You’ve probably heard of the term “emotional baggage” before, and while we all probably deal with emotional baggage to some degree, it can become problematic when it begins to affect our relationships and wellbeing negatively.
Emotional baggage can arise for various reasons, but what different cases of emotional baggage tend to have in common is that they cause difficulty navigating relationships and challenging life situations.
Here, learn what it means to be carrying emotional baggage and tips for how to release emotional baggage so you can move forward and enjoy healthy relationships.
What is emotional baggage?
Before learning about ways to heal from emotional baggage, it is important to discover what emotional baggage is. Emotional baggage can be described as pain, anxiety, sadness, or anger because of past emotional problems.
Baggage in a relationship occurs when someone is still experiencing the residual emotional effects from past situations.
At its core, emotional baggage occurs because you have not processed and resolved a problematic relationship from the past. Sometimes, emotional baggage goes back to unresolved childhood issues. Other times, it can result from a more recent situation from adulthood.
Regardless of the exact source, when you have emotional baggage or pain from past relationships or situations, it can creep into the present and hurt your life.
The pain and anxiety from unresolved issues can affect you and play out in future relationships. Letting go of emotional baggage is critical as it interferes with your happiness and wellbeing.
How to notice signs of emotional baggage
If you’re struggling with emotional baggage, you may not know how to identify it. We tend to hold painful emotions inside, especially if we are not ready to address them.
You can identify emotional baggage by taking a moment to pause and acknowledge your feelings. Perhaps you have a flashback from a past experience or a former relationship.
Notice what you feel when you have those flashbacks. If the memories bring feelings of deep pain, fear, or anxiety to mind, you’re likely suffering from emotional baggage.
You also likely have some baggage if you have difficulty identifying or accepting emotions. Maybe you push them to the side, or you deny that you’re sad, when deep down, you indeed are suffering.
People who have experienced an upsetting situation may repress their memories of the situation and their emotions as a way to cope. It causes them to learn how to get rid of emotional baggage eventually.
A third way to identify emotional baggage is to look at how you process conflict or upsetting situations.
Are you able to resolve conflict reasonably, without becoming extremely upset, or does conflict with your significant other quickly escalate because your emotions are so intense? If you have trouble regulating your emotions during the conflict, you’re probably carrying some baggage.
Cause of emotional baggage
There isn’t one exact cause of emotional baggage, as it can occur for a variety of reasons.
One cause of emotional baggage is childhood trauma. Research with teens who have experienced trauma shows that their brains are more reactive to conflict, and they, therefore, have greater difficulty managing emotional conflict.
This is one way that carrying emotional baggage can interfere with your relationships. Because of the unresolved trauma, intense emotional experiences, such as arguments with a significant other, can be challenging to process.
Emotional baggage from past relationships is also a possibility. If you had a previous relationship that was unhealthy, or if a former partner hurt you severely with their actions, you may carry emotional baggage into the next relationship.
The unresolved pain from the previous relationship can create fear and anxiety within the new relationship because you’re worried about being hurt again.
Additional causes of emotional baggage include:
Poor relationships with parents
Being exposed to parents who divorced
Experiencing some sort of betrayal, such as a former partner cheating or having an affair
All of the scenarios above can cause emotional pain that, if not dealt with, will linger and cause signs of emotional baggage. For example, if you have been betrayed in a relationship but never process the betrayal’s feelings, you will continue to suffer from fear and anxiety.
Suppose you made mistakes in a former relationship, such as taking your partner for granted or leaving the relationship because you weren’t ready to commit. In that case, you might carry that baggage into the future.
It can cause you to try to overcompensate for past regret by obsessively avoiding making the same mistakes in the future.
Fear is perhaps the most common example of emotional baggage that comes to mind. If you’ve been deeply wounded in the past, such as by an absent parent or an abusive partner, you will likely be fearful of experiencing the same pain again.
In an attempt to avoid feeling hurt again, you may distance yourself from others or shut yourself off from people so that you do not get close enough for them to hurt you
If you’ve been a victim of past emotional abuse or a parent has rejected you, you’ve probably experienced this emotional baggage.
Being made to feel as if you were not good enough can lead you to have a highly critical inner voice, in which you tell yourself you’re not enough or that you don’t deserve happiness.
This can cause you to worry that your partner will leave you because you’re inferior, or you may sacrifice yourself and go out of your way to please others because you feel you’re not worthy unless they like you.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is perhaps the most severe form of emotional baggage. PTSD is a diagnosable mental health condition that leads a person to have flashbacks of a traumatic experience, such as witnessing violence or being a victim of sexual assault.
Someone who has this level of emotional baggage will constantly feel as if they are being threatened or unsafe. Someone who has PTSD may perceive their partner’s behavior as threatening within a relationship, even if it is harmless.
5 signs of emotional baggage in a relationship
Beyond the emotional baggage examples above, there are some signs to look out for if you think you have emotional baggage.
Consider the emotional baggage signs below:
1. Being triggered by anything that reminds you of an ex
If you have emotional baggage from a previous relationship, you are likely to be triggered by anything that reminds you of them. This means you may explode in anger or panic if your new partner says or does something similar to your ex’s habits, even if it’s completely harmless.
You may even panic if your significant other shows any behaviors that even remotely resemble your ex.
The codependent will sacrifice their own needs to care for their partner, and sometimes, they get very little in return. This sign of emotional baggage can result from having poor or unhealthy relationships with parents when growing up.
You may have low self-esteem due to having critical or demanding parents and feel as if the only way to get any sort of love is to assume responsibility for your partner’s life.
When you hold onto baggage from a previous relationship, you will constantly think of your ex, even if you’re supposedly happy in a new relationship.
Maybe you didn’t get the closure you needed from the last relationship, or perhaps you’re so hung up on regret from mistakes in your previous relationship that you can’t stop thinking about what you could have done differently to save the relationship.
4. Controlling behavior
Emotional baggage leads a person to become fearful of being hurt again, leading to controlling behavior in relationships. This may look like trying to control who your partner talks to, who they spend time with, or what they do.
You may feel a need to monitor their actions at all times to make sure they are not being disloyal or doing anything to jeopardize the relationship.
Watch this video to learn more about the signs that you have a controlling partner:
5. Inconsistent emotions
Emotional baggage from past relationships can lead you to have mixed emotions.
One day you may feel incredibly optimistic about your new relationship, and the next day, you feel numb or distant. This can arise when your emotional baggage makes you fearful to connect or when you’re so hung up on an ex that you cannot fully commit to a new partner.
How to heal from emotional baggage
Healing emotional baggage isn’t always easy, but there are steps you can take. One approach that can be helpful in trying to view the world more positively.
If you carry around emotional baggage, you can tend to view the world in a negative light. You might convince yourself that the world isn’t safe or that you’ll always be hurt.
Reframing your thoughts to be more positive can help you to heal. For example, tell yourself that while you may have been hurt in the past, it has made you a stronger person and taught you important life lessons.
Another important aspect of letting go of emotional baggage is practicing self-care. When you take time to do things you enjoy, follow a healthy diet, and set aside time for physical activity, you’ll feel your best, and your overall wellbeing will improve.
You might also consider relaxing self-care activities, like going to a yoga class or getting a weekly massage. When you care for yourself, you can relieve some of the stress that comes with emotional baggage.
Finally, it’s often necessary to seek professional help to overcome emotional baggage. Working with a counselor can help you develop a more positive mindset and learn strategies for coping with fear, anxiety, and other unpleasant emotions that come from carrying baggage.
Processing emotions in therapy is often beneficial for helping people get rid of emotional baggage.
A recent study found that patients who underwent emotional processing during therapy experienced a reduction in symptoms of depression, so working with a therapist can be important for letting go of emotional baggage.
If you’re holding onto emotional baggage, you have probably experienced negative signs, such as difficulty forming healthy relationships and problems handling conflict or distress. Deep emotional baggage can even take a toll on your physical and mental health.
Fortunately, letting go of emotional baggage is possible. Once you recognize that you’re carrying emotional baggage, you can take steps to release it. Reaching out to supportive family and friends and practicing self-care can go a long way toward helping you to release negative emotions.
It is also essential to go to therapy to handle dating someone with emotional baggage in many cases. If you’re suffered significant trauma, betrayal, or pain from past relationships, it can be difficult to process your emotions on your own.
In therapy sessions, you can learn to overcome emotional baggage and have a more positive outlook for future relationships.
Jenni Jacobsen is a licensed social worker with a master's degree in social work from The Ohio State University, and she is in the process of completing her dissertation for a Doctorate of Philosophy in Psychology. She has worked Read more in the social work field for 8 years and is currently a professor at Mount Vernon Nazarene University. She writes website content about mental health, addiction, and fitness.
Licensed as both a social worker through Ohio Board of Counselors, Social Workers, and Marriage/Family Therapists and school social worker through Ohio Department of Education as well as a personal trainer through American Council on Exercise.
(Jenni Jacobsen is also listed in Best Marriage Therapists in Ashland)
Want to have a happier, healthier marriage?
If you feel disconnected or frustrated about the state of your marriage but want to avoid separation and/or divorce, the marriage.com course meant for married couples is an excellent resource to help you overcome the most challenging aspects of being married.