You and your boyfriend are arguing one night about your relationship when suddenly he throws out that one phrase that makes you feel like you’re the crazy one: emotional baggage.
It’s one of those terms we hear all the time from friends, family and the media, but no one seems to actually be able to pinpoint what it is and what to do about it. So, what is emotional baggage really, how can you stop it from hurting your future relationships and how can you pack your baggage up for good?
Luckily, HC talked to collegiettes and experts to find out more about the phenomenon!
What is emotional baggage?
At its simplest, emotional baggage is the sum of all the negative experiences you’ve had in relationships (both romantic and otherwise) that you bring with you throughout life.
“The idea is that you’re forever carrying around this metaphorical weight on your shoulders of issues from the past,” says Jasmine Ryan, a healthy relationships and dating counselor at the University of Florida. “This baggage therefore affects your worldview and how you interact with people. It can have extremely negative consequences on your ability to connect with people.”
Ryan also points out that emotional baggage doesn’t just come from your romantic relationships. “Basically every relationship you’ve had comes with some form of emotional baggage,” she says. “But the most common problems that people mention are those associated with former significant others as well as parents and family members.”
What type of emotional baggage are you carrying around?
Ryan explains that “types” of emotional baggage are extremely vague and vary in severity from person to person. “An easy way to break down your emotional baggage is the baggage related to your romantic relationships (like a significant other or even just a fling) and your non-romantic relationships (like with family or friends). Both types of baggage do have an impact on one another, so issues you have with your parents play out in interactions with your boyfriend and vice versa.”
Within these two larger categories, emotional baggage can be broken down into subcategories. “For example, you could’ve been in an abusive relationship and now carry traumatic experiences from that time,” Ryan says.
Interested in figuring out what particular baggage you carry around? Ryan recommends looking back at your previous relationships and seeing what went wrong. “Large problems in relationships, like infidelity or even just constant bickering, can leave you feeling vulnerable in future relationships,” she says. “So if you had a boyfriend who cheated on you, it will probably affect how you interact with your next significant other. You’ll carry the weight of being afraid he’ll cheat on you, too.”
Ryan also explains that these experiences multiply the older you get. “People don’t just carry around one negative experience; we collect thousands of tiny little moments and micro-aggressions throughout our lives, all with different people,” she says. “In other words, emotional baggage creates more emotional baggage. Even more importantly, emotional baggage of any kind can affect all of your relationships.”
What kinds of emotional baggage have some collegiettes dealt with in the past? We talked to some brave college women to find out!
Emotional baggage from romantic relationships
A significant other can definitely leave you with a great deal of emotional baggage no matter how long or intense your relationship was, and these experiences could make things a lot worse for your future relationships.
Lauren*, a senior at the University of Florida, found herself dealing with emotional baggage from six years prior when she began dating her boyfriend, John*. “I was in an emotionally and sometimes physically abusive relationship when I was a freshman and sophomore in high school and thought I’d finally moved past it when I got to college,” she says.
However, when Lauren started dating John during her junior year of college, her first real relationship since her abusive one, she found that she couldn’t shake the problems that had haunted her for years. “Any time he got remotely annoyed, I’d start apologizing profusely, just like I had with my ex-boyfriend when I was trying to stop the abuse,” she says. “I’d start feeling really anxious, like I did when the abuse was happening. The problem was, John wasn’t doing anything wrong. Eventually he started asking me what was happening, and I was so scared to tell him the truth.”
Allison*, a senior at Wesleyan University, had an extremely controlling boyfriend during her first two years of college who left her feeling vulnerable and scared. “To this day, I still struggle with trying to find guys who don’t remind me of my ex-boyfriend,” she says. “I went through a lot during those two years we were together, and I guess a lot of my emotional baggage has to do with that relationship. It’s definitely affected how I treat my friends and family, and I’m still trying to find a way to cope.”
Emotional baggage from non-romantic relationships
While romantic relationships do make up a large portion of the issues relating to emotional baggage, problems with family, friends and strangers can still leave a mark. Even more importantly, these difficulties also make your romantic relationships way tougher.
Jade*, a senior at Wesleyan University, found that her own emotional baggage compounded over time. “I had a difficult relationship with my father growing up,” she says. “I hate to use the term ‘daddy issues,’ but that’s pretty much what I had by the time I went to college. As soon as I entered my first real relationship during freshman year, I was floored by how much my past problems with my dad played into my interactions with my boyfriend, and when we broke up, I carried around all of the issues from that relationship, too, in addition to the stuff I’d already had with my dad.”
The bottom line is to remember that almost all collegiettes deal with emotional baggage in some form or another, so you’re definitely not alone!
How can you get rid of emotional baggage?
While you can’t really stomp out your emotional baggage for good (memories and experiences are forever, after all), there are ways to cope with how you’re feeling and techniques for how to successfully keep emotional baggage from controlling your life and ruining your relationships.
The first step to dealing with your emotional baggage is to admit that it does exist.
Until Lauren opened up to John about the abuse she suffered from her ex-boyfriend in high school, she hadn’t told anyone since she’d started college. “I felt like UF was a fresh start where people didn’t know what had happened to me when I was 15, so at first it was really hard letting that go,” she says. “But when I finally told John, I really felt the whole ‘weight lifted off my shoulders’ thing. It was this huge piece of emotional baggage I’d been carrying around, keeping me from being close to other people, and it was finally out in the open with someone I trusted.”
Lauren says that putting her emotional baggage out there made it easier for John to put his own baggage out there, too. “Eventually John told me about how an ex-girlfriend he’d dated for several years had been cheating on him for the majority of their time together, so he had his own emotional baggage as well,” she says. “It made me feel much more comfortable knowing that I wasn’t alone, and while our baggage is different, we both have it.”
Acceptance may take some people longer than others. However, remember that just because you accept that you have emotional baggage doesn’t mean you have to tell everyone right away!
Whenever Ryan talks to UF students who are struggling with their relationships as well as the emotional baggage behind them, she suggests they go see an on-campus therapist. “Many colleges give students free or discounted therapy sessions, so I highly recommend taking your school up on the offer,” she says. “Even if the therapist his or herself isn’t necessarily trained to help you through your particular pieces of emotional baggage, they can point you in the right direction towards great resources.”
Jade started attending therapy sessions on campus during her junior year of college and felt that it helped her come to terms with a lot of her experiences. “I would also recommend that you really take some time to find the right therapist if you want to see results,” she says. “I didn’t really mesh with the first person I saw about my problems, so I’m glad I asked our health services for a switch and got an amazing therapist who knows how to listen to my problems while also offering great advice.”
Find a support group
After Lauren told John about her past relationship, they started talking about what they could both do to cope with their own emotional baggage. “John actually helped me find a support group of college women who were survivors of abusive relationships, and that’s been one of the best resources for me,” she says. “Though being in the group brings up a lot of difficult memories for me, it’s been so inspiring and empowering to know that I’m not alone. I’ve found resources that I can use should I ever find myself in a similar situation again as well as tools to help me get better. I also love the other women in my support group.”
Like therapy, Lauren cautions collegiettes to take the time to find the support group that’s right for them. “If your support group isn’t a good fit (you don’t really like the other people in it, the facilitator isn’t that great), you shouldn’t feel bad about leaving,” she says. “Just make sure you keep looking!”
Overall, emotional baggage doesn’t need to stop you from living a full and happy life. Understand that every person carries around some baggage, seek help if you need it and don’t be afraid of what lies ahead!
*Names have been changed.