In this article we’re reclaiming our emotional baggage and learning how to handle it better. This isn’t about putting down all of our emotional baggage and throwing all of our issues over the floor: it’s about becoming aware of our emotional baggage, accepting that some of it will always be there and helping other people to reclaim and reconnect with their excess baggage too. Because our ‘baggage’ is what makes us human. We are all carrying around a bag of inherited, conditioned and learnt emotional blue prints, as well as challenging life experiences and losses that can- at times- weigh us down. And the more we ignore them, or pretend they don’t exist, the heavier our emotional ‘suitcase’ becomes. Until eventually, it bursts open. Because like a suitcase, we also have a finite capacity of space to pack away our ‘stuff’. When we reach capacity, we can- quite literally- break-down (hence the term ‘having a break down’), perhaps through ill mental health, physical ailments or irrational behaviour.
So, in this article we are inviting you to take ownership of your emotional baggage so that it doesn’t own you. This is all about helping you to: reclaim your own emotional baggage and become curious about the type of emotional baggage that you are carrying. How might you handle your bags better? And how might you help others carry their emotional bags through life? Let’s get unpacking…
“Why am I afraid to tell you who I am?”
– John Powell
We’ve been conditioned into thinking that negative emotions are “bad”. So, it’s not surprising that we end up ‘bagging’ a lot of these so-called ‘bad’ experiences, emotions and feelings. After a while, we may forget that the ‘bad’ baggage even exists. But the weight of it is still there, whether we choose to see it or not. To quote C. S. Lewis: “Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also more hard to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say My tooth is aching that to say My heart is broken.”
Before we think about sharing our ‘stuff’ with others, we must first be open to acknowledging it within ourselves. We must be willing to embrace our ‘secret selves’, the parts of us that we’ve shunned to the shadows. They say ‘sharing is caring’ and that starts with you. Can you be open to giving and sharing your attention with all of the different parts of yourself, even the bits that you don’t like?
Fear of our emotional baggage is what stops us from letting go. And this fear along with avoidance can actually add to the heavy load we may already carrying. So instead of continually fighting with the idea of even having emotional baggage, let’s face up to the fact that we all have emotional baggage. And whilst we may not be able to let go of all of it, perhaps we can learn to lighten the load.
“We crave permission openly to become our secret selves”
– Salman Rushdie.
Taking ownership of our emotional baggage doesn’t mean spilling it all over the floor. There are many parts of ourselves that we wouldn’t want to (and perhaps shouldn’t!) share with our colleagues at work. So instead of dumping your suitcase all at once, perhaps you can take out one item and lighten the load?
One way of doing this is by asking for help with your bags. Maybe you reach out to your partner, a good friend or even a therapist. In one study, ‘talking therapy’ a term used to describe all the psychological therapies that involve a person talking to a therapist about their problems, was found to be as effective as ‘anti-depressants.’ The review included 11 studies, with a total of 1,511 patients and found that people treated with antidepressants and face to face interpersonal talking therapy were equally likely to respond to treatment and to get better. So, it seems there’s some truth to the old idiom, “a problem shared is a problem halved.”
Whilst there are numerous different approaches to ‘talking therapy’ the essence across the range of therapies is the same: to shed light on an issue and heighten awareness through talking. So perhaps there is someone in your life that you can talk to? It might sound simple but sometimes sharing a problem and seeing it through someone else’s eyes can help to lighten the load, one sock at a time…
“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? Some animals go about their whole lives carrying around other animals in symbiosis. Luckless lovers, monogamous swans… we are not these animals. If we move slowly, we die quickly. We are not swans. We are sharks.”
The above lines were spoken by Bingham (played by George Clooney) in the 2009 film ‘Up in the Air’ What I love about this speech is that it highlights how empty our lives would be without any baggage. He suggests that arguably some of the best bits of our lives- like family and friends- seem to create the biggest amount of baggage. So perhaps this is a good time to emphasise that baggage isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It is a part of being a conscious and connected human being. In fact, people who are able to take ownership over their baggage show high levels of what Daniel Goleman called ‘emotional intelligence.’
Reclaiming our emotional baggage helps to raise our conscious awareness, gain perspective and better manage our emotions. And it also models a way of being for those around you and shows them that it is safe to do the same. Because how you are being with difficult experiences will have an impact on the way other people feel they are allowed to behave. What are you allowing other people to share? And how might you better help them to reclaim and carry their bags?
When my partner Tom died in July 2016 I had some incredible support from family, friends, business colleagues and clients. Two and a half years on it is quite natural that the intensity of support lessens. But anyone who has suffered loss, illness or another major life event knows that however much time has passed – we still carry our heavy ol’ suitcase. Maybe we get really good at carrying it, but it is still there. It means the world to me when a family member or friend recognises the case has suddenly become very heavy again and very hard to hold – and sends me a text or even a look or gesture that makes it clear to me that they are aware of what I’m holding. Often lightening the load immediately by at least removing the extra burden of feeling alone.
A ‘Case’ for Creativity
‘You cannot find peace by avoiding life.’
– Virginia Wolf
Reclaiming our baggage not only helps us to connect to other people, it also opens up a gateway to a huge amount of creativity. Accessing our pain can in fact be a life source, in a literal way of re-releasing energy for other creative, life-fulfilling pursuits. Edvard Munch’s painting ‘Scream’ expresses the great pain and frustrations that Munch saw as an unavoidable part of the human experience. It is now one of the top 10 most popular paintings in the world. A musical equivalent is Mozart’s Requiem, which was created out of response to his darkest fears in life.
These examples show us the power of channeling our emotional baggage into creative pursuits. Great pain can create great art- whether that be through paint, words, song or dance. Cathy Malchiodi, author of The Art Therapy Sourcebook, is an advocate of art therapy and considers it as “a modality for self-understanding, emotional change and personal growth.”
Perhaps we too can use creativity as a way of processing our emotional baggage and making something meaningful out of it. Maybe your outlet for channeling sadness is a weekly spinning class. Or could a pottery course be your way to process pain? Creativity is an incredible resource for emotional release and can literally turn our most difficult experiences into works of art. To use the words of American novelist Matthew Specktor, “I think it’s what fiction is for: to illuminate that gap between our secret selves and our more visible and apparent ones.”
“Man is not what he thinks he is, he is what he hides”
– André Malraux.
In the last few years of her life, Marilyn Monroe sat in various parks across New York in her married role of Mrs. Miller, watching children play and occasionally asking mothers if she could hold their babies. Grieving another miscarriage and feeling isolated in her marriage to Arthur Miller, Marilyn appeared to the other women in the park as an ordinary woman. A woman who was shy, curious as well as desperately sad and lonely. Some of the mothers worked out the real identity of Mrs. Miller and saw the huge gap that had opened up between the Hollywood star and the ordinary woman. A woman who was seen to be the very icon of beautiful, happy, successful, sexy and lucky, but who really was lost –never able to truly step ‘off stage’ and be happy in her real self, or to own her real life. To use the wise words of Brene Brown: “Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that really prevents us from taking flight.”
Like Marilyn Monroe we too lug around the weight of unmet expectations. But often we show the opposite to the world. Many of us are sharing various aspects of our lives online, presenting picture perfect happiness (literally!) Some 78% of 18- to 24-year-olds use Snapchat, and a sizeable majority of these users (71%) visit the platform multiple times per day. However, reality and virtual reality are not the same thing.
I was recently on a retreat where there also happened to be some people from the cast of a well know TV reality show. They were lovely young people. And you might not be surprised to hear that they were constantly on their phones and posing for photos. What was interesting was the difference between the reality (at the retreat) and the image presented (on Instagram). Of course, there were tangible differences, changed via some clever edits and filters. Yet what struck me the most was how much they ‘set the scene’ to look like they’d just snapped themselves ‘having fun in the pool’ or ‘topping up a tan.’ When really the most memorable, connecting, human times were when we shuffled around in our robes and slippers together, no make-up, no glossy hairdos – just having a laugh and enjoying taking time out.
I’m sure many of us at times can feel like Marilyn Monroe or Instagram stars. Hiding behind a guise of perfection and pretending that we don’t have any emotional baggage. And as in the case of Marilyn Monroe, this story of perfection can sometimes be too big a burden to bear. For both ourselves and others because it also sets a precedent to those around you. If you are only choosing to share an ‘image’ of happiness and success then are you, on a subconscious level, suggesting that everyone else should only share the same?
Embracing the emotional baggage in your life will not only help you to lighten the load, it will also help those around you to do the same. What might you allow your colleagues, partner and children to share if you step up and start writing a new story around emotional baggage? We’re always going to have a certain amount of baggage: it’s a part of being human. Which is why the more you embrace your bags, the more you learn to love and accept yourself.
How might you acknowledge and address your own, ever-changing emotional baggage? And how might you help someone else carry their heavy load?
- Think about 1 or 2 pieces of emotional baggage you are carrying. Can you share them with someone close? Can you thank those pieces of baggage for the lessons or experiences they have given you? Can you take them out of your suitcase entirely?
- Whether it’s at work, home or in your community – can you identify someone that you know is carrying a lot of emotional baggage? Have they been carrying it for so long that everyone assumes it’s gone? What might you ask them? How could you check in with them to let them know you see them, and see the burden they bear.