Got Emotional “Baggage”?

Many people worry they have psychological ‘baggage.’ For example, they go through a bad marriage or other prolonged, emotionally traumatic experience. They fear this baggage will harm them in future relationships. Or they think it might otherwise impair their future happiness.

In a way, this is like being afraid of your own emotions. It’s like saying, ‘I’m gun-shy. I’m mistrusting because I’ve been burned in the past. I’m afraid I won’t be able to feel trusting or benevolent about a new person or situation, going forward.’

The error in this attitude involves failing to recognize that your emotions are the result of your ideas. You can change your ideas, or your thinking, and (with time and practice) change your emotions accordingly.

Psychotherapy or counseling is sometimes a solution. By talking things out with an objective outsider, you might come to ‘get over’ or ‘move past’ your past, unpleasant experiences. If this happens, it’s because through the therapy process you changed your thinking. The important thing here is that you change your thinking.

Example of ‘baggage’ thinking:

‘I was lied to before. I’ll be lied to again. I can’t trust anyone.’

New thinking:

‘Everyone is different. Some people will lie to me, and others will not. In the past, I chose to ignore red flags, such as catching my ex- in little white lies about insignificant things. I won’t ignore those again.’


‘Sometimes people will lie. There’s nothing I can do about it. I can either forego the pleasure of a romantic relationship, or take risks. Life is never without risk. It’s just as risky, if not more risky, to sign up for permanent loneliness than to take risks with new people.’

The same applies to an unhappy or messed up childhood.

‘Not everyone is like my family. I can plainly see that many other people don’t relate to each other that way. If I find people who are like that, I am free to back away. I’m not stuck, not ever again, not like I was with my family.’

I don’t mean to imply, of course, that telling yourself these things one or two times will eradicate the problem. ‘Cognitive restructuring’ of this kind can take countless times in order to internalize new emotional responses. Think of a person injured in a bad car wreck, trying to retrain his muscles to respond in a way that he can walk again, with the help of physical therapy techniques. Psychological therapy is, in some sense, the same basic principle.

One person recently said to me, ‘I find I have a lot less depression, and anxiety, if I stop thinking so much.’

Does this mean that thinking is bad? Isn’t thinking the human means of survival, including introspection for the emotional well-being of the mind?

The issue here is not thinking as such, but what you’re thinking. This woman realized that she entered interactions with new people thinking things like, ‘I can’t trust this person. He’s going to be very critical and judgmental, like my mother.’ Her mother, as well as other people she chose to invite into her adult life, were very critical, hostile and (at the root) highly anxious individuals. As a result, she was thinking/feeling these thoughts every time she met someone new. It was her ‘baggage.’

Over time, she discovered that ‘not thinking’ was the answer, at least on the surface. It’s not that she abandoned thinking. Instead, she changed what she was thinking. In and out of those situations of meeting someone new, she corrected the thinking by telling herself, ‘Each new person is a potential joy in my life. I can’t find out unless I get to know them.’ She found other reassuring and comforting things to say, or imagine in her mind, to help her better relax.

The point is: You’re never hostage to your own ‘baggage.’ I have encountered plenty of people who turned past, traumatic experiences into lifelong course reversals. It’s never too late. Psychotherapy and psychological methods can be tremendously helpful. But beware of therapists who encourage you to aimlessly dwell on your past experiences. Doing so will only heighten your sense that, ‘My past determines all I am now,’ when it’s precisely the opposite attitude you need to develop.

In short: Whether you retain emotional baggage, or not, is primarily up to you.


Be sure to “friend” Dr. Hurd on Facebook. Search under “Michael Hurd” (Rehoboth Beach DE). Get up-to-the-minute postings, recommended articles and links, and engage in back-and-forth discussion with Dr. Hurd on topics of interest.