Countless people allow a potentially happy and fulfilling life to be undermined, even ruined, by emotional baggage. Looked at rationally, this is simply madness. Indeed, allowing emotional baggage to ruin your life is like gripping a boiling saucepan with both hands and then complaining that you are being burnt! Even a child can see that the only solution is to let go.
The phrase “emotional baggage” refers to unresolved issues that trigger a strong emotional response. So when people say “you’ve got issues,” or “I’m working through my issues,” this is what they are usually referring to. Of course, such emotion does not arise out of nowhere. On the contrary, it is a reaction to something. For example, an individual may experience intense feelings of guilt. Sometimes, these feelings will have no obvious source, but in general they will be connected to something in the past, like religious parents who spoke with disgust of human sin and set impossibly high moral standards.
Unfortunately, it can be hard to let such things go. Indeed, many find it a lifelong struggle – just when they think they are rid of it, it returns with a vengeance. Some are driven to desperate lengths to free themselves: in his novel Bad News, for example, Edward St Aubyn describes two heroin addicts, each haunted by the past, taking drugs while “talking about their favorite subjects: how to achieve disembodiment…how to stay in the borderlands, undefined by the identities which their histories tried to thrust upon them.” The word “identities” is an interesting one. Emotional baggage can also be at the center of one’s very identity, whatever that is: “abuse survivor,” for example, “rape victim,” “neglected child,” “academic failure,” and so on. And, painful though such an identity may be, some fear life without it. Without my victimhood, they think, what am I? Nothing!
Another problem with emotional baggage is that it can lead to patterns of behavior and response that are very hard to break. Take shame, for example. Imagine someone develops a strong sense of shame early in childhood. Let’s say their mother didn’t want them, resents them, and vents her anger and rage by constant humiliation – exposing them to ridicule whenever they do something wrong. They then carry this into adulthood. But the shame and feelings of worthlessness mean they avoid friends and family and feel unworthy of love and intimacy. As soon as someone reaches out to them, they recoil, putting up barriers, and even reacting with sarcasm, spite, or aggression in order to drive them away.
Perhaps nowhere does emotional baggage cause more problems than in relationships. Indeed, visit a dating site and you will even read profiles like, “looking for someone uncomplicated – no drama, and no emotional baggage!” And such demands are understandable. Emotional baggage can be fatal, especially if the individual is in denial, or simply unaware.
First, and most obviously, there is the ex. It is often said that no one has a relationship with just one person. You enter into a relationship with your partner plus everyone who has moulded and shaped him or her: parents, friends, school bullies and, of course, former lovers. Rarely do people cleanly and simply leave an ex. Relationships do not always end in calm, mellow affection, with both parties accepting that things have run their course. Someone whose ex cheated on them, for example, may find it very difficult to trust. Or they may resist and avoid any depth or intimacy, afraid that if they fall in love they will be betrayed and heartbroken all over again.
Others may still be in love with an ex. Of course, people often remain in love with an idealized image rather than the real person, even when that person hurt or abandoned them. In his novel The Virgin and the Gypsy, D. H. Lawrence depicts just such a situation, where a priest, whose young wife runs away with another man, divides his image of her into two: the perfect, snow-white angel he fell in love with and the “whore” who abandoned him. The problem with such idealizations is that no replacement can compete. Who can compete with a fantasy? And who can compete with the longing and the yearning?
Then of course there is the emotional baggage connected with family and childhood, in particular the individual’s relationship with their mother and father. For example, someone whose father left, started a new family, and barely kept in touch may be deeply insecure and in constant need of reassurance. Or the opposite may be the case. Someone who was spoilt and made to feel they were the center of the world may throw tantrums whenever they are denied such attention as an adult. People who grow up in dysfunctional families, on the other hand, often grow used to screaming and shouting. They have learnt that only through rage, tears, and drama will anyone pay them attention.
Dealing With Emotional Baggage
First, it is important simply to be aware of this baggage. Knowing that it is there is half the battle. Once you have become conscious in this way you can, in a sense, step back and observe. In his book The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle refers to it as a “pain body” and writes “the pain-body doesn’t want you to observe it directly and see it for what it is. The moment you observe it, feel its energy field within you, and take your attention into it, the identification is broken.” In a sense, you have accessed a different level of consciousness.
Practising mindfulness may help. By doing so you will get into the habit of detaching yourself, of observing the rollercoaster of thought and emotion that normally sweep us along. Some become so good at this that they silently think to themselves “ah, here come those pesky childhood feelings of shame,” or “here I go again, I’m slipping back into those old patterns of rage and guilt.” The advantage of mindfulness is that it jolts or shifts consciousness out of the past and into the present.
This does not mean you should suppress your emotions, however. On the contrary, they need to come out and be expressed. But this must happen in a controlled and mindful way, rather than simply being overwhelmed. And, of course, only once something is out can you let it go. When you do try and let these emotions loose, you could try channeling them through some kind of ritual. Ritualized behavior is crucial to good mental health and is something modern, western cultures miss. So, for example, you could take a sheet of blank paper and, when the passion grips you, pour out all those issues that provoke strong emotion. Once you have finished, take a moment, breathe deeply, and make the decision to let it all go. Now take the sheet of paper and ritually burn it. Even deep breathing could be considered a form of ritualized behavior. When the anger or fear races to the surface, combine a mindful detachment with deep-breathing. Visualize yourself breathing in a bright, sparkling light, and breathing out the black sludge of emotion.
A final problem worth considering is the terrible sense of waste and anger. Even those who are able to offload emotional baggage after years of misery and dysfunction are often bitter at the lost time. “God,” they think, “all those years I wasted feeling shame or guilt. I missed out on so much fun! Why didn’t I drop all this garbage years ago?” Don’t allow such thoughts to get the upper hand (if you do, you will simply store up a whole new load of baggage, only this time it will be regret!). You dropped it when you were ready. Such things cannot be forced.
Above all, you must be patient. It isn’t easy to let things go. For many, such emotional baggage is part of their very identity. It defines them, and, in a perverse way, is often a comfort. Of course, it is very easy for those not carrying guilt, or shame, or whatever it may be, to advise you to “just let it go.” Sadly, it doesn’t always work like that. But so long as you are conscious of the things that hold you back and are doing what you can to let them go, you are halfway there. The rest is just a matter of time.