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Is your emotional baggage holding you back?

We all carry around an invisible mental weight — here’s how to lighten the load.
Image: Man wearing backpack
Therapists say their clients describe feeling physically weighted down by feelings — like they are wearing a heavy backpack.Justin Case / Getty Images

A few weeks before I got married, I sat next to my then fiancé and four other couples in a pre-marital workshop talking about conflict styles and our love languages (hello, helping me with the dishes).

When discussing conflict, one thing the therapist said struck me in particular: "We are all carrying backpacks that we continually load up. We keep stuffing them full until one day, they can’t zip and the stuff starts spilling out all over the place."

When feelings have not been able to run their course, they tend to hang around.

It stood out to me so much because it reminded me of something a friend had said a few years back after breaking up with his girlfriend. When asked what happened he simply said, “My backpack was getting too heavy, and she was only adding weight, not helping it feel lighter.”

It turned out he wasn’t originally astute, but stole the concept from George Clooney in the 2009 film, “Up in the Air.”

“How much does your life weigh? Imagine for a second that you're carrying a backpack. I want you to feel the straps on your shoulders. Now … I want you to fill it with people. Start with casual acquaintances, friends of friends, folks around the office, and then you move into the people that you trust with your most intimate secrets. Your cousins, your aunts, your uncles, your brothers, your sisters, your parents and finally your husband, your wife, your boyfriend or your girlfriend. You get them into that backpack … Feel the weight of that bag. Make no mistake — your relationships are the heaviest components in your life. Do you feel the straps cutting into your shoulders? All those negotiations and arguments, and secrets and compromises. You don't need to carry all that weight. Why don't you set that bag down?”

So what is this proverbial backpack? And how can we prevent it from filling up to the point where we feel like we can’t carry all of our “stuff?”

To get to the bottom of it (pun intended), I enlisted the help of mental health experts to find out what experiences weigh us down, how this emotional weight is holding us back, and what we can do to begin emptying out the junk.

Mental baggage: A coping mechanism

“Emotional baggage or emotional backpacks are used to describe all of the unresolved emotional issues; traumas and stresses from the past (and present) that occupy your mind and even body,” says Karol Ward, LCSW, author of "Worried Sick: Break Free From Chronic Worry to Achieve Mental & Physical Health." “Mental baggage is the tendency to ruminate or think negatively about past or current issues that have not been resolved.” Ward has heard clients describe feeling physically weighted down by feelings. “There is a tension in the body that shows up in tight shoulders or necks, upset stomachs and headaches,” she says. “Emotional baggage does feel like you are wearing or carrying a bag filled with emotions.”

Emotional baggage does feel like you are wearing or carrying a bag filled with emotions.

“We respond to experiences emotionally and carry our perceived view of the consequences with us into new experiences,” adds William Gibson, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology and Marriage Family Therapy Program Director at Brandman University. “We seek to learn from our past experiences, which is a healthy behavioral pattern. This, however, includes carrying forward threatening and unhealthy ‘baggage.’ It is a component of human development to carry our personal perception of our past experience with us. The key to healthier functionality lies in learning to manage our perceptions and strengthen ourselves as we mature in order to respond to our daily experience in healthier ways.”

The Problem with Carrying a Heavy Load

While carrying past experiences (and the emotions that came with them) may help us better navigate future experiences, they also take a toll on our health.

One study found that emotional baggage can be a real barrier to making healthy lifestyle changes (like exercising more, eating healthier or quitting smoking). “Participants described being burdened by an emotional baggage with problems from childhood and/or with family, work and social life issues,” found the study. “Respondents said that they felt that emotional baggage was an important explanation for why they were stuck in old habits and that conversely, being stuck in old habits added load to their already emotional baggage and made it heavier.”

This baggage can also “interfere with professional ambition or goals, healthy relationships, personal contentment and the enjoyment of life,” says Ward. “Until you bring to your awareness why your life is not going the way you want; you can feel like a victim, someone who is being tossed around by life's circumstances.”

“We often are influenced by past emotional experiences in how we interpret and perceive current personal interactions and primary relationships,” adds Gibson. “Our relationships with others often include emotional responses and our responses are likely to be prejudiced, both positively and negatively, by past experiences.”

Is it emotional baggage or just a bad day?

Of course, negative emotions — and responses to others — are a natural part of life. So how do we tell the difference between healthy, negative experiences and harmful emotional baggage?

“The difference between emotional baggage and a bad day is that the emotional residue from a bad day is usually gone after a good night's sleep, while emotional baggage tends to keep us in a consistently low frame of mind most of the time,” says Ward.

Ward suggests having this general check-in with yourself to determine if you’re carrying around some excess baggage that may be affecting your mental health:

  • Are you in a state of anxiety? There might be unresolved fear or trauma in the background.
  • Are you feeling sad or blue? There probably is unresolved hurt or loss in the background.
  • Are you continually angry and looking for a fight? Most times there is unexpressed anger that is being acted out in the present.

“Normal upsets are fluid, you have the feelings, you express them or share them with someone else, and then you let them go,” says Ward. “When emotional states of mind start to interfere in your everyday functioning, that's when they can be harmful to your psychological well-being.”

In addition to your general state of mind, Ward says that unresolved emotions often show up in behaviors such as:

What is Weighing You down?

If you do recognize some of these emotions or behaviors in yourself, the next step is determining the underlying cause. Emotional baggage is as unique to each person as the suitcase they pack it in. But there are some common issues – and feelings surrounding them – that arise, says Ward. Some of the recurring issues she sees in her clients include:

  • Unexpressed feelings of hurt towards loved ones; partner, spouse, friends or colleagues. These can be feelings from the present or the past
  • Unresolved anger about situations where we didn't speak up or felt powerless, such as a personal or professional relationship
  • Regret about not taking an opportunity, making a mistake or for losing a relationship
  • Grief about the loss of someone close whether it is parent, romantic partner, friend and even a pet

“The main thing is that when feelings have not been able to run their course, they tend to hang around,” says Ward. And it’s not only past experiences that contribute to the weight: “Current issues that may be ongoing such as a crazy-making boss, a series of disappointing dates or an unsuccessful job search, are seen as emotional baggage as well because they are, at least temporarily, on-going,” says Ward. “You can feel powerless during these times and it can color your world view.”

How to unload your backpack

If you do suspect that unresolved emotions are weighing you down, you’ve already taken the first step in lightening your load.

“Emotional healing is a process. Awareness might have to occur many times even while you repeat the same unhealthy patterns of behavior. This is normal,” says Ward. “We don't change until staying the same becomes too uncomfortable. And that is a process that can't be rushed even though you may desire change quickly.”

Once you are ready to face those emotions head on and make a change, here are how experts recommend going about it:

  • Work from the outside in. “Pay attention to what areas of your life are not working the way you would like them to be working,” says Ward. “Separate out temporary struggles (like a recent breakup or job change). Stuck areas are ones such as unfulfilling relationships, dead-end jobs, credit card debt or health issues that you want to change but haven't been able to over the years. Most times, the areas you are most frustrated about are the ones where there is emotional baggage. Then it's time for the inside-out work. Working through and understanding why you do what you do.”
  • Make a list. “Make a list of the top things you want to change in your life. The list may be familiar because it probably has one or two of the same issues you have been wanting to change over the years,” says Ward. “There also might be present day issues as well such as a difficult colleague, roommates, spouse or issues with kids. Start with the one area that's bothering you the most and focus on that. Most times in my coaching and private practice, a theme starts to emerge with many of the issues in the emotional backpack being linked together. So don't worry so much about where you are starting. What matters most is that you are starting the process of unpacking.”
  • Let yourself express those feelings before moving on. “Allowing yourself to feel feelings about the past and present is very freeing,” says Ward. “Many times people rush to forgive when they become aware of what happened to them. Forgiveness is a process and will come in time — sometimes forgiveness is simply being at peace within yourself without having to tell someone you forgive them. Once feelings are expressed and resolved within you, acceptance and moving forward with your life can occur.”
  • Give it time. Know that “letting go is a process and not a quick fix. Human beings are sensitive and complex, much more than I think we realize,” says Ward. “Taking the time to heal is not a failure; it’s actually the best gift you can give yourself.”
  • Consider getting help. “People need a safe place to process their feelings. Having someone trained to help you understand what you feel, provide the space for you to feel your feelings, and then help you take the steps you need to change, is very important,” says Ward. “Therapists, skilled coaches and spiritual counselors are good resources for this. Look for recommendations from people you know and trust.”

How to keep your backpack from filling up again

Unloading the backpack is only part of the equation. Once it is emptied to a manageable level, you then enter a maintenance phase, where you need to continually work to prevent it from being stuffed full again.

“There are lots of resources to tap that help keep baggage from building up,” says Ward. “Journaling, therapy, coaching, 12-step programs, meditation, mentors and even exercise will help you find and keep mental and emotional clarity.”

What each of these things offers us is the "pause" from everyday life to really get in touch with those underlying emotions so that we can address them and then let them go. “Whether it's an outside voice or your own inner voice, having the space and time to figure it out is what will help the most,” says Ward.


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