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Reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
“I’ve got baggage.” Maybe this is something you’ve said yourself or heard someone else say. But to be clear, the phrase isn’t about the luggage you pack for a trip but rather emotional baggage.
Most people have heard of the term. It’s usually tied to traumatic experiences and conjures up lots of negative emotions. This type of baggage can be an emotional burden — it may impact current relationships or future relationships and can even cause mental health issues.
It’s important to understand what emotional baggage is so you can learn how to let it go. Once you do this, your everyday life will improve.
Keep reading for a deep dive into emotional baggage, including the different types, how it can affect you and how to let go of emotional baggage.
Before learning how to get rid of emotional baggage, you need to know what it is.
Emotional baggage isn’t a medical term — it’s more like slang. People use it to describe the idea that past negative experiences can have a lasting impact on your emotional and physical health.
Emotional baggage is often thought to be caused by events from childhood that were upsetting or traumatic — including physical, sexual or emotional abuse, family problems and other bad emotional experiences.
Childhood trauma is quite common. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) estimates that two-thirds of children experience some sort of trauma. The organization notes that childhood trauma can be in the form of abuse (as mentioned above), neglect, sudden loss of a loved one or illness — among other things.
Whether you experience these things as a child or teen, they can have a big impact and cause lasting effects (like anxiety and other distress).
Interestingly, when emotional baggage starts in childhood, many people don’t even notice it. Kids who’ve gone through tough things are often functional and resilient. However, as they get older, the emotional baggage tends to get heavier and starts causing emotional issues.
Just like there are various types of mental health conditions, there are different kinds of emotional baggage. The truth is, it would be impossible to list all the different types of emotional baggage.
Think about it: humans are all different, and our previous experiences are unique. Because of this, emotional baggage varies from person to person. That said, there are some common forms of emotional baggage that may be helpful to know about.
Growing up, did you have a disapproving authority figure? Maybe a parent was really hard on you and made you feel like you weren’t good enough.
Or perhaps you had an absentee dad, which made you feel like you weren’t good enough to make him stick around. These things can lead to low self-esteem. Other causes of this type of emotional baggage include bullying and abuse.
If you grew up in a family where anything less than the best was unacceptable, you might still be carrying the weight of that with you. This pressure could result in an ongoing fear of failure.
Children who fear school may also develop an overall fear of failure. Another thing that can spark this fear? If you were punished or abused as a kid for making a mistake or messing up. It’s also possible to feel that a past failure led to something catastrophic, which can make you afraid to screw up in the future.
Maybe you never felt good enough as a kid. Perhaps your dad was really tough on you, or you had a super successful mom you thought you had to live up to. You may have embraced perfectionism as a way of living up.
Perfectionism is defined by the American Psychological Association as holding yourself or others to a very high standard. You expect more than what the situation requires.
You may be wondering how having high standards could possibly be bad. Well, if you’re always striving, you may never rest. This can lead to burnout. Also, being perfect is simply not possible. So, if you expect this, you’re setting yourself (or others) up for failure.
If you were hurt by a loved one in your youth, you may fear getting close to someone else because you don’t ever want to be hurt again. Or perhaps you lost a parent or sibling at a young age. This kind of devastating loss could make you want to avoid getting close to anyone in the future to avoid that pain again.
As an adult, this emotional baggage could show up as a habit of purposely ending relationships before they get too serious. You might mess them up or look for perfection in partners and bail when they can’t meet your impossible standards.
Emotional baggage doesn’t impact everyone in the exact same way. For some, it adds only mild dysfunction to their life. In others, it can severely hold them back.
Some people may find themselves recreating the difficult situations they faced as a child in their adult lives. For example, if your parents were always aggressively fighting, you may engage in similar relationships. This can prevent you from finding healthy, fulfilling love.
Beyond this, if you’re being guided by things that happened in your past, it means you’re not living in the present — and who wants that? Ideally, you want to be making decisions based on who you are now, not what happened to you way back when.
Are you ready to unpack your emotional baggage so you can put it away for good? Acknowledging the baggage and wanting to deal with it is the first step.
Here are some ways that can help you identify your baggage and move on:
Examine what’s going on. Ignoring your emotional baggage won’t make it go away. Instead, take a close look at it and think about how it’s impacting your life. This will help you realize just how important it is to make a change.
Determine what triggers you. Maybe you’re triggered when you get close to someone or when you feel you’re being judged. Whatever it is, pinpointing what triggers you can bring awareness and logic into the mix.
Figure out how to proceed. Let’s say you get triggered. Now that you can recognize it, think about how you’d like to react. Knowing what you’d like to do in advance can help you actually do that when the time comes.
Focus on the positive. If previous life experiences have traumatized you, it can be easy to stay in a negative headspace. Push yourself to focus on the positive. This can help you clear your head and escape that pessimistic mindset.
Therapy can help you explore all of the above. A mental health professional will guide you through your emotional baggage, helping you come up with more positive ways to deal with it and get past it. If you're worried about a friend or family member denying your emotions and what you're feeling — known as emotional invalidation — there are ways to overcome this.
Hers offers convenient online mental health consultations. Learn more today.
Kate Hagerty is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of healthcare experience. She has worked in critical care, community health, and as a retail health provider.
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