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Unpack your emotional baggage

Emotional baggage is a collective term for all our unresolved past emotional experiences and issues, traumas, and stresses. We carry these experiences, inner criticisms, insecurities, deep (perhaps shameful) secrets, and past relationship pains, with us at all times, allowing these negative thoughts about our unresolved past to constantly occupy our minds and body.

If not taken care of, emotional baggage can negatively impact:

• the way you think about yourself (manifesting as resentment and self-loathing) • your physical well-being • how you react to stress • your relationships with others • decision-making • your mental health (depression and anxiety)

Facing your emotional baggage is certainly not as easy as simply ripping the ‘band-aid’ off. You have to identify the root cause, be honest in how it expresses (such as in the form of anger, anxiety, low self-esteem etc) and then find adequate coping skills. You need to learn to trust yourself, set relationship boundaries, think in constructive rather than destructive patterns, and manage your emotions.

What is in your suitcase?

– The past. We are often so focused on our past traumas, difficulties, challenges, losses, choices, and adverse experiences, that we lose focus of all the things we should be grateful for.

We keep reliving our worst moments, instead of embracing our lives.

Research shows that adversity:

  • doesn’t discriminate

  • makes you strong.

Deprivation and childhood difficulties can focus a developing child’s mind to overcome challenges (for example, in single-parent households, with moms only, the children tend to have stronger leadership traits and become more successful later in life).

However, all too often, those with such a past would negatively focus on “dad left us”, blaming his leaving on their current difficulties and emotional struggles.

  • does not make you a victim

  • does not define you or your future.

You might have grown up amongst negative people who berated you. They might very well have meant well and hoped that their harsh words would inspire or motivate you, not realising that their words are literally bringing you down, making you feel like a failure. But remember that does not give the words any power – you are the only one that can give it power.

– Guilt. This may stem from real transgressions, or more often, perceived transgressions. Guilt is a result of you believing you have done something wrong by causing harm to another person.

Our cultural and religious circumstances can also play a role, being raised to feel guilty for not being the “perfect” daughter, partner, mother, employee, etc., or for not acting “appropriately”, daring to “swim upstream”.

Saying no can also create guilt however we are allowed to set boundaries and be protective of our time and energy!

When I turned 16, I was allowed to have a small dance party inviting nine girls and ten boys. The Monday after the party, one of the girls in my class whom I did not invite due to limited space, was devastated and cried all day. I felt terrible and I carried the guilt with me for years to come. At our 20-year school reunion, I apologised for not inviting her yet she could not even remember the incident at all! Simply proving that the guilt we carry with us is unfound and unnecessarily negative.

– Expectations. Why do we constantly feel the need to live up to others’ expectations? Expectations that were never aligned with our own? What if you did not want to become a teacher or an engineer, but rather an artist? Should you get trapped in a profession that drains your energy every day, just because it met your family’s expectations? We should always live according to our own script else we will never live a fulfilled life.

– Regret. Do you regret the opportunities you did not grab? The choices you made, resulting in you thinking things could have been different and better if your decision was reversed?

Regret is difficult since hindsight is 20/20. I remind myself (and others) that no one willingly makes a bad decision. We make the best decision in the moment with the information at hand. The past only exists in your head, so shift your thinking and focus on the present where you have the power to make changes and choices.

– Fear. We are many times frightened, anxious or worried about something happening to us. We fear failure, rejection, uncertainty, inadequacy, change, losing control, getting hurt, and being judged.

We avoid situations that we perceive could possibly be harmful to us, and often use anger or resentment when we feel dejected, or we are unnecessarily spiteful. Fear can also be a result of previous bad experiences and past traumas which we have not processed.

– Critical inner voice. The critical inner voice is a well-integrated pattern of destructive thoughts toward ourselves and others. The nagging voices or thoughts, that make up this internalised dialogue are at the root of much of our self-destructive and maladaptive behaviour.

Our inner critic judges our appearance, success, career, personality, and relationships. This internal enemy can impact every aspect of our lives: from our confidence and self-esteem to our intimate relationships, performance, and accomplishments.

One researcher clocks inner speech at an average pace of 4000 words per minute—10 times faster than verbal speech! We don’t have to use full sentences to talk to ourselves, because we know what we mean. The worst part: these inner dialogues are so often negative with “I should have/must-have’s”, over catastrophising or overgeneralising a situation. Even if something good happens, or someone pays us a compliment, we negate all the benefits with this negative inner voice and mindset.

Clear out your suitcase!

Emotional healing is a process. Declutter your thoughts and emotional suitcases similar to your personal space.

I recently watched an episode of Marie Kondo organising a family’s house. She has a couple of rules: decide what to keep, what to discard, and what to redistribute. She also talks about only keeping items that spark joy. These steps can certainly be applied to our emotional suitcases equally successfully.

1. Reflect. Find a quiet space and write down a list of all the thoughts, beliefs, and behaviours that weigh you down. Be honest and write everything down that comes to mind. Allow yourself to travel back in time to uncover the underlying cause.

Do you dread going on dates because you fear getting hurt again? Are you reluctant to change careers because you grew up in a house where you were often berated for ‘your poor judgment’?

Acknowledge the painful memories but don’t wallow or judge them.

2. Reframe. Decide if the thought, belief or behaviour is helping or harming you. Try to find a positive in each hurtful situation or experience. For example, your mother’s criticism may have made you aware of the power of words and taught you the importance of speaking with kindness. You can also ask yourself the following: is this behaviour, mindset, thought, expectation, guilt, feeling, friendship or relationship useful and joyful? If not, get rid of it and clear it out!

The power lies not in the words that were said to you, the decision you made, or the rejection you experienced. Rather the power lies in how you allow that incident to impact you in the present.

3. Exercise resilience. One key ingredient for resilience is optimism which links with a growth mindset which I explore in a LinkedIn article.

Utilise the outcomes from step 2 above and create a statement of intent for yourself: “I will not judge others but rather allow them space to discover their own path.”

This swings the experience from the past into a positive future behaviour, freeing you from the negative association. Remind yourself daily of these affirmations: create a list on your fridge, put post-its next to your mirror and add reminders on your phone.

Remember that we all fail, have let someone down, and have a hurtful story from the past. Rather clear your mental suitcase from past transgressions and experiences and move on!

I love the following song’s words which speak to reframing, and gratitude.

Blessings – Laura Story We pray for blessings We pray for peace Comfort for family, protection while we sleep We pray for healing, for prosperity We pray for Your mighty hand to ease our suffering All the while, You hear each spoken need Yet love is way too much to give us lesser things ‘Cause what if your blessings come through raindrops What if Your healing comes through tears What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You’re near What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise We pray for wisdom Your voice to hear We cry in anger when we cannot feel You near We doubt your goodness, we doubt your love As if every promise from Your Word is not enough All the while, You hear each desperate plea And long that we’d have faith to believe When friends betray us When darkness seems to win We know that pain reminds this heart That this is not our home What if my greatest disappointments Or the aching of this life Is the revealing of a greater thirst this world can’t satisfy What if trials of this life The rain, the storms, the hardest nights Are your mercies in disguise

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