We all have times in our lives when we feel bogged down by life. Events from the past and emotions seem to build up to an unbearable point until we find ourselves completely unable to move forward in our lives.
If we took the time to reflect on all of the baggage, we are carrying we would likely find that much of it is not worth the time and energy we have invested in holding onto it.
However, it’s not as simple as just letting it go. In order to get rid of the baggage we have, we must first understand what it is, identify and acknowledge it, and then go through the process of releasing it.
The objective of letting go is to break free from the baggage that has been holding you back and truly move forward in your life.
What is Baggage
In this context, baggage can be classified as those things (thoughts, emotions, and experiences) that weigh us down mentally and emotionally. A refusal or inability to let go of baggage can prove to be a huge stumbling block in your life. Emotionally, holding onto baggage means harboring negative emotions such as sorrow, anger, bitterness, unforgiveness, guilt, and grief. Mentally, holding onto baggage means harboring memories of painful or tragic experiences and times in our lives (Li, 2017).
Both instances of harboring (mental and emotional) leave us essentially tied to past emotions and old memories which then go on to continue to shape our present and future lives. Harboring those negative feelings and moments shape the way we see others and influence the way we interact with those around us.
We are limited in our ability to fully participate or engage in new relationships and situations. Holding onto our past experiences leads us to expect the worst of others and envision worst-case scenarios. Our past clouds our present and keeps us from living in the here and now.
We set low expectations and are often met with disappointment. Basically, baggage is a weight that holds us, hostage, to the past and limits our future.
Common Types of Baggage
There are several different types of emotional and mental baggage that people commonly struggle with. Each type of baggage comes with its own dynamics and set of impacts.
Family baggage is characterized by our upbringing and the experiences that defined our childhood. The way we are raised and the type of family we grow up in shape who we are, and the emotional and behavior patterns we go on to develop. Thus, if you grow up in a chaotic or dysfunctional family, you’re more likely to carry chaotic and dysfunctional patterns of thinking and behavior into present-day life.
Research has shown that adverse childhood experiences can stunt neurodevelopment, leading to mental, social, and emotional impairment. The CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study was one of the largest investigations of childhood abuse and neglect and household challenges and later-life health and well-being.
The original ACE Study was conducted from 1995 to 1997 with two waves of data collection. More than 17,000 Health Maintenance Organization members from Southern California receiving physical exams completed confidential surveys regarding their childhood experiences and current health status and behaviors.
Study findings showed that as the number of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) increased the risk for negative outcomes also increased (About the CDC-kaiser ACE study. 2019).
2| Mental Health
Those struggling with their mental health can be carrying baggage. The weight of mental health diagnosis and all that comes tied to that can be a lot to manage. The battle of mental health can be all-consuming for some people.
Often those who cope with mental health conditions also find themselves battling with feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness, and this can then lead to some self-destructive behaviors.
These individuals often put themselves down or deprecate themselves in ways that make it challenging for them to find and maintain meaningful/quality relationships (Johnson, 2019). Thus, they often need more reassurance and the help and support of others, to include a mental health professional.
Past relationships can also be a source of baggage for many people, especially if those relationships were negative or traumatic/abusive in any way. There are memories and emotions that are deeply tied to relationships that people often don’t take the proper time to heal. This failure to heal prevents them from moving forward.
Some people may find themselves still emotionally tied to a former partner due to an inability to release feelings of attachment or obligation. Other people might find that negative things that were done or said during the course of the relationship are hard to move past. Still, others may be finding themselves feeling grief or guilt over how a relationship came to an end.
Nonetheless, all of these act as stumbling blocks that keep someone from being able to be happy and content as an individual, let alone go on to form a healthy relationship with another person (Johnson, 2019).
4| Emotional Baggage
When looking specifically at emotional baggage, there are several common types of baggage that most people tend to struggle with. The following list outlines these types of baggage: (Li, 2017).
- Comparison: Comparison baggage is that whereby we look at ourselves and our lives and compare them with others. Often, this type of baggage is characterized by thoughts of worthlessness or not being good enough as compared to someone else.
- Fear: Fear is characterized by an unpleasant emotion or thought that one has when concerned, worried, or frightened by something or someone dangerous, bad, or painful. Fear often results in poor decision making, as fear impacts our ability to reason and our judgment centers leading to misperception. Detrimental or unhealthy coping mechanisms to help cope with fear can develop, such as excessive drinking, substance abuse, and even jumping into less meaningful relationships.
- Guilt & Regret: Guilt refers to a feeling of worry or remorse connected to something that was previously done wrong in the past as defined by the Cambridge English Dictionary. Regret refers to a feeling of sorrow about a past decision or the way something was done previously, according to the Cambridge English Dictionary. Both of these types of baggage prove to be debilitating by tying you to the past by keeping your focus on what you wish could have been done or what you wish could have happened.
- Relocating Emotions and Feelings: Relocating emotions and feelings is a type of baggage that involves transferring negative emotions related to one situation, event, or individual and transfer them to an unrelated situation, event, or individual. This type of baggage undermines present happiness and being by attaching past emotions to present moments.
- Bad Moods: The baggage of bad moods deals with the negative and uncertain feelings we have towards situations, people, and life as a whole. Bad moods seep in and sabotage everyday life. They arise without real warning or without real triggers; they simply exist.
- Utter Deficiency: Utter deficiency baggage is primarily the result of hyper-focusing on our faults, weaknesses, and shortcomings. We tend to hone in on our flaws (no matter how minor) and use them as a means of justifying our inadequacy of insufficiency. This can also be known as inner criticism. It is characterized by allowing thoughts of insufficiency to consume and dictate thoughts, actions, and behaviors (Houlis, n.d.)
Implications of Baggage: What Research Shows
There are short-term and long-term implications that come with holding onto various sorts of mental and emotional baggage that impact us physically, mentally, and emotionally. Research has shown that negative emotional states can create extra stress in the body and mind.
Research in the field of psychoneuroimmunology suggests that chronic stress can lead to or exacerbate mood disorders such as depression and anxiety, bipolar disorder, cognitive (thinking) problems, personality changes, and problem behaviors (MentalHelp.net, 2020).
Other research has shown that if the emotional or mental baggage (stressor) is significant enough or experienced over a long enough period of time it can lead to chronic stress, which can lead to health issues (Fischer, 2018).
A 2017 review published in the EXCLI Journal of Experimental and Clinal Sciences noted that stressors could act on the body in a variety of ways ranging from changes in homeostasis to more serious impacts such as death. In many cases outlined within the review, the pathophysiological complications of disease were linked to stressors and those exposed to stressful environments.
The American Psychological Association outlines a host of systems within the body that stressors such as mental and emotional baggage could impact, over short and long-term periods. The musculoskeletal system can be impacted because the body and muscles have a tendency to tense up in response to stressors.
This can lead to increased risks for chronic pain conditions (American Psychological Association, 2020). Stress and strong emotional baggage can present with respiratory symptoms, such as shortness of breath and rapid breathing, as the airway between the nose and the lungs constricts.
Some studies have even shown that acute stress can actually trigger asthma attacks. In addition, the rapid breathing caused by stress can bring on a panic attack in someone prone to panic attacks (American Psychological Association, 2020). There also appear to be cardiovascular impacts of constant stress experienced over a prolonged period of time.
Evidence shows it can contribute to long-term problems for the heart and blood vessels by increasing the heart rate, elevated levels of stress hormones, and increasing blood pressure. This can increase the risk of hypertension, heart attack or stroke.
Additionally, repeated acute stress and persistent chronic stress may also contribute to inflammation in the circulatory system, particularly in the coronary arteries, and this is one pathway that is thought to tie stress to a heart attack. It also appears that how a person responds to stress can affect cholesterol levels (American Psychological Association, 2020).
Evidence goes on to cite negative impacts on the endocrine system, the gastrointestinal system, the nervous system, and the reproductive system (male & female) (American Psychological Association, 2020).
Research conducted in 1998 involving psychoneuroimmunological testing in laboratory animals and a range of human epidemiological showed findings associating stress with a weakened immune system, increased cardiovascular damage, gastrointestinal problems such as ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome, decreased fertility, the impaired formation of long-term memories and damage to certain parts of the brain, such as the hippocampus.
Other symptoms include fatigue, an increased likelihood of osteoporosis and type 2 diabetes, and aggravated clinical depression, accelerated aging and even premature death (Sapolsky, 1998).
The emotional implications of holding onto baggage can also be significant. Often an inability to release baggage equates to poor or low self-esteem. Holding onto the past and negative emotions can cause you to see yourself through a negative lens. You begin to doubt your own capabilities and competence.
Over time, as you sit with those negative thoughts and feelings, you begin to adopt those negative beliefs. This weight makes you genuinely believe you aren’t good enough, or deserving enough, or capable enough (Johnson, 2019). The relationship you develop with yourself goes on to become critical and degrading.
Holding onto baggage might also result in an inability to commit to other people (i.e., friends or partners) and to situations (i.e., jobs, places to live, etc.). Holding onto baggage constantly has us looking in the rearview mirror of our lives. This means we judge the present based on the past.
So, if our past was filled with difficult relationships or tumultuous circumstances, we’ll project our past onto the present and expect the same thing in the here and now (Johnson, 2019).
Along those same lines, holding onto baggage can mean an inability to open up to others and even yourself. When faced with a history of negative or traumatic experiences, we all adopt coping mechanisms to help us navigate those situations. For many people, emotionally shutting down or closing themselves off to others becomes the easiest and safest way to protect from any more heartache.
While used as a defense mechanism this tens to do more harm than good because while it does keep people out, it keeps you from forming meaningful relationships (Johnson, 2019). This leads to an isolation that prevents growth and connection from taking place.
How To Break Free From Baggage
You are not bound to your baggage forever. You can process what you feel and experience in a healthy manner and then shed the unnecessary pieces of weight in order to move forward in your life.
The following are several steps that can be taken to help you break free from baggage:
Acknowledge And Process Your Emotions
Simply put, you cannot address what you won’t first acknowledge. Before you can break free from the baggage that is holding you captive, you have to address the emotions and events that are holding you back. A technique outlined in research by Ceri Sims is one approach that can be taken to acknowledge and process emotions. It uses the acronym TEARS (Scott, 2018).
T– Teach and learn. This involves a high level of self-awareness and increased personal knowledge about your body, mind, and emotions. It means taking the time to understand what you are feeling and what triggers those feelings as a means of better understanding yourself and hope to manage how you feel.
E– Express and allow sensory and embodied experiences. This involves encouraging openness and curiosity within yourself as a means of enhancing acceptance. The more open and less closed off you are, the more you can embrace your emotions and process through them.
A– Accept and befriend. This involves working to focus on increasing your own self-compassion and tolerance for frustration. By increasing one’s tolerance for frustration one can better manage and navigate negative emotions.
R– Re-appraise and re-frame. This involves using techniques and cognitive-behavioral approaches to view situations and scenarios with new eyes. This allows you the opportunity to shift from a negative to a positive perspective when faced with tough circumstances. Thus, you’re able to readjust your emotions to those that are healthier and will better suit you.
S– Social Support. This means expanding feelings of connection to other people by investing in meaningful relationships. Doing so allows you to have the emotional support needed to work through challenging emotions and situations.
Accept What You Cannot Change
Once you have taken the time to process through the emotions you do have, you can move to acceptance. Acceptance is the process of removing the emotion attached to events and circumstances in order to view these events and circumstances more objectively.
Acceptance removes the personal attachment that clouds judgment. You’re able to remove all resistance, release all expectations, and simply embrace what is, no matter how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (Hart, 2018). Acceptance is not agreeing that something negative that happened or that you experienced was okay. Rather, acceptance simply acknowledges that there is no present action that can be taken to alter what has already taken place.
Release What Does Not Serve You
A part of acceptance is releasing those things that no longer do you any good. Often, we hold onto emotions, experiences, and even memories of people for so long that they become parts of our identity.
However, if those experiences, emotions, and individuals are negative and detrimental, we don’t need to hold onto them. A large part of this is embracing forgiveness. Much of the baggage we tend to hold onto is tied to painful moments and experiences we perceive as being at the hands of others or as the result of the actions of others.
Forgiveness is the action or process of rescinding resentment and bitterness towards someone and demonstrating empathy and compassion towards them according to Bob Enright, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (Weir, 2017).
Research seems to support the powerful benefits of forgiveness. A book edited by Toussaint, Worthington, and David R. Williams, Ph.D. titled Forgiveness and Health outlined some of these benefits. Some of the mental health benefits included reduced anxiety, decreased depression, and a decrease in symptoms associated with major psychiatric disorders.
Other benefits included fewer negative physical health symptoms and lower mortality rates. Toussaint and Worthington went on to suggest that stress relief is probably the chief factor connecting forgiveness and well-being. “We know chronic stress is bad for our health,” Toussaint says. “Forgiveness allows you to let go of the chronic interpersonal stressors that cause us an undue burden (Toussaint et. al., 2015).”
Enright also suggested that forgiveness helps rebuild self-esteem. That by letting go of what was done to us, we can let go of how what was done to us made us feel negative about ourselves. Essentially forgiveness of others equates to self-forgiveness that frees us from our own mistakes as well.
Another research supported benefit of forgiveness as suggested by Eright is the release of “toxic anger” which he characterized as that which is very deep and long-lasting. A meta-analysis, for example, Yoichi Chida, MD, Ph.D., found that anger and hostility are linked to a higher risk of heart disease, and poorer outcomes for people with existing heart disease (Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 2009)
Commit To Being Present
This action requires self-awareness to draw yourself back to the now when you’re inevitably tempted to wander back to thoughts of the past that will no longer serve you. We must learn to practice mindfulness in our daily lives. Mindfulness grounds us in the present and helps us reshape our thoughts and attitudes to those that are better suited for what will benefit us.
This can be accomplished for many people via mindfulness meditation because it teaches us to first silence the negative chatter minds and then to become consciously aware of our thoughts. From that place, we are able to take control of our thoughts and refocus on the now.
Research supports the positive benefits of mindfulness meditation. The work of Lazar and colleague Josh Summers also found that mindfulness meditation had the ability to impact “the area of the brainstem where a lot of neurotransmitters that are related to mood are released.”
That suggested that there were links between mindfulness meditation and changes in mood. Additionally, a part of the brain essential to the processing of fear, stress, and anxiety was also impacted by mindfulness meditation (Ahmad, 2019).
Reshape Thinking & Actions
Once you’ve taken the time to process how you feel, accept what cannot be changed, release those things that don’t serve you via forgiveness and other means, and commit to living in the present, you can begin to adopt new patterns of thinking and behaving.
This requires intentionality and patience, as reshaping what is often years of learned behavior can be a challenge. Addressing one thought at a time or one act at a time can be a realistic way to tackle these areas until each has been addressed.
Mental and emotional baggage act as dead weights that drag us down. But the great thing about baggage is that we can get rid of it. Just because we have carried something for a long time or just because a history of a particular type of baggage runs in our family/friend circles does not mean we are bound to a lifetime of bondage. Purging ourselves of baggage is not easy, but with determination and commitment, it is completely possible.
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Yaribeygi, H., Panahi, Y., Sahraei, H., Johnston, T. P., & Sahebkar, A. (2017). The impact of stress on body function: A review. EXCLI journal, 16, 1057–1072.
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