).
  • Anger issues (e.g. road rage, lashing out, passive-aggression, not getting angry even when we need to).
  • Eruptions (internal and external) after hoarding feelings.
  • Struggling to make decisions
  • Trying to control others
  • Stuck in a job
  • Playing it small
  • Being close-minded
  • Pretending to be something you’re not/living a lie

Here’s the thing: while we all have and will continue to accumulate emotional baggage, we’re not designed to carry every last bit of it. And, brace yourself:

There is no special room, compartment or section for emotional baggage. It’s kept in the same place as what we might deem ‘positive’ emotions and experiences. The same resources, the same space, the same bandwidth that we use to, for example, pursue romantic relationships or our hopes and aspirations, is the same one we use for our emotional baggage.

There’s no such thing as a baggage-free human.

We inherit some emotional baggage, and we accumulate even more as we move through life. Hell, some people even try to dump theirs on us so that they don’t have to deal with it!

Have you given you a hard time because you’re affected by your past like every other human on the planet? If so, it’s time to cut you some much overdue slack.

That said, it’s also time to become more conscious, aware and present so that the bulk of your time, energies, efforts and emotions are going towards driving your life, not keeping you stuck in the past.

Our subconscious is always trying to tidy up and make sense of things.

This is why we experience increasing discomfort around any untruths and deep-seated pain that we’re using to guide our life. It’s why, for example, we keep finding ourselves in repeats of certain situations. We haven’t learned what we needed to.

Through our experiences, especially as we move through adulthood and start to figure out the truth of who we and life are, we need to unpack, declutter and tidy up as we go.

The primary vehicle for our growth is our interpersonal relationships.

Pain, fear and guilt surface through our interactions so that we can heal, grow and learn. In turn, we’re gradually forced to confront old misunderstandings as well as painful patterns and habits. This is so that we can become more of who we really are.

How do we figure out our emotional baggage?

When we’re lamenting what feels like the two-hundredth go-round and wondering why life is screwing us yet again, we make the mistake of blaming events on being not ‘good enough’. That’s the wrong lesson. And we only blame our worth because of what we’re carrying and how we’re carrying it.

The unresolved hurts, losses, judgements and old misunderstandings create emotional charge.

This impacts how we show up emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually.

For example, we keep finding ourselves in variations of the same situations. These, in turn, lead to us feeling, thinking and acting in similar ways to the past. Why? Because we’re gravitating to people, situations and things that match our beliefs. 

Any situation that causes us to feel triggered, stuck or on autopilot is a sign of our emotional baggage making itself known. 

Recognising this helps to give a context to our responses.

It’s all too easy to assume that we’re, well, effed-up. In reality, we’re human.

I’m a great believer that adulthood is about unlearning all of the unproductive and downright harmful messages and lessons that we’ve picked up along the way so that we can become more of who we really are. No one gave us a manual. We did not attend classes telling us how to navigate life. And we certainly didn’t watch a video of everything that’s supposed to happen in our life.

Life is on-the-job training.

We learn as we go, tweaking, refining, and becoming more discerning.

 

There’s a simple yet powerful question that we can ask in any given situation where we experience pain, fear and guilt or, yes, frustration, anger, resentment, etc., towards someone else:

What’s the baggage behind it?

How we respond to any given situation is habit. Depending on early experiences and whether, as a result, we tend to see ourselves as unable to evolve or we have a ‘growth mindset’, it’s possible that we’re basing how we see ourselves and the world on outdated, incorrect or even fabricated information.

 

What we’re carrying, how we’re carrying it and why affects our sense of self, our intimate relationships and the choices we make.

 

Why? Because emotional baggage essentially comes down to the association made between your experiences and how they made you feel and who, in turn, you’ve believed you have to be.

For example, let’s imagine that Marianne experienced a series of painful childhood events. At the time, she felt angry, distrusting and scared, which resulted in her adapting to cope and protect herself. Her response is natural. It’s our way of surviving childhood. But… if she’s now thirty years down the road and still interacting with life from the same place that she did as a child, her emotional baggage is running the show and keeping her stuck in the past. Those adaptions she made have become harmful habits that block her from becoming more of who she really is, from reaching her goals, and from partaking in intimate relationships.

It’s not that, for instance, a situation isn’t taxing or painful, or that someone isn’t wearing on our last nerve or doing things that are not in our best interests. It’s also not about dismissing what we experienced in the past, but how we respond is based on our baggage, and what they’re being and doing is based on theirs.

In any given situation where our baggage is making itself known, it’s an opportunity to respond even a little bit differently to how we did in the past so that we can evolve and grow. It also updates the files! 

If you asked a small child to tidy up every single room in your home and file decades worth of files, would they do it correctly? Exactly! So, why are you still repeating old stories like they’re the gospel truth even though they’re very critical of you or distorting past events? 

The amount of emotional baggage you are carrying and/or how it affects you reflects your willingness to work through emotional hurts and difficulties.  

You can tell by how you’re feeling: if you consistently feel heavy, blocked, helpless, powerless, overwhelmed, resentful, victimised, anxious, down and more, these are signs that you’ve accumulated too much baggage. 

It’s time to start resolving and healing some of the unresolved wounds. 

Very often, people assume that this means having to rake intensely over the past. Actually, attempting to take care of you by trying to bring self-care into your life will bring you face to face with your baggage. Just try cutting back on people pleasing, trying to be perfect, giving you a hard time, or trying to extricate yourself from an unhealthy relationship. You will be amazed at how much resistance and old pain, fear and guilt you encounter! 

That resistance is the pain, fear and guilt aka your emotional baggage. 

We’re all being invited by experiences that challenge us as well as by our emotional baggage to see what we couldn’t see before.

All too often, these are opportunities to uplevel our boundaries and be more us. Basically, they make us have more compassion for ourselves as well as for others. If we can respond even a little bit differently, we grow up and update the narratives that drive our life so that we can be open to better experiences and relationships. 

Want to know more about emotional baggage?

The following episodes of The Baggage Reclaim Sessions podcast are deep dives on the subject:

Tidying Up Emotional Baggage (ep. 125)

I Want To Break Free (what are roles, why do we take them on, and how do they affect our sense of self and intimate relationships – ep. 128)

What’s The Bagge Behind It? (ep. 2)

Fear of Sacrifice, Loss & Being Trapped (ep. 132)

Uncover emotional baggage with my free resource, The Unsent Letter Guide

ready to unpack, declutter & tidy your emotional baggage?

My books

100 Days of Baggage Reclaim

Mr Unavailable and the Fallback Girl

How To Say No

My Reclaimer Membership

Courses including Embrace Healthy Boundaries, Break The Cycle, and Build Your Self-Esteem

BREAK THE CYCLE OF EMOTIONAL UNAVAILABILITY, the online course, is here!

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