Carrying a lighter load

It can help to sit with your emotional baggage and examine it. Photo: Getty Images
It can help to sit with your emotional baggage and examine it. Photo: Getty Images
While we are decluttering our living spaces, perhaps we should clear out some more personal ones too, writes life coach Jan Aitken. 

Jan Aitken
Jan Aitken

While contemplating life and the universe in general I began wondering about my impact on the planet. That led me into thinking about the growing trend towards living simply, physically decluttering and generally downsizing in an attempt to live more meaningful and planet-preserving lives. To live more "lightly" you could say.  In turn, I began thinking about what the emotional equivalent to living more lightly would be.

My conclusion was it would be clearing out emotional junk and baggage. We all have emotional baggage. It's part of being human. Some of us will travel lightly and others of us will haul articulated trucks full of the stuff. When emotional baggage is heavy enough it can stop us growing and suffocate us. But we don't have to carry a lot of baggage. We just need to know how to keep it manageable.

In the physical world we don't generally get confused about how to take the rubbish and recycling out. We just do it as a matter of course, it's a routine.

Why do we hold on to emotional baggage? What's in it for us? Why would anyone purposefully hold onto painful memories of the past that could potentially ruin the future?

It isn't purposeful, it's painful. Anything that's painful gets our attention and keeps it. If you've ever sprained, or worse, a wrist or an ankle then you might remember the initial response is to hold it and to stabilise the area; the pain got our attention. The body then goes through its own healing process and eventually, all going well, the wrist or ankle heal and voila, we're able to use it again.

Likewise, the mind and our emotional brain need to go through a process of healing in order for us to move on from the emotional sprain. That's where it all gets a bit sticky! Many will skip over the process because it's too uncomfortable. There aren't helpful pain relievers available to lessen the emotional pain while we heal and we can't "hold" our emotions to help stabilise things. We just have to feel them and that's often unpleasant. It's not uncommon to self-medicate with alcohol, recreational drugs, food, serial relationships - to name a few emotion numbing responses. Long-term however, it doesn't help. It's a bit like sweeping up and then just sweeping the dust pile under the rug ... The dust pile doesn't go away, it just gets bigger until, eventually, it trips us up and we end up metaphorically "face down in the dirt in a load of emotional blood and pain" (Brene Brown). There's a lot of events that can end up with us face down in the dirt, childhood traumas, death of loved ones, illness, relationship betrayal, fear around finances, fear of appearing vulnerable, loss of dreams, broken expectations ... and what trips me up may not trip you up. The "tripping events" will be personal to each and every one of us.

So how do we leave the baggage we don't want, behind us? The answer: we deal with the emotional sprains and breaks and allow ourselves to heal.

It's really important we acknowledge there's stuff we need to tidy up and throw out. What are the repeating negative stories we're telling ourselves? The stories that pull us down. For example: "I'm unloveable"; "I'm always abandoned"; "I'm too stupid to succeed"; "I'm always taken advantage of". What are the uncomfortable emotions they bring up for us? Fear, sadness, loss, loneliness? Try to name them and sit with them. The first instinct will probably be to ignore them, push them away, to do something in order to keep the feeling at bay. But long-term that's not healthy and more likely to add another bag to our load! The trip face first into the dirt might not happen at an "appropriate" moment. Emotions have a way of overtaking us sometimes when we're not best placed to deal with them. So, give yourself permission to "park" it, with the understanding that you'll come back to deal with it as soon as practically possible.

Use a framework to help you work through what's happening

Think about what it is you're feeling, the story you are telling yourself; name it, write it down. Get curious about what's going on for you. No judgement, just curious.

Ask yourself, does sitting with this help me? If it does, then how does it help? Does it bring clarity to what's happening for you, maybe it brings relief, perhaps it's the first time you've really sat with the feeling and felt it. It's an important step, just sit and feel.

Ask yourself how long you want to sit with it, depending on how distressing it is, you may want to put a time limit on it and then come back to it later. You may need to do this more than once.

What's your next step? Do you want to start a journal, write a letter and then destroy it? It's for your eyes only so be as angry, sad, hacked off as you want to be. Just get the thoughts out of your head and on paper - it will help clarify them.

What's the next step after that? Maybe you might want to seek professional help to work through it. What support and resources do you have and what do you need to help process it?

Think about your values, those things that are really important to you. How do they fit into what's happening for you? How do they help you respond to what's going on?

Do you need to forgive yourself or someone else? That's not about condoning anyone's behaviour or actions. Forgiveness is about you letting go emotionally of the stuff weighing you down so it doesn't impact your life (forgiveness is another topic all of its own).

The aim of creating a process around dealing with what's hurting us and holding us back is ultimately to allow us to heal emotionally and dump the baggage.

By helping to identify and name what's happening for us without getting caught in the emotional tumble drier that just goes around and around.

To better understand how we can change our thinking and behaviour in order to do things differently in the future. After all, if we want a different outcome we have to take different action.

Will we always get it right? Hell no! We're human after all. Can we avoid going face down into the dirt? Only if we live very stifled and controlled lives and I wonder if that's actually living? As the Japanese proverb on my wall says: "Fall down seven times, get up eight".

Jan Aitken is a Dunedin-based life coach.

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