5 steps to unpacking your emotional baggage

Pexels, Ketut Subiyanto, used with permission

Source: Pexels, Ketut Subiyanto, used with permission

In my last post, I explored the powerful impact your emotional baggage has on your life; its detrimental effects on your happiness, relationships, and the pursuit of your life goals. Your response might be, “Okay, I now understand where my emotional baggage is coming from and how it affects me. But how do I unpack my emotional baggage so it doesn’t continue to push my life in an unhealthy direction?”

Unpacking your emotional baggage is certainly not an easy task. You’ve probably been driven by your emotional baggage since childhood, and as a result, the ways you think, feel, and behave are hardwired into your brain, producing powerful and immediate responses.

Although emotional baggage can be addressed in a number of ways, I think of it as bad psychological, emotional, and behavioral habits that are deeply ingrained in your psyche. The way you react to yourself, others, and your world that is driven by your emotional baggage arises because you have engaged with those thoughts, emotions, and behaviors thousands and thousands of times in your life. Emotional habits can be understood as automatic responses instilled by repeated exposure to situations with common characteristics.

From this perspective, letting go of your baggage is about identifying those unhealthy habits and retraining new ones that are based on who you are now and are productive in your current adult life. Essentially, you are breaking the habits instilled in you by your emotional baggage by engaging in healthier thoughts, emotions, and behaviors so often that your brain is literally rewired and the old habits are no longer affecting the neural circuitry of your life.

You can think of this journey as “forks in the road”. For years you walked the “bad path” that your emotional baggage pushed you down because its power over your life was significant and because you didn’t see any other path, the good path, to walk.

Step #1: Your Emotional Baggage Under the Microscope

The first step to changing the road you are traveling on is to get a clear look at the bad road you are on. how it affects your happiness, mental and physical health, relationships, and aspirations. You probably already know that this road doesn’t feel good, but hopefully looking “under the magnifying glass” will open your eyes to just how bad a road is and, perhaps more importantly, strengthen your resolve to get off the bad road as soon as possible.

Step #2: Identify your triggers

The second step is to identify the situations that trigger your emotional baggage. This step is important because it allows you to see when a fork in the road may appear. Typically, there are characteristic situations that bear similarities to situations in your past that were painful and where your emotional baggage is rooted. What happens is that your unconscious associates a current situation with painful memories. In doing so, your limbic system triggers a protective response based on either a fight-or-flight response. The result is a negative reaction (anger, sadness) out of proportion to the situation you are in.

By identifying these common situations, you can understand how they relate to your emotional baggage. That is, what about the current situation triggers such a strong and uncomfortable reaction? This exercise also allows you to activate your prefrontal cortex, which helps you release your limbic system, thus reducing or eliminating the threat created by your emotional baggage. Importantly, this allows you to place a “Fork in the Road Ahead” sign next to the bad road, alerting you to another road you can take.

Step #3: Prepare alternative answers

When your emotional baggage is triggered, it’s extraordinarily difficult to simply turn off the switch in your limbic system and turn on the switch in your prefrontal cortex. At this point, your inner animal is in full protective mode, with all the attendant psychological (acuity, narrowing of focus), emotional (intense feelings of fear or anger), and physiological (palpitations, shortened breath, muscle tightness) changes. , adrenaline rush). Your primitive brain responds to your emotional baggage in a way that worked (fight or flight) in the Serengeti 250,000 years ago, but isn’t typically effective in the 21st century.

Because of this age-old defense mechanism, when you become emotionally “enlightened” your only chance to short-circuit your limbic system and allow your prefrontal cortex to take control of your response is to use your knowledge of the situations that normally provoke you emotional baggage and create a more positive alternative response. Ask yourself: What would be a healthy way to think, feel and react in this situation? Once you’ve identified this “good path” and have your plan for taking it firmly planted in your psyche (and even practiced with corrective imagery), the next time you’re illuminated by your emotional baggage, you’ll be able to make that alternative response more easily conjure up your prefrontal cortex, which allows you to override your initial emotional baggage-driven response. In other words, by creating for yourself a healthier psychological, emotional, and behavioral response that is specific and detailed, you unveil a fork in the road that you can see clearly when your emotional baggage is activated.

Step #4: Put your new answers into action

Of course, given the weight of your emotional baggage, just because you have a plan to get down the good road doesn’t mean that your primitive brain will give up without a fight. Remember that your emotional baggage is firmly anchored in both your psyche and your neural pathways. You may find that the next time your emotional baggage is triggered and your prefrontal cortex presents a healthier option, you will still respond in an emotionally unhealthy manner. But as you focus more and more on your new reaction, you will eventually find yourself on the right path. And once you do it and see how much better that new response is (it’s self-reinforcing because it feels better and the outcome is better), it becomes easier to implement in future situations where your emotional baggage has it tries to assert itself over your thoughts, your feelings and your behavior.

During this process, you are likely to feel frustrated and discouraged at your inability to quickly and easily replace your old emotional habits with new ones. These feelings are normal. You must resist these feelings because they will only slow down the retraining of your emotional habits.

As time goes on, the internal struggle will continue, but the tide will slowly turn. With every experience that makes you realize how destructive your emotional baggage is and how hard you try to act out your new response, your old emotional habits lose their power and your new emotional habits gain strength. Then one day it will happen. You will see the opportunity to respond to your emotional baggage in healthy ways, your prefrontal cortex will override your limbic system, and you will think, feel, and act in ways that are life-affirming rather than life-destroying.

Step #5: Reinforce positive emotions

While the main focus of unpacking your emotional baggage is to free you from negative emotions, learning to experience and express positive emotions is just as important. An unfortunate by-product of an upbringing that emphasized strong negative emotions, or no emotions at all, is that positive emotions were rarely experienced, leaving positive emotions largely unfamiliar and perhaps even alien to you. Positive emotions are important because they communicate what we are looking for and what we are looking forward to. Love, excitement, joy, enthusiasm, contentment and happiness are the emotional goals we should strive for and are the emotional rewards for our efforts in all aspects of our lives. By experiencing and expressing positive emotions, you actually ingrain new, positive emotional habits that can replace the old negative emotional habits.

You have the daily opportunity to create, express, share and talk about positive emotions that you can replace that are created by your emotional baggage. If you’re happy, show it. When you’re excited about something, share it with someone. If you really enjoy something you’re doing, stick to the positive feelings for a moment. Most importantly, when you are with others you care about, express your love in any way you can because love is the ultimate defense against emotional baggage (because a lack of love is the most likely cause of your emotional baggage) . . By regularly experiencing and expressing positive emotions, you gradually replace the negative emotional fuel that’s driving your emotional baggage with positive emotional fuel that can propel your life in a new and healthier direction.

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