Unpacking Emotional Baggage and Finally Letting Go

A whole new life opens up when we start looking forward instead of dragging the past around
By Cheryl Smith
Cheryl Smith
Cheryl Smith
August 6, 2021 Updated: August 11, 2021

Each one of us bears scars from our past. There isn’t a person alive who hasn’t felt the sting of heartache, grief, and suffering. Each difficulty we go through leaves its mark, and the deeper the hurt, the longer it takes to heal. But, just as the ownership of too many physical possessions creates chaotic stress and clutter—the long-term accumulation of unresolved emotions can also overwhelm us.

No aspect of our minimizing journeys looks quite the same, including what’s inside the suitcases that hold our emotional baggage. It’s one thing to peel back the layers of extra clothes and clutter in search of a clearer living space, but digging into long-buried emotions presents a different kind of challenge.

It seems easier to deny those darkened corners of our psyche than face how they’re affecting us.

Our lives were meant for more than trudging through the residue of yesterday’s mental and emotional overflow. This is a new day—the perfect time to courageously confront the “junk” weighing down those suitcases. The longer we wait, the more cumbersome the load becomes. The only way to move forward is to leave the past. Unlock your suitcase, lift the lid, and unpack.

What do you see? Much of life’s emotional baggage stems from childhood events, so chances are it has become such a part of you that you’ve forgotten it’s even there. Here are three things you may come across in your soul-searching.

Grudges

Are you unable to forgive someone who has wronged you? What they did to you may be incomprehensible. They may or may not have apologized or admitted to their own wrongdoing. You may be justified in feeling the way that you do. Your feelings are real, and they deserve validation. And yet, carrying this burden weighs on you. Imagine how much lighter your heart could be if you decided to forgive. A grudge is a prison you build for yourself. Forgiveness is the key that opens it. The one you can’t forgive isn’t the one who’s locked up.

Guilt

Is there any shame for past mistakes and failures in your suitcase? Let me ask you this: Can you do anything to undo what you’ve done in the past? Is there a rewind button that’ll take you back to the point just before it happened? Guilt is like holding a grudge against yourself. Grace has been extended to each of us. Why is it so hard for us to pass along that grace to ourselves? Forgive yourself, take the lessons with you, and endeavor to make better choices moving forward.

Fear 

Even though fear is, in and of itself, a necessary, natural reaction to protect and warn of danger, it can devolve into something unnatural and unhealthy. Fear can become a cruel taskmaster that paralyzes us, even as it drains us of our joy of living.

As I’ve been “unpacking” my emotional baggage, it has occurred to me just how much of my life has been controlled by fear. With the help of my husband and son, I’m finally understanding the seed of this often overwhelming fear. My dear mom was one of the most fearful people I’ve ever known. She lived most of her 84 years under the shadow of severe fear.

Until recently, I never really gave much thought to why mom was so afraid and why she automatically assumed the absolute worst in every situation. But as I follow the trail of fear, it’s becoming clearer. Of mom’s eight siblings, there were seven brothers, but just one sister, who was two years younger than her. When mom was 17, that sister, Opal, died. That traumatic event set a precedent for the remainder of her days on Earth.

Fast forward to when mom was 33 and her first husband was killed in a car accident, leaving her a widow with four underage children. A few years later, mom married dad, and a year after that, I was born. Life growing up was lived with an underlying sense of dread that the bottom would fall out at any moment, and the worst possible outcome was more than likely.

Each time someone was sick, Mom assumed that they were going to die. Every time someone was late, Mom feared that they’d been killed. When things were good, there was a sense that it couldn’t last. We were implicitly taught to prepare ourselves for the worst. As absurd as it sounds, this was real life in our home. Mom’s fears literally governed our lives, and they were probably at the root of why we moved 47 times.

Fear is a big part of my emotional baggage, but forcing myself to get to the root of it has been enormously helpful in stopping this cycle. Doing so allows me to identify what’s real and what’s grim imagination.

What else are you finding in your suitcase? Let go of what drags you down and open your heart and mind. If you do, you might discover a whole new life by looking forward instead of back.

And maybe you’ll find that you don’t need a suitcase at all.

Cheryl Smith
Cheryl Smith