What is ’emotional baggage’?
Most of us have heard it before: “I met this great new person, but it doesn’t seem like it’s going to work out- they’ve got too much baggage to be in a relationship right now.” What exactly are people talking about when they say “emotional baggage?” Generally speaking, this term refers to our emotional memories- particularly the more painful ones, which shape how we see ourselves and others, and influence how we conduct ourselves in relationships. In other words, our past experiences and relationships have a profound influence on the types of people we are drawn to, and also on how we think, feel and behave in our present relationships and interactions. Emotional baggage can also arise from other identity markers such as the racial/cultural, religious, or socio-economic status into which we were born/raised.
Does emotional baggage prevent you or the person you’re dating from happiness and success in your relationship?
Learning from past experiences is a fundamental part of growth and maturity. However some people internalize past negative experiences and develop irrational fears/behaviors that prevent them from fully participating in new relationships, often imposing this past onto innocent newcomers. Instead of serving as protection from the original, painful experience, emotional baggage can lead some people to recreate a similar dynamic within their new relationship, in an effort to overcome their past. Others allow their emotional baggage to serve as a shield from engaging in emotional intimacy in a new relationship, out of fear that their past will repeat itself. For many, these are unintentional patterns that may not be orchestrated on a conscious level. Quite often it’s our friends and family members who call these patterns to our attention, hoping to break the cycle that keeps us from enjoying satisfying relationships.
Statements that reflect one’s emotional baggage:
“I’m sure he’ll cheat on me, just like my last boyfriend.”
“Women can’t be trusted.”
“If I share my true feelings with him, he’ll just use this to take advantage of me.”
“I’m not ready to be close to anyone right now. I’d rather just ‘hang out’ with someone rather than have a boyfriend/girlfriend. “
“Marriage never works out for anyone. It’s just what people do to give themselves a false sense of security.”
(see article 15 common cognitive distortions- how our thoughts influence our mental health to learn more about cognitive distortions.)
Help yourself break the cycle.
Taking a thorough inventory of your romantic past can help you in determine any patterns that reflect your unresolved emotional baggage.
1.) Make a list of the romantic relationships you have been involved in and the major issues that occurred within each them. Are there any commonalities? These patterns will help you discover where you should begin to heal yourself. It’s important to know that you are not at fault for all of the problems in your relationships, but if you notice that the same types of issues arise in your failed relationships, then it’s time to take a closer look at how you contributed to this pattern.
2.) Acknowledge your emotions. Begin by identifying strong feelings you have in response to people who’ve shaped how you relate to others. Don’t blame yourself for harboring painful emotions from the past.
Allow yourself to feel and express emotions you have learned to avoid. Find closure by sharing your feelings with someone safe, or writing them out in a private journal.
3.) Remind yourself that your feelings, while genuine, are not necessarily accurate in predicting the feelings and behaviors of others. Make an effort to accept people at face value, and allow them to show you through their actions who they are; let their patterns of behavior be the biggest indicator of who they’ll be in a relationship with you. Learn from your past but recognize that every situation and every relationship is different and unique.
4.) Accept that sometimes you may need outside/professional help. (see article 5 key components to finding a therapist quickly and efficiently: tips from a Clinical Psychologist)
Determine and set limits on how much ‘baggage’ you’re willing to accept from others.
We all have our own complex set of issues that come into play we enter into new relationships. Does that mean we have to accept other people’s emotional baggage just to be in a relationship? Yes and No. We can’t expect to get close to others without being exposed to their past emotional challenges and insecurities. Listening and being supportive is a way to better understand who they are and how they will likely behave in a relationship with you. However, it’s also important to set clear boundaries with yourself and them regarding what you’re willing to accept, and for how long. Understandably, a person with trust issues may be initially guarded in a new relationship and have low expectations for others’ reliability. However with time, if this person is unwilling or unable to build their trust in you after you’ve shown yourself to be trustworthy, this likely means your relationship with them will remain unfulfilling, or worse, toxic.
Don’t waste time hoping and willing people to change when it comes to dealing with people’s emotional baggage. Remain true to the characteristics you seek in others, and continue to explore and heal your own baggage in order to have the relationship you want.
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