When there is pain, hurt, grief, anger and sadness in the past, it can develop into emotional baggage – and have an impact on our present and our future.
I saw a young man who was going to get married, but wanted to learn how to let go of some of the emotional baggage he was carrying with him first.
This young man had deep sadness from having no connection with his brother or father, and continued to revisit painful memories. It was starting to impact on the plans for his future as he was experiencing jealousy and sadness each time he visited his partner’s ‘happy family’.
Often we move from pain to pain, relationship to relationship, burying our hurt, grief, anger and sadness, expecting that the new relationship will ‘clean the slate’ for us. Unfortunately it doesn’t. For this reason, I was really impressed with the courage it took for this young man to not let his past define who he wanted to be.
How Issues Become Emotional Baggage
What makes us not deal with issues as they come up? Actually there are a range of things.
Firstly, it could be because of how we have seen our parents deal with issues. Children learn fast – and their first learning is through observation and then through mimicking. For example they may see their parent just throw up their hands in despair and say ‘I give up’ just before they walk out of the house.
They may see a parent going through new partners, leaving each time they don’t get on or feel it’s all too hard. As a result of examples like this, children may not learn to cope with pressure, choosing instead to run when things get tough. By the time they are older, they have formed a belief that this is a normal behaviour. Unfortunately it can leave them empty and resentful.
Secondly, it could be because we haven’t been taught the skills to cope with tough and painful situations. Often times when things happen to us that we have no control over, it can leaves us feeling helpless and that things are not fair. We also often see in our society the way we protect children from pain, losing races, friends etc – and we don’t give them the opportunity to learn to reflect on what happened, ‘brush it off’ and get back up on their feet.
Thirdly, we believe that we don’t deserve good things or happiness because of what we have been told as young people, and so create situations where we sabotage the good things in our lives. We have lost confidence in ourselves to cope and so we give up.
Tips for Letting Go of Emotional Baggage
If you have identified that your emotional baggage is holding you back, here are some ideas on what to do about it.
- Ask yourself what actually is causing your pain. Sometimes we aren’t aware of the real issues; we need to get curious. For this young man, it was the growing realisation that he felt abandoned and missed the relationship with his father, as he got up close and personal with a more functional family. Once we understand what the cause is, we can start to decide on the next step.
- Learning to sit with the pain, grief, anger and sadness. This is an important step towards coping and building our ability to move through the situation. Acknowledge the feeling and accept that it’s okay to feel like that. Too often we try and bury it, or brush it away. That only works for a little while and after time it just builds up. Learn to notice the emotion and allow yourself time to breathe slowly through it, noticing it touching the physical area where it hurts. Acknowledge the pain and then remind yourself that you will get through this.
- Identify whether there is something that you can do to resolve the situation. Often we talk about letting things go (which is the next point) but sometimes we need to actually see whether there is something that can be done to change what has happened. Again this young man recognised he couldn’t just keep getting angry but needed to find out further information so found the courage to have a conversation with his father. This can be a difficult step. It can take time to work through this, and you may want to seek professional help.
- Learn to let it go. Sometimes holding on to things can feel comfortable because it’s a familiar habit. We think holding on will keep those who have caused the pain to feel punished, when in reality it is us who is being held prisoner. Letting go doesn’t mean we forget. It means that it doesn’t control us or influence our behaviour anymore. Our thinking patterns are a key part in this, so learning to notice our thoughts and challenging those that keep us tied to the past, is going to help us move forward.
Dr Gail Brenner in her article “Healing the Past” talks about the fact that the past actually becomes the present and our future, when we continue to dwell on it. It suggests that by remaining focused on things that have hurt us, we allow ourselves to be robbed of true happiness.
When it comes to emotional baggage, remember – your freedom from the past is in your hands, and happiness is in your control.
We always have a choice in whether we are going to let people or events define us. Learning to release ourselves from our own memories and negative experiences will provide a new found freedom that allows us to take control back.
Author: Amanda Renger, B Soc Sc, M Couns, M Soc Wk, ACMHSW.
Amanda Renger has a double Masters degree in Social Work and in Counselling, and enjoys working with individuals, families, young adults, people with a disability and older persons. Using evidence-based theories and comprehensive assessments, she works to build the capacity of people to self-determine their journey, and to restore individual and family wellbeing.
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