Four years ago, an emotional ghost almost destroyed my relationship when I started living together with a guy. My clothes, books, and other things I moved were not the only baggage I carried to a new apartment. I was also carrying an invisible, emotional backpack.
Six months into the relationship, my boyfriend said to me one night,
“Banchi, do you realize you keep your thoughts and feelings to yourself?”
I’d like to claim I put two and two together, but I didn’t.
A few weeks later, we were chatting with a therapist who knew nothing above my upbringing. Her question was more direct.
“Banchi, can you think of another time in your life when someone from your past kept his thoughts and feelings inside?”
I was stunned.
This was how I was introduced to the useful concept of ‘emotional baggage’. We all carry it. Maybe in your case, unresolved emotional baggage is preventing you from experiencing real intimacy with someone. You’ve built up walls and defense mechanisms that make it impossible to nurture a deep and long-lasting relationship with someone.
Or maybe your past relationship forced you to circumscribe your every move in case you set off your ex who you were afraid might want to kill you. Now, you’re walking on eggshells in your current relationship. Even though your new relationship is trying to encourage you, expand you, and inspire you to be the best that you can be, you can’t seem to work on a relationship that wants you to be free. Your past, possessive relationship is holding you hostage.
Or maybe your past relationship was full of ranting, bitching, and complaining all the time. Now, you’re afraid of the slightest tone change in your partner.
Your past keeps following you around tainting your current relationship, making it more difficult than it needs to be.
My emotional ghost was something I learned to carry from my father. I never heard my dad talk about his feelings. He sucked all his emotions in, where they bubbled like trapped, molten lava until they erupted in spectacular bursts of rage. As a child and teenager, I learned to keep my thoughts and feelings locked away. I became an expert at deflecting personal questions.
When my boyfriend asked me repeatedly to be open and tell him all of my dark secrets, I refused.
“This is who I am. Why should I change?” I thought.
When you don’t find ways to break free of your emotional ghosts, you end up creating a mess.
Because I wanted to save my relationship, I found ways to break free of the invisible ghost I brought to my current relationship. After a talk with the therapist, I started recognizing the patterns of emotional baggage from a mile away.
One time, my boyfriend, who usually shares his feelings, concealed his feelings when the company he worked for laid him off. When he remained silent and seemed to do something uncannily similar to my father, I was terrified. His action triggered a chain of emotional reactions, flooding me with panic, fear, and anger.
“He’s going to be like my father.” I thought.
Even though I knew this was a different relationship, my unconscious mind had already registered the trigger, and the feelings from my relationship with my father came flooding back.
Following the therapist’s advice, I took a few steps to deal with my emotional baggage:
. I tried to figure out what triggers my partner was unintentionally pulling.
. I created awareness around this: my baggage — his ability to locate the trigger — what exactly he was bringing up.
. I separated my issue from him. They were unrelated. For example, my anxiety when he remained silent had nothing to do with what he was going through.
. Sometimes this took a few days, sometimes weeks.
You may be tempted to make light of your emotional baggage, through self-deprecating jokes or a nonchalant shrug of the shoulder, as if to say, “It is what it is.” But when you keep unhealthy patterns of behavior, the emotional backlash that comes from making the same poor choices repeatedly will compound and destroy your relationship.
It might be easier to ignore your emotional ghosts, yes.
And you can live your entire life keeping them in the back burner. But will you be able to improve your relationship? No. Because the clutter in your heart you haven’t had the heart to discard seeps its way into every corner of your relationship.
You need to purge your emotional ghosts. To examine and work through emotional hurts and difficulties. To unload that emotional backpack so you can nurture a healthier, happier relationship.
Here are 5 steps you can take to release the ghosts of the past:
1. Write an honest list of thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors
Negative feelings need to be expressed in a healthy way.
For me, writing a letter to purge my thoughts and feelings works. Every time something from my past comes to disturb my relationship, I write a letter. This letter is not meant to be sent to someone. It’s rather a practice to exorcise my thoughts and feelings from my head and heart. Afterwards, the past loosens its tight grip and I break free.
You do whatever works for you. Maybe writing in a notebook is your thing. Or maybe you’re someone who writes your feelings on a piece of paper and then throws it in the trash. What matters is writing an honest list of any emotional turmoil, childhood trauma, or negative experience from your past.
Keep this list. It comes in handy for your next step…
2. Reflect on each item and identify the source of the thought/belief
My behavior these days is surprising friends who knew me in college. I’m mourning the loss of a dear friend. And friends are stunned when they hear my cries through the phone. I don’t keep my feelings inside anymore.
Before I learned to be an openhearted person, I had to dig deep. To reflect on my list of thoughts and behaviors I was carrying. I had to discover the person I wanted to be and then act on it. I had to work to become the person I am today. A person who feels those terrifying emotions. A person who cries in front of my partner. A person who says, “I love you.” A person who admits to the fear, sadness, and pain we all feel.
You need to be willing to travel back in time and reflect on each item on your list. Look at your past and determine why you are the way you are. Do you fear intimacy because your ex-boyfriend was not intimate with you? Do you dread giving your whole heart because your last relationship has shattered your heart into a million pieces?
You need to identify where the source of your emotional ghost comes from. You can then take the next step…
3. Acknowledge your emotional ghosts
For a long time, I blamed my father for who I was. Old boyfriends broke up with me because the past was sitting in the driver’s seat of my current relationship. I continued blaming my father while I remained in emotional solitary confinement.
Blaming got me nowhere.
It doesn’t work. It can make you feel like a victim. But if you stay a victim, you will be doomed to repeat negative behaviors indefinitely.
Acknowledging your emotional ghosts, on the other hand, puts you in the driver’s seat. You’re the one in control — not your emotional baggage.
Accept your history. And the people that have been part of your history. You’re the one who needs to acknowledge your past ghosts. No one else can help you with this.
4. Let yourself process dark emotions
Sometimes emotional ghosts stick around because you never let yourself deal with them. You never let yourself get angry, upset, or cry. You never let them all out.
You do not break free from emotional ghosts when unprocessed emotions keep you, prisoner.
It’s not just that dark emotions do not leave you. They also shackle your feet to remain in the past. They’re why you can’t take a single step forward.
In fact, one study shows having emotional baggage stops people from creating a positive lifestyle change. According to the study, “behavioral change can be hard to perform as psychological distress from life baggage can influence the ability to change.”
Even if you fear the emotional intensity of processing dark emotions, you need to let yourself feel sad. Dark emotions are necessary. They’re another flavor in the feast that is life, another instrument in the symphony we live, and that even though the solo they play can feel like they last forever, eventually a different instrument will take their place.
When you process dark emotions, it may feel like you are losing control. You may appear helpless. You may assume you have broken down, losing your center. Maybe you have.
But if you allow yourself to process difficult emotions, you will find stable ground, perhaps even higher ground, on the other side. The scars of life you so deeply resent will allow you to be more compassionate and loving with your partner.
5. Look for the silver lining in your cloud
Instead of just being bogged down by emotional ghosts, you can decide what to take from your past.
My father’s refusal to be open and loving taught me a lesson. I wanted to be openhearted, to be present, and to be alive. That was my silver lining. I worked to bare my beating, blood-red heart of mine in more ways than I could imagine. I became a better, more loving human being thanks to that.
There’s a silver lining in your emotional baggage. You just need to look for it. You need to take something good out of your emotional hurt. Something that helps you grow.
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