Most psychologists define emotional baggage as unresolved emotional issues that we carry with us through life—whether intentionally or unintentionally.
For instance, people who were mistreated by a male parent might have “daddy issues” that make them hesitant to trust older men, while those who were criticized a great deal assume that all feedback they get is either critical or insincere.
These are just a couple of the more common sources.
But what about those that don’t make as many waves?
There are many sources of emotional baggage that go beyond the obvious. Let’s take a look at some of them before exploring how you can let them go.
Where Does Emotional Baggage Come From?
The emotional baggage that most people carry with them usually revolves around past unresolved traumas. These may include (but are not limited to) poor treatment from parents and/or teachers, unexplained breakups or ghosting by past partners, and difficult emotions from past experiences that were never processed properly.
That said, many people who can’t consciously pinpoint why they have emotional baggage may overlook sources that aren’t typically discussed, including the following:
1. Subtle childhood abuse.
When most people think about child abuse, they usually envision kids getting beaten or screamed at by their parents. In reality, many who thought their upbringing was totally normal might not even realize that subtle damage was done to them when they were young.
They may have great relationships with their loving, wonderful parents now, and can’t understand where emotions such as resentment or anxiety stem from.
For instance, people whose parents invalidated their emotions may now have difficulty expressing them. As an example, if they cried when they were upset, they may have been told to shut up or been given “something to cry about.” As a result, they now repress their emotions instead of expressing them.
Similarly, those who were raised with constant criticism end up as adults who never think they’re “good enough.” Ever.
Much like with child abuse, when the average person thinks about racism or discrimination due to age, gender, sexual preference, and so on, they think about blatant or intense gestures—such as someone calling another by a racial slur or telling them in no uncertain terms that they aren’t welcome because of who they are.
In contrast, microaggressions are much more subtle, and thus can slip in past our defenses to take up residence in our subconscious minds.
Microaggressions can include (but once again, are not limited to):
- Having your qualifications or experience called into question
- Others moving subtly away from you in public spaces
- Hearing phrases like, “I didn’t know you people did that kind of thing”
- Having your ideas or grievances summarily dismissed without just cause
Since these happen much more often, they tend to either wear us down or accumulate over time. It’s rather like sand particles piling up or water droplets wearing a hole through a stone.
3. Having experienced or witnessed crime.
People can develop emotional baggage after witnessing or experiencing various crimes. For example, a person who had to deal with others breaking into their home and threatening them while stealing their stuff might never feel safe at home again.
Similarly, a person who has been scammed or catfished might assume that every new person they meet is insincere and out to get them. As such, they hold back from making new friends, starting new relationships, or getting involved in groups because they figure they’ll just get screwed over again. The only way they can feel “safe” is by being alone or with those they’ve known for years.
This can also happen by proxy, such as if a close friend got scammed by someone and you had to help them through the fallout from it.
4. Mistreatment that you were unable to resolve (or retaliate against).
If you’ve ever been in a physical altercation, chances are both you and the other person managed to land some strikes before you were pulled apart. The whole point of a fight is that two people are involved. If it’s just one person beating on the other, it’s assault.
As such, if the person who was first struck managed to hit back, they’re less likely to feel as though they were powerless in the situation. They’ll remember the fight, but trauma about it is unlikely to linger.
In contrast, someone who was attacked may not be able to let go of the fact that they were never able to retaliate. Maybe the other person was pulled away before they could strike, or they were in a position where they had to simply take it or walk away instead of holding their own.
That kind of impotence can wear away at a person for years, if not indefinitely. Even more so if they know they can never resolve the issue. Maybe that person was a stranger whom they’ll never see again or the one who mistreated them died and thus can never be confronted.
As you can imagine, this also applies to unresolved conflicts with former partners, elderly parents, and so on.
5. Fears about health or mortality.
People who have experienced an accident or illness after previous good health may become overwhelmed as a result of what they’ve gone through in the past. They may have spent time in a hospital recuperating from a life-threatening illness or have long-lasting physical changes after getting badly hurt.
They went through life with hope and optimism before, never worrying about their wellbeing or able-bodiedness, and now they’re acutely aware of their mortality and physical frailty. As such, their emotional baggage could go one of two ways: they may get paranoid about any threat to their wellbeing, or they could become reckless as a means of overcompensating for their fear.
With the former, they may become a hypochondriac who stresses over any feelings of discomfort. Some even refuse to leave the house to avoid possibly getting sick or hurt again.
In contrast, those who repress their fear instead of dealing with it could take up thrill-seeking pastimes or partake in risky behaviors to test their own limits.
Words cannot be unspoken, and if people have said negative things to you in the past, it might still haunt you. Even if whatever they said to you was true at the time, that might have been 20 or 30 years ago and doesn’t apply to you at all anymore. Unfortunately, the echoes are still there though.
For instance, let’s say you had very crooked teeth that required braces to straighten out. Your peers (and even your relatives) might have made fun of you constantly for being “snaggletoothed.” This may have been followed by “metal mouth” or similar until you finally got the braces removed.
Even if your teeth are perfectly aligned now, you may still smile with your lips closed because you want to avoid potential mockery. There’s literally nothing to taunt you about now, but the worry about possibly experiencing that kind of bullying means that you’ve altered a personal behavior forever.
7. Fear of the unknown.
Having no sense of security about future events can make a lot of people anxious and emotionally unstable. The ever-present possibility of civil unrest, seismic activity (such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions), climate fluctuations, pandemics, and economic collapse can paralyze a lot of people and affect their daily lives.
Some might try to cram in as much living as possible because they want to experience all they can before the next calamity hits. In contrast, others may give up on trying to do anything because they figure the world is going to end at any moment and there’s just no point.
People from both ends of the spectrum may try to influence others to join them in their viewpoints and either alienate or depress everyone around them in the process.
8. Inner turmoil over how other people expect you to feel, look, or behave.
While social media is great for keeping in touch with loved ones and staying abreast of various goings-on, it can also do a lot of damage to people’s psyches. Some get depressed because their lives don’t measure up to the carefully curated posts offered by “influencers.”
Others are confused because they’re receiving conflicting information about how they should feel, think, or behave. It’s often difficult for people to live authentically when they’re torn in different directions due to others’ expectations.
You may feel that you’re hard to love because you don’t look or act a particular way. Alternatively, you may feel alienated from your peers because you don’t believe the same things that they do. As a result, you feel pressured to conform to their views lest you end up being shunned and ostracized.
Not being able to speak freely or behave authentically can weigh heavily on anyone, causing depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, and even psychosis in some cases.
9. Guilt and regret from past actions.
Sometimes, the baggage we carry has nothing to do with things that were done to us but rather involves echoes of what we did to others.
For example, we may have mistreated past partners or friends when we were going through difficulty and now we’re haunted by guilt or shame about it. We might even feel shame about missteps done in passing and replay them over and over again in our minds.
This often happens at night when we try to sleep while bad memories from the past dance around in our minds, shaming us into wakefulness instead.
While you might wish you could go back in time and fix past transgressions, that’s not an option unless you’ve managed to rig up a time machine in your basement. As a result, you’re likely still thinking about all the things you could have done differently (but didn’t) and will never have the opportunity to change.
While this type of emotional baggage has always existed, some people elevate it to an art form. In fact, they wear it as a badge of honor and make it an integral aspect of their personality.
At some point, this type of person went through something that damaged or upset them, and they’ve decided that it affected them so deeply that they’re permanently scarred by it. Furthermore, they’ve discovered that there are significant benefits to embracing and embodying their victimhood.
For example, they receive pity and sympathy from others when they talk about the awful thing(s) they’ve experienced. Secondly, they don’t have to be held responsible for anything they say or do because of all they’ve been through. They have the right to complain, and it doesn’t matter if anyone else has suffered too, because they have it worse.
As you can imagine, this impedes them from living an authentic life and negatively impacts their relationships. Who wants a friend or partner who complains all the time and can never be relied on?
How To Let Go Of Emotional Baggage
Here’s the great thing about baggage: you don’t have to drag it around with you. In fact, you can choose to let go of it instead of lugging it everywhere you go.
Identify exactly where it came from.
You may have a general idea of where and how you acquired this emotional baggage, or you might struggle to understand how it ended up strapped to you. Before you can even think about learning how to let it go, you need to pinpoint exactly where it came from and when.
The only way you can do this is by leaning into it and analyzing when it arrived rather than hiding from it. You may try to avoid the discomfort that it brings, but once you scrutinize it, you may discover that its origins were different than you assumed.
For example, you may feel great shame about behaving poorly toward a past partner when you were out for a meal together. Once you analyze it, however, you realize that you didn’t actually care for that person much. In reality, you’re embarrassed by your own lousy behavior because you aren’t that person anymore.
Alternatively, you might be holding onto old anger toward someone you felt wronged you, such as a parent or former employer. When you take the time to think about what actually happened, you may discover that what angered you was either being called out for something valid or that you were kept from an opportunity you wanted to experience.
Delving into the details like this is rather like playing Dr. House with your emotional baggage. You can’t determine the proper technique for healing from it until you’ve sorted out what’s caused it in the first place!
Be aware of how it affects your daily life.
Keep a journal handy and take notes every time you feel as though your emotional baggage is infringing upon your day-to-day activities.
For example, if you’re having trouble sleeping because of intrusive thoughts, write that down. Take note of what time they start to arise to see if there’s a pattern, as well as your specific thoughts and how they make you feel.
Similarly, if you find yourself falling out with others due to self-victimization, self-criticism, fear, and so on, write down exactly what was said between the two of you. Determine why you felt the need to be cruel to yourself in that moment or why you felt prodded to play the victim. Was it to avoid conflict? Or to garner sympathy?
If you were crippled by anxiety in a situation, try to determine what it was that set you off. We all have “triggers,” but learning to identify them is the first step to disarming them.
Jump the groove by changing habits.
You might have become so accustomed to living with this emotional baggage that it’s become a part of your daily routine. As a result, it’ll intrude into your world around the same time every day because it has become a habit.
These routines become second nature to us, which is often why it feels like it’s so hard to let go. You’ve gotten as used to them as brushing your teeth.
This is why it’s so important to journal about your experience so you can keep track of what happens at what time, discern whether these thoughts come up unbidden or are triggered, and determine ways to stop that cycle from repeating itself.
I’ll give you a personal example here. For years, I found that about half an hour after I woke up, I was hit with a wave of anger and resentment over something someone did to me when I was younger. I never had closure about the situation and couldn’t seem to let go of what had occurred. Through journaling, I discovered that I was associating the experience with making my morning coffee.
I have a very solid routine, and my mind would drift off to thinking about what had transpired while waiting for the coffee to percolate. It was literally the sound of my moka pot bubbling that would trigger the memory!
By switching to a drip machine and programming it to be ready when my alarm went off, I bypassed the sound/scent trigger that activated the anger and bad memories. They stopped almost immediately and haven’t returned since.
We often touch upon how important it is to live in the present moment as much as possible, and that’s because it’s beneficial in just about every aspect of one’s life.
Whenever you feel that you’re spinning out due to past experiences or future worries, snap yourself back into the present moment. Focus on what’s happening right here, right now, and give your current experiences your full attention.
A Buddhist friend of mine once told me that he doesn’t allow distractions when he’s sipping tea or eating a meal. With each sip or bite, he savors every aspect of what he’s enjoying. He also acknowledges the hard work done by every person who has helped to bring the ingredients to his cup or bowl.
Try to do this with whatever you’re engrossed in at the moment, and there won’t be any room for the intrusive thoughts associated with your emotional baggage to seep in and cause chaos.
Make amends (but only if you know that it will do more good than harm).
This one is tricky, especially if you did something awful to someone that you’re still feeling guilt and shame about. The intention behind this kind of action generally has multiple intentions:
- You might want to clear the air and explain to the other person why you behaved the way you did
- They may understand and forgive you, thus alleviating the weight of guilt and shame you’ve been carrying with you for years
- By explaining yourself, you might alleviate the pain that they’ve been living with
Here’s where it gets tricky: While you might still be ruminating on whatever it was that happened between you, that other person could have taken steps to help them move on from the past. Depending on how bad it was between you, they may have needed years of therapy to help them heal from it and rebuild themselves to a point where they’re happy and at peace.
If you reach out to them now, you could very well undo all of that hard work. In fact, you might make things much worse for both of you. When it comes to cases like this, it’s often better to let sleeping dogs lie. Learn from the situation, agree to never repeat those particular actions with anyone else, and then leave whatever occurred in the past.
It’s often tempting to reach out to a person you’ve hurt in order to make amends, but the underlying motivation is rarely truly altruistic. Generally, when a person reaches out to someone years after the fact in order to apologize, it’s because they want to stop feeling bad about what happened. They often don’t take into account how the other person is doing or if they even want to hear from them.
If you feel that you absolutely cannot move on with your life unless you’ve made amends with this person, consider doing some recon first. If you have mutual friends, reach out to them to ask how they think the harmed party would react if you made contact. They might be able to put some feelers out and get back to you one way or another.
Alternatively, you can meet with a therapist to help you work through this by proxy. This might involve roleplaying, which can give you the opportunity to say whatever it is you need to get off your chest without the risk of harming anyone else in the process.
There’s also the option to pour your heart out into a letter and then either burn it or give it to someone else to hold for you.
The key here is to release what’s weighing on you without harming anyone else in the process. You might feel that you need to “make it right,” but the focus here is still on YOUR needs. Not theirs.
Remember that real life rarely unfolds like a romantic comedy film or Hallmark holiday special. The person you want to make amends with may appreciate your effort, but it’s just as likely that you’ll ruin their day (or month). It may force them to relive unpleasant things that they thought they had already left in the past. Tread carefully here.
Do physical activities to work old hurts out of your body.
Do you have ever-present tension in your neck and shoulders? An aching jaw from clenching it? How about digestive upset or inflammation around your abdomen and/or lower back? Depending on the type of emotional baggage you’re dealing with, you might actually be carrying it with you physically—not just psychologically.
A 2013 study done in Finland mapped out where different emotions are felt in the body. People with PTSD, long-lasting hypervigilance, or trauma-induced depression and anxiety tend to feel the same emotions in the same physical areas.
For example, people who feel shame often get headaches and shoulder tension. In contrast, those suffering from anxiety get abdominal distress and lower back (adrenal) issues.
Whenever something occurs that reminds them of a past hurt or trauma, these areas go into overdrive. It’s why our shoulders tense up automatically when we get stressed or feel that we need to brace for something difficult.
Sometimes people “carry the weight of the world on their shoulders” when they’re stressed. In these instances, their shoulders can literally hunch up to their ears.
Similarly, when people are frustrated or overwhelmed, they’ll often rub the bridge of their nose or temples because of the tension that accumulates there.
As such, doing physical activities or getting therapeutic massages can help to literally move those old hurts out of your body so you can heal from them. If you’re comfortable with the idea of a physical therapist helping you through this, look for one who has experience with muscle energy techniques (MET) as part of kinesiology and physiotherapy.
Add new things into the mix.
One of the reasons why emotional baggage can stick around longer than we’d like is because we’ve gotten used to having it in the corner all the time. Consider your daily, weekly, and monthly routines. Are they fairly formulaic? Or do you add new things into your schedule regularly?
Think about this rather like doing some thorough spring cleaning and rearranging your furniture a little bit. While you’re sweeping out the corners and dusting hard-to-reach places, you may come across items you thought you’d gotten rid of years ago that you can now dispose of accordingly.
Then, instead of looking at the same old thing every day, week in and week out, you can replace it with something new and inspiring. Take up a new hobby that will engage you, challenge you, and keep you occupied rather than dredging up sludge from the past again and again.
The same approach goes for letting new people into your life. If you’re carrying baggage around because you’ve been cheated on, catfished, or scammed, the only way to get past that is to take a chance on someone.
You may feel that new relationships scare you, but recognize that it isn’t the potential relationship itself that’s worrisome, it’s the idea of letting yourself be vulnerable, thus opening up the potential to get hurt again.
The best way to get past this is to take things very slowly. Be wary of those who want to move too quickly or who ask you for financial or emotional support too soon.
When in doubt, talk to friends, family, a spiritual advisor, or your therapist. They’ll be able to offer an outside perspective and let you know whether they think you’re being paranoid or if there are valid concerns present.
Remember that just like any other type of baggage, you don’t have to carry it around with you forever. Any time you’ve returned from a vacation, you’ve put your luggage down, emptied out the stinky socks and kitschy souvenirs, and then put those suitcases back in storage, right? Well, the same can be done with emotional baggage.
The key to letting it go is to identify where it came from and how it’s manifesting in your day-to-day life. Once that’s done, you can take the steps you feel are needed to pack those bags away for good. Alternatively, you can always set them on fire and toss them into a nearby river never to be seen again.