What Does It Mean To Have Emotional Baggage?

We hear a lot about emotional baggage, but we rarely delve into what emotional baggage looks like or even means — or how common it actually is. Everyone, in their own way, has some emotional baggage within them.

"[Emotional baggage] is a combination of insecurities and inhibitions emerging from our past experiences," psychotherapist Gopa Khan tells Bonobology. "The triggers for it can be our upbringing, family history, or stressful or traumatic events in past personal relationships involving romantic partners, friends, or even coworkers. When something causes us deep pain, it can trigger our fight or flight response, and our defense mechanism forever alters our emotional habits in the process. That's what the emotional baggage psychology boils down to, making it hard for us to trust others and sometimes ourselves too, rendering us unsure and indecisive in our relationships."

Because emotional baggage can be caused by so many potential external and internal factors, it's no wonder it's so common. One can't get through life without being affected, and deeply so, by the things that come their way on the journey of all these trips around the sun. But the problem with having emotional baggage, no matter how common it is, is that it can be debilitating. A 2015 study found that emotional baggage can be so overwhelming that it can literally stand in the way of our ability to make better and healthier decisions for our lives.

How to know if you have emotional baggage

If you take a look at your relationships with people, not just romantic ones, but all relationships, as well as how to you respond to certain things that come up in life, you'll get a decent idea of your emotional baggage and how much of it you might have. Do you have issues with trusting people? Do you get unnecessarily angry and are unable to process your emotions in a healthy way? Are there things from your past that you've yet to deal with or address? These are all examples of possible emotional baggage.

"We respond to experiences emotionally and carry our perceived view of the consequences with us into new experiences," William Gibson, Ph.D., tells NBC News. "We seek to learn from our past experiences, which is a healthy behavioral pattern. This, however, includes carrying forward threatening and unhealthy 'baggage.' It is a component of human development to carry our personal perception of our past experience with us."

However, despite it being part of the human condition to lock onto that emotional baggage, never letting it go out of fear or habit, it doesn't mean it always has to be this way. You can learn to let go.

How to overcome emotional baggage

The problem with trying to release emotional baggage is that some emotions actually get trapped in the body, making the ability to shake them off difficult — some emotions are more about trying to make peace with them than others.

"Emotions are constantly being generated — subconsciously or consciously — in response to the reactivation of memories or unsatisfied goals," Mark Olson, Ph.D., LMT, tells Healthline. "The touch to X area is simply a reliable stimulus to reconstruct the pattern associated with that traumatic event ... The phrase 'trapped emotions' usually means that the true self wants to express something that the false self doesn't want us to express. In psychology, we think of the true self as the part of us that we are born with that is naturally open, curious, and trusting, while the false self emerges as a set of adaptive strategies to deal with pain and loss."

Once you can admit to yourself that you have unresolved emotional issues and the fact that these emotions are indeed trapped within you, you can pinpoint them more easily and ask yourself why you're triggered by this or that. Even if you've repressed these thoughts, do a deep dive and unpack things — it is baggage, after all — you'll learn how to process trauma and adapt to that baggage. Of course, not all emotional baggage can be handled on one's own, and there may be a need for a professional therapist for some traumas. But, among everything, the first step to overcoming the negative emotions that stand in the way of your ability to evolve and be your happy and authentic self is recognizing that the emotional baggage is there.