Achieving Goals: Shuck Your Emotional Baggage



It's time to reflect.

As we approach the New Year it’s a great time for self-reflection. Do you know what keeps you from achieving your goals?


Around the New Year it’s easy to start reflecting on what we accomplished over the year (and what we didn’t). Whether you’re one to make resolutions or not, it may be worth thinking about the role emotions play in our ability to achieve goals. We all live with a certain amount of emotional baggage. One way to think of emotional baggage is to visualize a set of specialized luggage that holds feelings—a set we haul around on our backs. The luggage is well-camouflaged so most people aren’t even aware we’re porting it around. In fact, sometimes we don’t notice it ourselves.


Emotional luggage takes a hefty toll on our ability to achieve goals.

Imagine carrying around a special set of luggage that holds all the feelings we’ve never really processed. That’s emotional baggage.

One key aspect of emotional luggage is it holds all the feelings we haven’t dealt with in the past. Some people call these “unfelt feelings.” When we fail to deal with our feelings they become dead weight. Over time, that weight adds up. Before we know it, we carry so much weight the things that should be relatively easy to accomplish seem much harder than they should and never seem to get done.


So where does emotional baggage come from? Emotions are tricky. For some, feeling is a very natural thing. People who feel easily can cry when they’re hurt or need to grieve, they can responsibly express their anger when they’re mad, and they know when fear, shame, or other deep-seated emotions are ruling their actions. However, people who are keenly tuned to their feelings like this seem to be the exception rather than the rule.


A young boy smiling.

Big boys don’t cry, right? In other words, don’t feel that hurt. Just stuff it.

One reason few of us learn to be good “feelers” is our society has done a great job of teaching us to suppress our emotions. From an early age, boys are teased mercilessly when they cry. Girls are chastised for getting angry. Name calling also comes into play. We call a boy who cries a “sissy” or a girl who gets mad a “bitch.” As a society the fallout comes when our effort to suppress a particular emotion makes it unsafe to express most any feeling. We “shut down” emotionally in the process. Another way to say that is we, “Stuff our feelings.”


Is it any wonder that since it’s generally unsafe to express at least some of our emotions from an early age we carry a lot of unfelt feelings around with us? Emotional baggage comes in all shapes and sizes. It’s a funny beast. And as long as we hang on or refuse to deal with it, it’s there strapped to our back and weighing us down through life with each and every step we take.


Emotional baggage often shows up in the way we act or the way we respond to others. It also shows up in our inability to take action. Let’s look at a few examples to see how it plays out.


A pile of clutter on the washer.

Have you been sitting on piles of clutter? Does the problem just get worse? Maybe there’s a reason you can’t deal with it–an emotional one.

Gracie hasn’t filed a tax return for the last 8 years. She’s earned some income over that time. It may or may not be enough to result in penalties if the IRS catches up to her. And even though she loses sleep whenever she starts thinking about it she just can’t force herself to pick up the phone and talk to a tax specialist.


Reggie hasn’t been to the dentist since he was in high school. Now, he’s 25 and has a terrible tooth ache. On top of that he’s just plain embarrassed it’s been so long. Reggie’s tooth feels worse every minute, but it feels impossible to pick up the phone and call to schedule a dental appointment.


Smoking is bad for your health.

Can’t quit smoking? Ever wonder why? Yes, nicotine is addictive, but maybe the problem goes deeper.

Samantha could use a complete physical. The last time she went to the doctor she ended up waiting 2 hours as the doctor was so behind schedule. That was five years ago. Now, she’s noticed an irregular mole on her neck. However, she doesn’t want to face endless waiting, forms, insurance hassles and so on. It’s just too much to think about.


Phil’s been meaning to change the oil in his car, rotate the tires and get a tune up for over a year now. For the past month while driving to work he’s wondered if he’s waited too long to get it fixed. Now, the tires are nearly bald and his engine is starting to burn oil. Still, he just can’t seem to find the time to call a mechanic.


Beth’s noticed a funny lump under her armpit. She hasn’t told her husband, Rich. In fact, she hasn’t told anyone. It’s most noticeable when drying off after showering. She can feel it just under the skin. Yet once she puts on her clothes she can easily ignore it’s there.


Junk piles up until it becomes unmanageable.

If junk keeps piling up in your life maybe it’s time to do something about it.

Lorne owns a small house with all hardwood floors. Five years ago she accidentally tipped over a burning candle in the living room. It made a bad burn mark in the middle of the floor. There was no other damage at the time so Lorne just covered the spot with a scatter rug. Now, every time her new boyfriend comes over and gets down on the floor to play with the cat, she’s embarrassed it still needs fixing. However, for some reason she can’t seem to call a contractor.


Several years ago when Jarrod was still a teen he stole a $300 necklace from his sister’s jewelry box and hocked it at the pawn shop for cash. He always meant to pay her back for it, but to this date he hasn’t copped to his theft. His sister just asked Jarrod to be the best man at her wedding. Now, his teenage deed is driving him crazy.


In the examples above emotional baggage rules a life. In each case, the person can’t seem to get their act together and deal with an ongoing problem or issue. Admittedly, not every problem or issue is an emotional one. However, in the cases above, the people have sat on a task or suffered over an issue for some time. Letting a problem fester like this a good sign there’s something more going on behind the scenes—that is, something emotional.


When fear, anger, embarrassment, shame, hurt, self-disgust or other feelings get in the way, our ability to reason or act rationally often goes out the window. Thus, just thinking our way through the problem isn’t always enough. Solving a problem like a toothache may be a simple matter of dialing for a dentist, but if we suffer a fear of dentists, drilling, or a mouthful of cavities, we may need to overcome our fear before we can get the tooth fixed.



Since emotional baggage plays such a key role in holding us back, how do we go about shucking it?


Emotions can wreck havoc on a diet.

Many of us overeat because of emotions. For more information on this subject click the image above to read: How To Stop Emotional Overeating.

Step 1) Identify life’s sticking points. In order to deal with a problem you need to define it. The first part of defining it is to see how it shows up in your life. In the case of emotional baggage, look for items, tasks, actions, inactions or issues that you’ve avoided dealing with for a period of time. Now, make a list and write them down. If you have trouble with this, think of the examples above. Or ask if there are they certain things you know you should be doing (like dieting or exercise) and you just can’t seem to get them done. If so, add them to your list.


Unlocking the door.

You may have to unlock a few doors to figure out what’s getting in your way. Don’t give up. Keep trying.

Step 2) Identify the feelings you’re carrying around in your emotional baggage. Let’s say you haven’t filed a tax return for several years. What’s holding you back? Are you ashamed you let it go by so long? Are you afraid you might be in trouble? Are you depressed you earn so little money? Are you embarrassed that your friends or family will find out you can’t manage your finances? It could be there is more than one emotion at play. Spend some time and try to sort it out.


Step 3) Commit to healing. Once you have identified a problem and its associated feelings you have a choice. You can continue to ignore it and suffer the consequences when the problem gets worse, or you can commit to healing. In this case, commitment is really about choosing to approach the problem differently. After all, if you do the same old thing, how can you expect a different outcome?


Don't let your pride get in the way of change. Reach out for help.

If you know you have a problem the choice is easy. Let it fester like a sore or reach out. Start by talking to a trusted friend.

Step 4) Seek the help you need. A tendency many of us need to overcome is the idea we’re all alone when it comes to dealing with problems. We’re not, but it can seem that way, especially if we suffer shame over our inability to make what we feel should be simple, easy changes in our lives. Getting help could look like going to a professional counselor or life coach, but it doesn’t have to. A good friend or trusted mentor or teacher might be enough to swing the balance. It will just depend on your particular situation.


Remember, what we’re really talking about here is getting up the courage to make different choices. Sometimes that means we’ll need to go through an intensive period of self-reflection and may need a counselor’s assistance. However, in other cases, it just means finding a way to push through the problem in hand. Thus, for example, if you can’t seem to go to the doctor or dentist on your own, ask a friend to accompany you. Once you have had at least one successful experience, it can often be enough to release some of the unfelt feeling you’ve been holding onto. In some cases, that can be enough to turn the tide.


Step 5) Take incremental steps to move forward. It most likely took you a long time to collect all that emotional baggage, so don’t be surprised if it takes awhile to shuck it. Just focus on taking it one step at a time. Start by making a list, identifying the feelings blocking you, and committing to doing things differently. Now, seek out the help you need to make that happen.


Call a friend or counselor.

Once you commit to change, help is usually no farther than a phone call away. Go ahead and dial. You can do this!

Emotional baggage plays at least some role for everyone. However, not everyone is aware they carry baggage, or even if they do, they may not understand how it holds them back from accomplishing everything they could. As you go to reflect on the past year and set goals for the new one, start by thinking about the things you haven’t managed to accomplish over time. Once you get a better handle those, you may discover setting goals and achieving them gets much easier.


Are you feeling stuck in life? Are you unhappy? Think it has to be that way? If you do you may enjoy reading some of the posts you’ll find on our Personal Growth Page.

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