5-Not-So-Easy Steps to Letting Go of Emotional Baggage
“Choose not to be harmed — and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed — and you haven’t been.” — Marcus Aurelius
In most of my posts, I talk a lot about acceptance. I reference how most solutions to our mental health are to accept that the problems are present or let go of their influence on our lives. I realize that I make it seem easy, and that most people who write about letting go to achieve inner peace also make it seem easy. I can imagine that it’s absolutely infuriating to read, because what if you can’t let things go? What if there are things that you can’t accept? Are you doomed to live with this emotional baggage?
This article discusses everything there's to know about acceptance so we can let go of the emotional baggage and move on with our lives!
What is Acceptance?
Acceptance is taking the emotion out of the events around us and seeing them for what they are. Acceptance can be thought of as removing the positive and the negative of the event, and seeing it from a pragmatic perspective. When you accept something, you are no longer attached or clouded by the emotion. You may feel sad or happy or angry, but you aren’t in a state of happiness, sadness or anger that is triggered by the event. Acceptance is being able to experience an event, memory, or action without emotion and without expectation. When you truly accept something for what it is, you are not tied to changing the outcome nor do you wish the event happened/didn’t happen. You let go all resistance. You let go of all expectation. You simply let it be.
How Does Emotional Baggage Impact our Lives?
Emotional baggage often occurs when we experience an event and wish that we could change the outcome. When we regret something, we usually have emotional baggage associated with that event. The tricky thing is that regret isn’t the only way emotional baggage shows up in our lives. Emotional baggage can fester itself within our insecurities, our fears, our worldviews or even show up as random fits of anxiety. Because emotional baggage is so lucrative, and can barry itself deep within our subconscious, it’s hard to overcome. Usually when we think we are treating emotional baggage, we are only treating a symptom it causes not the root problem.
Here’s a good example:
When I first started working at Ross Dress For Less, I would get really bad anxiety before I would go to work. This anxiety was borderline crippling, as I would sit in my car shaking before clocking in. I spent months trying to get my anxiety under control and finally got the point where I could go to work without having an anxiety attack. I thought I was done with the anxiety for good and so relieved.
Fast forward a year and I’m starting two new jobs; one’s at a horse stables and another at a non-profit. Guess what happened? The anxiety came back full force, just like when I worked at Ross! You would not believe how pissed off and mentally defeated I was. I thought I got over this problem a year ago, but boy was I wrong!
As it turns out, I did not get anxiety because I was nervous about going into new job (though I’m sure that played a small role and was what I thought was happening). I had anxiety anxiety because I had a really awful experience at my first job. See right before I quit my first job, I ran into a difficult situation with a customer. This customer thought they paid us $200 to make a purchase, when they only paid $100. The situation rapidly got out of control as the customer proceeded to yell at me and tell me how awful of a employee I was for not being able to count money. As the situation went from bad to awful, I called my boss, and they refused to come to the store to help. It wasn’t until a hour into the argument with the customer and me getting accused of theft, did my boss finally decide to resolve the situation and when they finally did resolve the situation, they chewed me out for letting the situation get out of hand.
This experience as it turns out was pretty traumatic for me. It really shook me up, and from then on out I developed this unconscious fear that I was going to get yelled at by people, by told I was screw up, and have those ideas confirmed my superiors.
It wasn’t until I was able to learn to accept that this experience at my first job was painful experience for me, and give myself time to heal was I able to move on and not have anxiety at every job I would work at in the future.
All that anxiety just from a crappy first job. Who would have thought?
How can acceptance help with emotional baggage?
Acceptance is a way we can address emotional baggage. When we practice acceptance, we confront the source of our regrets, fears, and insecurity and come to peace with them. By doing this, we take away their power to affect our lives, have the ability to choose to let go of the event, heal, and move on lives. This allows us to become truly free and no longer held back by the event.
How do we practice acceptance and let go of emotional baggage?
Pro Tip: It’s easier to complete this exercise in written form. Highly recommended to use a pen/paper, note app in your cell phone, or a word processor of some kind.
1. Evaluate the situation: Pick an event, or memory that is upsetting for you. Make a detailed account of everything that happened and everything you experienced. Do not skip the details. Be as vivid as possible. Skipping over any details that make you feel uncomfortable, or that you think are irrelevant will be counter productive. In this exercise the details are everything, especially the ones that make you feel uncomfortable, or stir up negative emotion. If you don’t have a specific event in mind, pick a situation where you constantly feel anxious, sad, angry or an area of your life that you’re insecure about. (Hint, the more you write in Step 1, the easier the rest of this exercise becomes).
2. Identify the emotions you experienced (both positive and negative): In your situation, what are all the emotions that you experienced that were attributed to the event? You’ll want to make a list of all the emotions you experienced, both positive and negative. By doing this, you will understand everything that you felt.
3. Write a statement of when you experienced each emotion, then ask why?: For each of your emotions that you identified, write a statement of when you experienced the emotion. After you write the statement, ask yourself why did I feel that way? Then answer the question by saying “Because of [reason]. Repeat this process as many times as needed. In each new statement, you need to attach at least 1 emotion that you felt. You’ll know when you’re at the end of this exercise because you’ll start writing in circles, or will emphasize the same emotion over several statements. Once again, you’ll want to be as detailed as possible. This process may take a while, so give yourself time to reflect deeply. Space it out into several sittings and take breaks as needed.
I felt anxious before going into Ross.
Why did I feel that way?
Because I was worried that I was going to have a bad time at work.
Why did I feel that way?
Because I am afraid of getting into an argument with a customer.
Why did I feel that way?
Because at my first job I got in an argument with a customer and that made me feel really awful about myself.
Why did I feel that way?
Because when the customer yelled at me, my boss refused to help, and I felt helpless.
Why did I feel that way?
Because there was nothing I could do to prevent the situation on my own.
4. Address the pain you experienced in the past
Once you’re confident you’ve identified the root cause of the situation or know the root emotions you are dealing with, then you have to address the pain that you experienced in the past. You effectively have to come to peace with what you experienced so it no longer haunts you. This will require you to look at your experience directly and facing it head on. To-do this, you have a couple of options, you may need to use all of them, or only of them. It varies based on a case by case basis.
4A: Empathize with yourself and give yourself love and encouragement: Sometimes all we need is love and reassurance. Unfortunately we don’t always get those things at opportune times. One way to come to peace with the emotions we experienced from step 3, is to give our past selves all the love and reassurance we needed back then. Rather than hold ourselves in contempt due to not being able get through these emotions, simply give ourselves empathy and recognize that these emotions are difficult and it’s okay to feel them. A little bit of self empathy goes a long way.
4B: Remind yourself that you’re safe now: Sometimes the pain we experience is so strong that we are afraid of it happening again. Sometimes this fear runs deep enough that we genuinely think that it’s going to play out again and again. One way to overcome this is to remind yourself that you are safe now. There is no way for this event to play out again and if you ever find yourself in a similar situation that you know what to-do and can act differently. Tell yourself that you’ll be prepared and will be able to achieve a different outcome.
4C: Give yourself permission to heal: Sometimes we hold ourselves back from the healing process. We are in such denial that we experience the negative emotions that we don’t allow ourselves to heal. A great way to come to terms to the emotions in Step 3, is simply allowing yourself permission to heal and accepting that it will take a while for you to get through. The event was traumatic enough to create emotional baggage, the healing process isn’t going to happen over night. You need to give yourself the permission to take the time to heal and not expect instantaneous results.
5. Let go of our emotional baggage
“Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappear” — Marcus Aurelius
This is the hardest Not-So-Easy Step. You have to come to terms with the event itself. There is no way to change the past. You have to recognize that. There is no way to prevent this from happening again. You have to be okay with that. You may realize that you distorted the event. You may realize that the event caused you a good deal of pain. However, you have to come to terms that the event is over with. It’s finished. The only amount of power it holds over you is the power you give to it. You need to take back that power. These events or situations are in the past. They hold no more power over you than you give them. They are not actively harming, it is the memory of the event, the events ghosts that are harming you. You are giving this memory power everytime you allow it to trigger you. You have to take back the power. You have to recognize that you are being haunted by old memories and ghosts and that the only way they persist is by the power you give them. If you take back that power, if you consciously choose not to feel pain over the event and instead recognize that moving forward, and looking at the present is the way to overcome the event, then you will no longer be harmed by it.
It’s as easy as deciding not to feel harmed. However, making that decision is impossibly hard. Choosing not to feel harmed is difficult. Choosing not to be a victim is hard. Choosing not to harbor negative emotions is incredibly difficult because it interferes with our identity. If someone wrongs us, if tragedy strikes us then we always have an out to the situation. We can say: I was the victim. I was not responsible. Accepting the event. Choosing not to be the victim is incredibly difficult. It puts the responsibility on our shoulders. It makes it so we have a role to play. It makes it so we have to bear part of the fault for the situation because we can longer hide behind a distorted perspective. Only you can make that choice and some people do not want to make that choice because they would rather live behind a wall of distorted reality.
This Week’s Action Step
Try practicing the acceptance exercise over something that makes you upset, but is trivial, such as a fit of road rage, cancelled plans, or a long day at work. Walkthrough the acceptance exercise let go of what was upsetting you by the end of the week.
Once you get confident at tackling, small, non-personal matters, try something more personal, and more difficult to overcome. Just remember to work slowly as this isn’t an easy exercise to work through and emotional baggage takes time to heal from.