By Jeremy Godwin.
Welcome back to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, a weekly podcast/article about mental health and wellbeing by Australian author and speaker Jeremy Godwin that is about much more than just talk – every episode includes practical advice for improving and maintaining your mental health and wellbeing.
This week we’re talking about baggage – what emotional baggage is, why we can sometimes become weighed down by unresolved stuff from our past, and how to work through it so you’re not carrying it around for the rest of your life. So, let’s talk!
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Do you have stuff that happened in your past that’s weighing you down? Things that went wrong, shitty relationships, terrible experiences at work, upsetting events, losing your way…? Most of us have some ugly stuff lurking in the back of the closet, and dealing with it can seem almost impossible. But the thing about emotional baggage is that when you carry around too much of it, it will either weigh you down or you’ll end up paying ridiculously high excess baggage fees like on the plane.
I am here to tell you that it really is possible to deal with your baggage and move forward. The bad news is that there isn’t just a pill you can swallow or a mantra you can recite that will make it all go away, but the good news is that through putting in time and effort you really can deal with it. I know, I know… saying “time and effort” makes it sound like it’s going to be exhausting and ain’t nobody got time for that (look at me keeping up with pop culture references from 2012!) but believe me when I tell you that it’s worth it to do it and to take the time to do it right, and today we’ll talk through how.
Baggage can be described as stuff from your past that you haven’t fully worked through yet, which means it’s still weighing you down and might be contributing to other issues in your life. It’s that deep-seated stuff that goes right to the core of your insecurities and vulnerabilities and fears, and it can be a real bastard to deal with because it’s painful, and we naturally want to defend ourselves from pain. But the thing about baggage is this: the longer you carry it around, the heavier it gets; and the heavier it gets, the more it can weigh you down and stop you from living a life where you feel satisfied, calm and able to move forward.
I like to describe baggage as being “experience you haven’t dealt with yet.” What I mean when I say that is this: when things happen to us – the good, the bad and the ugly – it’s up to us to process it, find the lesson it can teach us, then learn that lesson and take that knowledge with us into our future in a way that sees us acting in our own best interests. Sometimes stuff happens to us that was within our control, and sometimes stuff happens to us that was out of our control – regardless, we have a choice: do we let it own us, or do we own it? Owning it takes work; it would be great if we could just decide to own and it and be done with it, but life rarely ever works like that. We’re so used to getting what we want immediately (hell, I get frustrated if my Amazon order takes longer than a day or two to arrive – and I live in the countryside) but dealing with our baggage and really healing can’t be done at the click of a button or a snap of the fingers; this stuff takes time and effort – sorry to break it to you! But know that it is possible, and we’ll talk through how in this episode.
Let me just take a moment here to say what ‘dealing with baggage’ isn’t about. It isn’t about just sucking it up or getting over it. It isn’t just about saying “it is what it is” and thinking that you’re all done with your baggage. And it’s not something that you just do once and tick off your list – it’s a journey, not just a destination. And yes that’s a cliché and no I don’t care, because every cliché is grounded in truth and has something to teach us.
That ‘it is what it is’ thing is a funny one and I’d like to talk about it for a moment. I see that phrase as being about accepting things that are out of your control – something I talk about a LOT in my work – but I get really irritated when people say “it is what it is” as a means of dealing with baggage. Slapping a catchphrase on something or putting up an inspirational sign doesn’t help you to get to the heart of why you might be carrying around serious emotional baggage, and frankly it does more harm than good. In order to deal with your baggage you need to actually address it and work through it, not just shrug it off – otherwise it will come back and bite you in the backside later on. Dealing with baggage really isn’t a solo gig – to work through it you need to work with someone who knows what the hell they’re talking about and who can navigate the conversation in a careful manner, so they can guide you through what is often a much more challenging process than just saying “it is what it is.” I’m just saying! That phrase is more about accepting that things are out of your control, so please don’t try to self-medicate your way through your baggage by saying “it is what it is”, because it isn’t!
Some examples of baggage could be stuff that happened at work, at school, in your relationships, with your parents or siblings – it’s usually the stuff from our past that has really strong emotions connected to it because it’s to do with people really close to our hearts.
Baggage and mental health
That level of intimate connection is precisely why this topic is related to good mental health and wellbeing. You know how sometimes it’s so much harder to get over an argument with a family member than it might be with a friend or co-worker? That’s because the closer the relationship, the more vulnerable we become when there’s baggage attached to it. Baggage left unattended will eventually clog up your capacity for focusing on the good in things and it will make it harder and harder to have positive relationships, both with other people and with yourself (except at the airport, where it will cause a security scare and then be blown up by the authorities in case it’s a bomb).
When I talk about baggage, I’m talking about that serious stuff that you haven’t fully dealt with yet and which you’re still carrying around. It is a weight, a burden, a heavy load that you’ve been carrying around for months or years that will keep pulling you down and might even affect pretty much everything that you think, feel and do unless you work through it. That is what this weel’s episode/post is about. It’s not easy, and in fact it’s completely frightening and for a lot of us the instinct can be to just leave it alone so we don’t need to face whatever it is that’s hidden deep down in our consciousness, because what you can’t see can’t hurt you – but unfortunately that’s not true, because everything will rise to the surface given enough time unless you deal with it.
I guess the question for some of you might be “why should I deal with it? I’m fine with things the way they are and I don’t want to go poking around in my head too much because who knows what might happen?” – and that’s fair. I can’t tell you to deal with your baggage and sort your shit out, because only you can decide what is right for you. But let me ask you this – do you have patterns that keep popping up over and over again for you? It might be your romantic relationships breaking down when things get tough or get too intense, it might be every job you work at turning into a shit-show after five or six months, it might be self-destructive behaviour like pushing people away or overindulging in food, alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling or any other bad habit that makes you feel like crap afterwards. Those sorts of self-destructive behaviours don’t just come from nowhere – treating yourself like shit usually comes from a place that’s overflowing with baggage (along with all of those socks that disappear in the washing machine). And that’s why you should deal with it – because serious baggage doesn’t just exist in a little box on a shelf in your head that is filed away and forgotten about. Oh no, that would be far too easy. Emotional baggage lurks in the dark corners of your mind and lowers both your self-esteem and your self-belief, and it can make you do stuff that causes yourself (and often those around you) real pain. Until you confront it and work through it, you will be controlled by it; and I don’t know about you, but I want to be the one in the driver’s seat for my life.
I spent a very long time carrying around a lot of baggage when I was younger, and while I wouldn’t say I’m completely healed now – because I’m not, and there’s still plenty more to work through – I’ve managed over the past few years to deal with the majority of the big stuff that messed me up for a very long time. The stuff that made me think I wasn’t worthy – like my father leaving when I was seven and not having a lot to do with me after that, like my mother being physically and emotionally abusive, like being constantly bullied and teased all throughout high school… all of that stuff left me feeling like I was less than everyone else, and it took having a nervous breakdown to push me to work through all of that stuff with a psychologist. I’m glad that I did because I can look back on it all much more objectively now, because I know that it can’t hurt me unless I choose to let it. However the thing is that we shouldn’t get to the point of breaking down before we deal with our baggage – yes, it might seem confronting and challenging to work through it, but it’s better than hitting rock bottom and then having to sit in a room with a total stranger and bare the darkest corners of your soul because you know it’s either that or not being able to go on anymore.
Until you confront it, process it, deal with it and move forward one step at a time, then you’re likely to experience emotional baggage popping up when you least expect it and raining on your parade. And it really is a case of “one step at a time”, because recovery and healing don’t just happen overnight – and they also don’t just happen in a straight line; in other words, it’s not like every day is better than the last until suddenly we’re all skipping through the forest and talking to the animals. Healing is hard and it goes up and down. You can have good days, you can have bad days, you can have average days, you can have completely awful days… but it will get better, it just takes putting one step in front of the other and getting support when you need it. Actually, scratch that – it involves getting support even when you think you don’t need it. If the Beatles taught us anything (other than the fact that they are, indeed, the walrus), it’s that we all get by with a little help from our friends – even if that ‘friend’ is a trained professional who you’re paying to listen to you.
When it comes to emotional baggage – we don’t just deal with it and be done. We talk about it, we process it and understand it, and then we deal with it. I mean, I don’t want to give away all of my secrets but I see that as being pretty much the key to good mental health and wellbeing, for whatever the topic might be.
Also, it’s not about healing to a specific timeframe or checking off a set of milestones until suddenly, boom! You’re healed! It takes time, effort and an understanding that you’ll have ups and downs – but the more you work through it, over time, the less you’ll experience the shitty days and instead the good days will become more frequent. There really is a light at the end of the tunnel, and I promise you it’s not a train heading in your direction! But it takes work, and work is hard – and I am not going to sugar-coat that. However, it really is worth it because it can clear away all the things that have held you back.
So, how do you work through your emotional baggage so it doesn’t come back and bite you later on? Let’s get into the practical part of today’s topic: how to deal with your baggage (in a healthy way).
Practical steps for dealing with emotional baggage
Let’s start at the beginning, which is to work out what you need to work through. What area (or areas) of your life are you feeling stuck in or feeling like you’re carrying around emotional burdens? Make a list. I know, I know, I always say “make a list” but there’s a good reason for it: sometimes, you need to see it written down to make you look at it differently, and this will also help you to identify the one or two main things that you’re having the most difficulty with (don’t try to work through all of your baggage in one sitting, because you may explode).
Now ask yourself this question and be brutally honest: why do you want to address those areas of your life? Is it because you’re sick of feeling helpless? Is it because you’re tired of waking up with a pounding hangover because you’re drinking too much to mask your pain? Are you sick of getting fat because you’re eating your sadness? And yes, each of those is something I have done myself and which has led to my own process of working through my baggage. Be really clear about just what damage your baggage might be doing to you and those around you. Face the truth. If you’re not ready to change, you’re probably not ready to deal with your baggage – so either get your shit together and face it, or deal with the fact that nothing will change.
Now comes the hardest part – dig into the ‘why’. For those of you who have listened to or read my earlier episodes/posts, you might remember me talking about a technique called The Five Whys, which I’m going to revisit quickly now…
‘Five Whys’ is a technique you can use to dig deeper into something and try to understand its root cause. It’s like when you go to see the doctor – a good medical professional won’t just treat your symptoms; instead, they will ask you a series of questions to try to understand what the root cause of your symptom(s) might be (in other words, so they can treat the disease and not just the symptom). If you’re grappling with baggage, usually there is a lot more to just whatever the thought or feeling or emotion is attached to it, so you can ask yourself “Why?” and then once you have an answer, ask yourself “why is that answer the answer I gave?” and continue to do so until you reach a deeper level of understanding. Note that there might be more than one root cause, so you may have to do this a few times. If you’d like to read more on the technique, read here and here. Let me give you an example using my own recent experience:
Issue: I was struggling with a lack of confidence and crippling anxiety while working in a management role earlier this year (for the first time since 2012).
Why? Because I was second-guessing myself and couldn’t seem to find a steady footing, especially when having to deal with some serious staff issues.
And why was that? Working through all of the performance management stuff – in other words, taking disciplinary action against people I was managing – with my manager and HR was stressing me out.
Why did it stress me out? It was reminding me of all the stuff I hated about managing people because it felt awful.
Why did it feel awful? Because I realised that I just didn’t know anymore how to manage my way through all of that and still be the kind of person I want to be – it’s horrible having to discipline people at work or sack someone (both of which I had to do) but unfortunately it is a part of the job as a manager, and for me it was exhausting and overwhelming.
And why was it exhausting and overwhelming? Because management is no longer the right job for me.
See the difference from the beginning to ‘Why?’ number five? If I just tried to address the confidence thing, it wouldn’t address the real root cause – management is not the right job for me anymore. That is what I need to work through in order to let go of the baggage, because the confidence and anxiety things are just symptoms of what’s really going on deep below the surface. The thing about baggage is that if you just leave it without dealing with it, eventually it returns until you learn the lesson you need to learn.
Do it in a safe place and with support. When you’re working through this stuff, please make sure you’re in a safe place when you do – even better, talk it through with a professional or an objective friend/loved one. If you do use someone you know personally, you need to be talking with someone who can listen without jumping in with solutions, someone who can ask lots of open questions and let you process your thoughts and feelings, someone who can be impartial and objective – and that is a lot to ask of someone who you’re close with, because it’s very difficult to find someone who has an emotional connection to you and who can also remain totally objective and unbiased. Which leads me to…
Find the right kind of support. Speak with someone professional who can help you to work through it: a coach, a counsellor or a therapist, depending on your preference and the severity of the ‘stuff’ you need to work through. Just to be clear, a counsellor is someone who has done accredited training, and a therapist or psychologist is someone who has an advanced degree and is recognised by professional bodies. When it comes to coaches, usually they are people who don’t have a masters or an advanced degree but you can often find people who have a good mix of both formal studies and practical expertise. Be warned though – some people just call themselves a “coach” because they like to give people advice but have no real experience or formal qualifications, and that’s fine if you want to know what type of crystal to use to align your third chakra – but when you’re talking about dealing with baggage and past trauma, it’s actually dangerous. Talk to someone who at least has some formal training, so they don’t accidentally break you. what baggage is, why we can sometimes become weighed down by unresolved stuff from our past, and how to work through it so you’re not carrying it around for the rest of your life.
Confront and express. Often the reason why we have baggage in the first place is because not only have we not processed what happened, but we also haven’t confronted it. Confront your feelings, preferably with the support of someone supportive like I discussed before. Let it out. Shout, cry, break things if you really must – but confront how you feel and express it. Now, this doesn’t mean that if your baggage stems from your difficult relationship with your mother that you pick up the phone or pop around to her house and have it out with her – that will probably cause way more harm than good. It means that you work through it with someone you can really talk to – again, that’s why you really should talk to someone who knows what they’re talking about (no DIY psychology or Dr Google here, please!). Confront your baggage and express it. I believe our grandparents used to call that “getting it off your chest” before we started posting everything on social media!
OK, so it’s out? You’ve confronted it? Now it’s time to acknowledge it and accept it. Nothing we do or say will ever change it. What has happened has happened, and now it is part of your story. All you have now is choice: the choice to let yourself be defined and damaged by it, or the choice to be defined by how you rise from it. Acknowledge to yourself that what has happened has happened, and that it is now up to you to accept it. Acceptance is a real pain because it takes a lot of effort most of the time, but to truly move forward you need to truly accept what has happened.
Know that forgiveness is your choice (but at least forgive yourself). Let’s talk about forgiveness for a moment. If your baggage is due to something that happened because of your own actions, forgive yourself and resolve to do better (if it’s something you could have avoided). If it’s something that was done to you then you don’t necessarily need to go out of your way to forgive the other person if it doesn’t feel right, but there are two things you need to do: (1) Resolve not to let it – or them – have power over you; and (2), forgive yourself, because often our baggage is tied up in our sense of guilt and shame, so stop blaming yourself. And what if it’s one of those situations where your baggage is tied up in both what you did or didn’t do, plus what another person did or didn’t do? Forgive yourself, acknowledge that you can’t change or control the other person, and choose not to let the situation have power over you – all of which may take time, so don’t rush it.
Take your time. Our emotions don’t just run in a straight line from A to B, and letting go is often a gradual process – it can be a bit of a rollercoaster at the start, then slowly the ups and downs become less extreme until gradually, over time, it becomes easier to deal with (and to hold down your lunch while you’re on the ride!).
While you’re processing all of this stuff, make a point to look for the positive. Sometimes you have to look pretty damn hard, but there is at least one positive in every situation – even if it has come at great personal cost. Even if the only positive you can find is that it has taught you what you don’t want in the future, that’s still a positive.
And finally, make a daily choice to keep on letting go. If/when those feelings pop back up, choose to view them objectively as remnants of an experience that you have accepted and that is now part of who you are. Thank those feelings for reminding you to keep on working on letting go, and breathe through them. And if you’re struggling to do that? Speak with someone.
Summary and three quick tips for dealing with emotional baggage
To summarise: Baggage is experience that you haven’t full dealt with yet, and it is possible to deal with it; it just requires work, and it requires support. You owe it to yourself to work through your baggage – you are worth it and you can do it.
To wrap up, here are my three main tips for baggage:
- Baggage is experience that you haven’t dealt with yet – you might not want to deal with it, but carrying it around will weigh you down.
- You don’t have to (and really shouldn’t) go it alone – when you’re ready to work through it, get support from someone who knows what they’re talking about and who can be totally objective.
- Dealing with your emotional baggage helps you to grow – wisdom is not about the experiences you have; it’s about what you do with the experiences that have happened in your life, how you grow from them. You cannot change what has happened, you can only learn from it.
As always, let’s finish up with a quote. This is a quote from American sportsperson Vernon ‘Vern’ Sanders Law (1930- ); take a moment to reflect on this quote in relation to the topic of dealing with emotional baggage and consider what it means to you. The quote is:
“Experience is a hard teacher because she gives you the test first, the lesson afterwards.”Vernon Sanders Law
So, that’s it for this week! Thanks for joining me again. New podcast episodes and blog posts are released every Monday morning (Australian time), and each Friday morning you can read the weekly Mental Health Talk newsletter which is full of general stuff about health and wellbeing (along with some fun stuff), so please subscribe via the website. For more content, go to:
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Next week I’ll be talking about stress – what it is, why it happens, and how to deal with it, both at work and at home, as well as how to manage your mental health and wellbeing every day in order to reduce the effect stress can have on you. I hope you’ll join me again for that episode. Until then, look after yourself and make a conscious choice to put some positive energy out into the world – you get back what you give out!
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Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2019 Jeremy Godwin.