Resolving emotional baggage

Note: This 2008 post is the first in a series of 2009 and 2010 posts on the topic of emotional baggage. The full series is listed below.

The entrepreneurs I mentor are coping with a variety of dysfunctional patterns from their past history. Their hot buttons get pushed and emotions erupt that they cannot control. They attract repeated incidents that make it obvious they harbor unresolved issues. There are many metaphors to get creative about this kind of problem. My favorite is "resolving emotional baggage".

Emotional baggage stores psychological pain in our unconscious minds. When it's been activated, it appears people are making us feel negative in very familiar ways. We cannot stop feeling this way, as far as we have realized by attempts to chill out, move on or change. Our emotions are out of our control and dominating our experience. We appear to be possessed, overtaken or invaded by unwanted energies. We usually act out how bad we're feeling so other people stop making us feel this way. We're get the urge to punish the person who activated our baggage. We're in no mood to forget and forgive, or even understand and empathize with the other's pain.

We are attracted to people with matching luggage. They are attracted to our painful baggage too. The feelings are mutual. So is the torment. We make each other miserable with how it appears the other is making us feel. We may see the pattern but cannot stop repeating it. We may want to be more considerate but keep acting out our baggage.

Baggage puts us under the impression that we need something from the other person in our relationship. We are poised to be upset when we don't perceive this recurring pattern. We fail to question our giving more of the same thing to get a different result. We are certain that we are incomplete and lacking in some way. We are using the other person to fill in for our lack of self sufficiency, self confidence and self respect. We cannot relate to ourselves, but we expect the other to relate to us. Relationships go haywire when our baggage comes into play.

Emotional baggage contains lingering ghosts from our past history. Something overwhelming happened to us that we never put to rest. We couldn't handle it at the time and we assume we cannot resolve it now. It's been off-loaded to our unconscious to take it off our overloaded minds. We try to forget about it and succeed at "getting a grip" until the pain gets stirred up by someone with matching luggage. It then appears as our inescapable fate to face this issue.

In the process of unpacking emotional baggage, we expand our self respect into new territories. We discover new ways to be unique and accept our differences. We find talents, priorities and passions that others have found unacceptable. We get a different feeling about whatever others put in such a bad light. We see the good in what has been held as "really bad" for so long. We integrate what has been separated from our identity. We include in our self-confidence what could not be admired by others. We change our self concept to make this part of who we are.

As we work through this pain, we become more understanding of others. We realize how they were in pain and acted out their frustrations when they shot us down. We see how they could not control their emotions, feel safe under scrutiny or welcome our presence in their pain. We can picture how our uniqueness would inevitably push their hot buttons and get a big reaction out of them. We discover this awareness is essential

Once we can take a longer view of our lives, we see the timing in our baggage. It appears some of our uniqueness has been kept in safe-keeping until it was time to be further explored. Our baggage has kept our gifts from getting trammeled, destroyed or obliterated. We realize how we were not previously ready to express this part of ourselves confidently, maturely and compassionately.

Here's a complete listing of the entire series of posts on emotional baggage:
  1. What is emotional baggage? - For starters, let's explore many different frames of reference for what the metaphor of "emotional baggage" represents.
  2. Irrational bubbles, bursts and bailouts - I utilize many different models to understand irrational behavior.
  3. Encrypted for safekeeping - Its purpose is to minimize the potential harm from other's fear, envy, power trips or other dysfunctional attacks on our innate resourcefulness.
  4. Becoming capable of enjoying solitude - They decided to never again get caught alone when dangers like that appear to be present.
  5. Incapable of really relating- When others bring their baggage from a previous relationship into their relationship with us, we will likely get some additional baggage out of their
    "acting out" ourselves.
  6. Revising your past history - This process does not change the facts of what happened which are already accurate. This framework changes your story about those facts.
  7. Do one thing different from before - Imagine our pieces of emotional baggage are really invisible copy machines that are working perfectly.
  8. Camouflaging our baggage - We know we are succeeding when no one sees through our disguise or suspects our coverup.
  9. Baggage as a partial solution - Partial solutions are problematic, but they set us up to do better, not make things worse for ourselves.
  10. Lured by matching luggage - At some point we'll discover we've bonded with their matching luggage.
  11. Those voices in our heads - Those voices in our minds typically take opposing stances on issues with our personal danger
  12. Snap judgments may become baggage - Snap judgments overreact to dangers and opportunities. We assume it's: "all or nothing", "now or never" and "win the prize or lose out totally"
  13. Two-sided structure of baggage - The two halves of any open piece of luggage are symbolic of the structure of our emotional baggage.
  14. Three wrongs make a right - We can make it right and begin to do right by others and ourselves. We simply need to make a right out of these three wrongs
  15. Humans behaving badly again - Our minds are designed to override this wonderful human intelligence whenever we're in significant danger.
  16. Predicting danger - Part One - We predict what will get us in trouble instantly, after a short while, or only if we provoke it.
  17. Predicting danger - Part Two - We predict that we can escape our cruel fate by appearing different to others.
  18. Keeping your lid from flipping - We act out our unresolved issues when we flip our lid or when we keep a snug lid on them.
  19. Dreadful memories of cruelty - We do not want to keep thinking about these incidents, even though we need to keep them in mind. Our emotional baggage helps us out and takes the load off our minds.
  20. Emotional baggage safety program - We forget why we have baggage and what
    exactly it's doing for us.
  21. Baggage has a mind of its own - We have all learned from countless experiences that our emotional baggage does not listen to reason.
  22. Speaking the language of luggage - Here's some of the ways our baggage picks up on what's going down:
  23. Becoming more aware of our baggage - As we acquire even more awareness of our baggage, we realize it's functionality is a result of what's missing. It's really not a thing or a process, but an absence.
  24. Baggage as a cognitive hierarchy - The baggage in our minds appears a microcosm of the large hierarchies that employ thousands of people as government agencies, public
    utilities and multinational corporations.
  25. This baggage induced recession - Here's how I'd explain how widespread emotional baggage got us into this mess.
  26. Baggage interferes with business modeling - Here's four ways that our baggage interferes with our creativity when considering recent advances in business models:
  27. Reworking our baggage at work - Business models that fail to recognize the drag on success created by everyone's baggage, undermine their own survival
  28. In lieu of going postal - Whenever we get to the other side of a painful setback, our tragic loss is no longer the boss of our lives. We take control of our conduct in ways that change
    what we're feeling.
  29. Learning to solve problems by example - The nature of these problems defy conventional problem solving techniques. They give us emotional baggage, not confidence, efficacy or freedom from our past history.
  30. Baggage as unfinished business - We are typically stressed "out of our gourd" at the moment when we getting burdened with some baggage.
  31. Baggage as set in cement - Messing with what has been "set in cement "will feel like a tragic loss of pride, certainty, convictions, familiarity, meaning, purpose and control.
  32. Stockpiling negative experiences - When we choose to cling to a negative experience, we're usually certain that we have no choice in the matter. It seems like the clinging choses us, not the other way around.
  33. Taking things too personally - When we are taking something too personally, our minds are "outer directed".
  34. Scatterbrained following an explosion - The original negative experience can be imagined as an explosion in our minds. We cannot keep it together because the incident was so alarming, upsetting and disorienting.
  35. 10th Anniversary of the Columbine Tragedy - Of course I was considering the role of emotional baggage as I read the book.
  36. Underdeveloped regions of experience - To put our baggage in its proper perspective, it's helpful to consider three other regions of experience: the future, the present moment and the realm of meaning.
  37. Trapped inside a story - When our baggage has been activated by a dreadfully familiar circumstance, it's helpful to look at this through the lens of storytelling. At that moment, we are trapped inside a very strange story that offers no escape.
  38. Authoring a new story - Our baggage gives us a victim story where we feel powerless or a conquest story where we're driven to act like a bully. In either case, our baggage gives us no
    sense of being free to create a new narrative.
  39. Sabotaging disruptive innovation - What the lens of emotional baggage offers is WHY the incumbents cannot improve their chances of survival.
  40. Derailed by emotional baggage - When a train of thought moves down a line of reasoning, we can get to a better place. We leave the past behind us and feel better right now.
  41. Bozo vs. baggage - Our baggage maintains these incessant inner conflicts. Our conscious desires appear to be conceived by a real idiot.
  42. Making do with a dilemma - When we've let go of our conscious desire as the only right answer, we're in a place to embrace the dilemma.
  43. Transforming desires to eliminate baggage - When our desires get blocked or sabotaged by our emotional baggage, we assume our desires are right.
  44. Picturing baggage as habits - We're trapped by whatever worked in our past history, just like behavior patterns we got into the habit of doing long ago.
  45. If we had no past history - ...Yet, upon deeper reflection, there as many
    disadvantages to having no past history:
  46. Getting beyond past history - Here are some of the conceptual models for getting beyond our past history:
  47. Raising the level of suspense - Baggage kills the suspense in our lives. The pain we've hung onto keeps the same things happening over and over
  48. Sorting out a tangled mess - When two people become a pair with matching luggage, most of what's happening occurs below the surface.
  49. Mind of a control freak - What drives those people to control others
  50. Mind of a control freak -redux - How are we entangled by other closed minds when someone controls others
  51. Rethinking emotional baggage - How we could embrace the complexity of baggage by picturing it in space
  52. Depending on the emotional investment - Three other kinds of emotional investment besides the one that produces PTSD
  53. What's been eating you exactly? - Getting eaten by an experience until some other convincing experiences get to us
  54. Getting out of a stuck place - Dropping down to find the exits
  55. Breaking emotional stalemates - Seen from the sidelines, we can break our habitual reactions to opposing stances
  56. Getting to a better place - Approaching resolution as a far out idea
  57. Pitfalls on the path to resolution - Falling for tempting thinking that gets us nowhere
  58. Changing our minds with ease - Deliberately getting sidetracked
  59. Getting the right impression - Recognizing the wrong impression to find the right one
  60. Coming from a place of wonder - Giving up rigid opinions that no longer serve us
  61. Settling for middle ground - Changing how we spell "relief"
  62. Getting to a panoramic place - Realizing vaster possibilities from understanding others' stories
  63. Leveraging baggage-laden incumbents - Making the world a better place while others are doing the opposite
  64. Internalizing negative experiences - Realizing how we also internalize positive experiences to sort out what's good about internalizing our experiences


  1. Hi there i really dig your article. It was very interesting for me to read. But i am having trouble with something. many sites that i have read are telling me about why things are happening but dont really state or advise you how to fix this. I like what you have written but it would be great to know how to actually Resolve this problme of emotional baggae, some useful steps to go about this and achieve a better state of existence. Cheers.

  2. Thanks for adding a comment here. There are some action steps to fix emotional baggage implied in this post, as well as in those other sites explaining why things are happening.

    1. Become the observer of the pattern you go through. Witness what happens exactly when you get possessed by the big reaction, strong urge, or invasion of emotions. Get used to being able to watch what happens as it happens. Sometimes baggage can only thrive in the dark, unconscious mind and vanishes in the light of conscious awareness. Sometimes it's enough to be able to say to yourself: "there's that feeling again", "there's the urge to run that number on myself", "there's that same old temptation to over-react".

    2. Lose resistance to further repeat incidents. Whatever we resist is provoked to persist and then torments us further until we let go of our arrogance about it. See your baggage with a different frame of reference, with more insight or from a perspective of acceptance. Perhaps it's understandable in light of your past history, or what's especially important to. Sometimes baggage is only objecting to your opposition and loses its urgency once accepted, understood, forgiven or allowed as an experience.

    3. Redefine the problem that "obviously needs fixing". Get more creative and consider your baggage as something else more valuable, useful or helpful to you. Sometimes baggage disappears when it's pictured as something good for you. Perhaps it's really:
    Teaching you a lesson about what you care about more deeply than anyone else you know
    Showing you a hidden talent of yours, a passion or a purpose that's it's time to develop
    Provoking you to stop reacting to what happens and start choosing what difference things make to you personally

    4. Consider the "thing" called baggage as a "process" instead. Realize that there are several stages that it is trying to go through to accomplish a better result. Consider how it comes about, changes with different situations and fizzles out each time. Imagine how it's really a cycle that goes round and round with other side effects, fallout or repercussions. Sometimes baggage evolves into really relating with other people when it's seen as a process to get both of you understood, validated, appreciated or respected. It's only going haywire when either or both of you are getting manipulated, invalidated, criticized or disrespected.

    Hopefully this gives you something to do with all these insights. Thanks for your question!

  3. Can you recommend any books that speak to this issue? And offer recommendations for resolution?


  4. Almost every field of therapy addresses this issue, though each discipline calls it by a different name; shadow, neurosis, cognitive distortion, toxic introject, imposed narrative, top dog, autonomous complex, demon, etc. Most books are written for therapists to help their clients and expect the solution to come from the conversation and trusting relationship. There are 3 books I've read that attempt a self-help approach with some success:

    Margo Adair, Working Inside Out --Applied Meditation for Intuitive Problem Solving
    Dawna Markova, No Enemies Within - A creative process for discovering what's right about what's wrong
    Richard D. Carson, Taming Your Gremlin - A guide to enjoying yourself

    In addition to the advice I gave in the comments above, I also recommend you becoming a keen observer of your baggage. Learn when it shows up, what provokes it to possess you, what are the circumstances when it leaves, what's different when it's gone compare to when it's there. As you "externalize it" this way, you will stop identifying with it and gain different ground to stand on. From this better place, I recommend writing out conversations with it, discussing what it wants, finding out what good it's trying to do, updating it on who you've become now, etc.

  5. You seem to have described me in a way i didn't believe anyone else could understand! Let alone help! Do you know of any group therapy courses or 1 day events i can attend, as i'm not sure i could afford 1 to 1 counceling over the long term.

  6. Thanks for letting me know how I'm being valuable!

    If you Google "emotional baggage therapy group", you'll find over 25,000 links. Add your location to your search and you may come up with a manageable number to explore.

    My next step after completing this blog series on emotional baggage is to create a self-study workbook and wiki to help lots of people work thru their baggage on their own schedule for free. I've begun writing the workbook. It's looking like it will contain a dozen modules for resolving emotional baggage. I expect the announce each module on my blog once it's available for free download. Once the workbook is partially completed, I'll create the wiki where others can add their criticisms, ideas, experiences and suggestions to enhance the workbook processes.

  7. I continue to have a really hard time in my realtionship with my girfriend [4 years of an on/off relationship] because of what I am led to understand is my "emotional baggage". Tell you the truth I did not really believe in it, and I still have a problem in coming to terms with it. Thank you for your articles, I have not read all of them yet, which I came upon purely by chance. I have been recommended the books: "Men from Mars/Women from Venus" and "Enneagram - 9....souls", plus advised to take pyscho drama courses. How is it going with the workbook? :-)

  8. Michael,
    Thanks for leaving a comment. It may be accurate that your own baggage is giving your relationship some difficulties. It is more likely that you share matching luggage with your girlfriend and neither is blameless. Beware of anyone who claims to be "baggage free" while being quick to point out other's baggage as causes for problems, as defects to be fixed, or as character flaws that justify guilt tripping, arguments or breakups. Any pointing fingers with no three fingers pointing back of him/herself is a sure sign of emotional baggage running his/her show. Other's baggage calls us to provide the person with sensitivity to their feelings, safety from abuse and empathy with their own chronic frustrations.

    The John Gray books are great for explaining the patterns in men of distancing when things get tense, missing the cues when women want to be listened to without problem solving, and needing space when women will take it too personally. Enneagrams may help you break up labels, stereotypes and expectations about others while gaining insight into subtle differences, traits and predispositions. I don't have any first hand experience with pyscho drama, but I greatly admire the principles it's based upon and how long it has been practiced.

    The workbook is proceeding with great difficulty. The deeper I get into the complexity of all these baggage issues, the less likely it seems to me that issues can be resolved in a workbook format.