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Childhood trauma

10 Signs Emotional Baggage Holding You Back

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9 min

10 Signs Emotional Baggage Holding You Back

While Reddit users discuss whether it is “bad to not want to date someone with lots of emotional baggage,” people with unresolved traumas from the past can experience real struggles to form and maintain their relationships, which also affect their mental health.

But what exactly is the meaning of emotional baggage, especially when you are in a relationship? This detailed guide goes beyond the term that may stigmatize people who have unresolved trauma that affects their lives today. 

Rather, this article reveals the signs and causes of past traumas that can hold you back from growing personally and in your relationships.

What is emotional baggage? 

As a metaphor, emotional or mental baggage is made up of unresolved problems from the past that we carry into the present, like heavy suitcases that we can not see. 

These issues can arise from unprocessed childhood trauma or the scars of past toxic relationships

Yet, these things are called “baggage” because they are sneaky and change the way we think and act, making it harder for us to move forward smoothly.

This relationship trauma, if left unresolved, can result in mistrust, fear of intimacy, low self-esteem, self-doubt, feeling unworthy of love, or even depression and anxiety disorders.

10 signs you’re carrying emotional baggage

It is important to keep an open mind about how the things and relationships that happened in the past made you feel as you try to unpack.  

Is there an event that continues to elicit strong emotions no matter how much time has passed? Are there patterns in your relationships that seem all too familiar, even if they are unproductive or toxic? 

These are signs that may hint at unresolved emotional baggage. Let’s look at them closer.

Sign #1. Chronic self-doubt

Self-worth and emotional baggage share a symbiotic relationship. When you have unresolved trauma, self-loathing can quickly become a mode of operation. 

Persistent negative self-talk, feelings of inadequacy, or an unyielding sense of unworthiness are powerful indicators of underlying repressed trauma that have been left unaddressed.

Sign #2. Fear of abandonment

You may struggle with an irrational fear that those close to you will leave. This could be because of abandonment trauma — your childhood experience when caregivers might have left you or were emotionally unavailable. 

For example, you as a child experienced the divorce of your parents, so now that fear of being left may result in acting more clingy in your current partnership. This is also called fawn trauma response.

These types of unconscious thoughts and responses prevent you from fulfilling your needs in your current relationship by just focusing on the needs of your partner. 

Sign #3. Feeling hyper alert all the time

In a nutshell, when we experience frightening events, our brain’s fear center wakes up. This puts us in a “fight, flight, or freeze” state to help us stay alive. That being said, your brain may stay in this state of high alertness even after the event is over. 

Whatever your brain thinks might be dangerous may make you react, even if it is not really dangerous. This can also make you overly defensive, ready to release anger from the past to a person who actually wasn’t the cause of that.

Sign #4. Pervasive trust issues

The term “betrayal trauma” was first used by psychologist Jennifer Freyd to describe what happens when someone or something they rely on breaks their trust.

Trust is like the glue of personal and professional relationships. However, traumatic experiences or a history of betrayal can leave you mistrustful in any new relationship. 

If you can not really trust the people around you and are waiting with a “knife in the back” at any time, it is likely to be emotional baggage from past experiences.

Sign #5. Attachment issues

A lot of people who have been through trauma have problems with attachment. Generally, problematic attachment experiences in the past form or affect our attachment style, according to the theory by John Bowlby

The effects of this attachment trauma can be that it’s hard for you to bond with your partner or friends as an adult. Otherwise, you become too attached to one person, which can lead to dependence and even trauma bonding.

emotional baggage and childhood trauma

Sign #6. Fear of rejection

Just thinking about being rejected can be devastating for trauma survivors. Because of the stress and anxiety you can feel over rejection trauma, this can keep you from forming new relationships or making strong bonds.

Sign #7. You are not enjoying your life

Living without joy is hard, and emotional baggage can make the joy that should be a natural part of life dim or disappear.

When someone stops doing things they love, interacting with people, and avoids being in places that used to make them happy, it is often a sign that the baggage has become too heavy to carry. 

Some feelings of toxic shame or guilt complex from the past may prevent you from feeling full and enjoying your life. Also, it can be a sign of depression.

Sign #8. Emotional numbness and emptiness

Traumatic events in childhood, whether they happen all at once or over a long period of time (complex trauma), can leave you feeling empty and numb in adulthood. 

Perhaps you try to avoid emotional pain by being emotionally unavailable, finding it hard to feel emotions or attach to people. Also, it can lead to complete dissociation as one of the trauma responses. 

Sign #9. Suppressing your authentic self

When one’s actions are congruent with and supported by one’s fundamental principles, one is authentic. 

So, someone who has emotional baggage from past and unresolved trauma might realize that their actions do not always match up with their true beliefs and needs.

This person might want to show love, but the emotional openness of that expression could result in them stopping doing that, for example, because they believe it shows how vulnerable they are.

Sign #10. Struggling to set boundaries

Mental health experts tell us that healthy boundaries are crucial for maintaining mental and emotional well-being. 

However, many of us who have been through trauma and carry a lot of emotional baggage may find it hard to set and stick to boundaries. We may also overcommit and feel like we can not say no.  

This lack of self-assertion can be a veil for deeply rooted fears of not being loved or enmeshment trauma from the past.

Is it emotional baggage or just a bad day?

Sometimes, we might mistakenly attribute these signs to just having a rough patch. However, the distinction lies in the persistence and depth of these feelings. 

Emotional baggage isn’t just a momentary inconvenience; it’s an ongoing weight that shapes our responses to life’s challenges.

The roots of our emotional baggage

There are threads of happiness, sadness, love, betrayal, success, and failure in our past, like the paths in a labyrinth. Emotional baggage grows from the roots of these experiences, especially those that are full of strong emotions. 

So, common causes of our emotional baggage may include:

Unresolved childhood trauma

We learn how to act and feel by forming our feelings during our formative years. Parental relationships, peer relationships, and the ups and downs of school fights and flights are some of the most important experiences in our lives. They shape our insecurities, fears, and unresolved traumas.

emotional baggage and childhood trauma

Past traumatic events

Some experiences aren’t just monumental; they’re so significant for people. Victims of abuse, war veterans, or survivors of natural disasters carry with them the cataclysmic tremors of their past. 

Trauma, left unaddressed, becomes an enduring fixture in the emotional baggage of our lives.

For instance, after a disaster like an earthquake, people can have a wide range of thoughts and actions. Even the smallest shaking-like situation can cause intense or unpredictable feelings, unwanted flashbacks, and anxiety attacks, depersonalization, even if it’s safe.

Unmet expectations and betrayals

Our emotions get popped when our hopes and dreams are dashed, whether it is because a partner cheats on us, a friend betrays us, or a life goal falls through.

These events often leave a painful mark that is felt for a long time after they happen. One study shows the long-term effects of partner betrayal trauma and its influence on new relationships, too.

Another very clear example is when adults who are supposed to care for children neglect or even abuse them. As a result, the children may have trouble forming bonds with others and consistently believe that trusting others is risky and will lead to adverse consequences.

How to let go of emotional baggage

It takes a brave and honest look inside to realize that you may be carrying around emotional baggage. Without the layers of self-awareness, you may miscalculate the load you carry.

Rychel Johnson, M.S., LCPC, comment on how to let go emotional baggage One of the first steps in navigating your emotional baggage is recognizing triggers. By paying attention to physical sensations and patterns in your thoughts and emotional reactions, you can piece together the roots of what has created this baggage you carry. There is no shame in seeking help as you consult with a therapist or your natural support system, as they can offer additional insight. Uncovering the cause of emotional baggage takes time and effort, but you deserve to feel better and lighter as you move through life.

Also, you can try:

  • Understand that it does not define you. Seeing your emotional baggage as separate from your “identity” is the first thing that you need to do to accept its existence. Additionally, you can work toward more healthy coping mechanisms with a therapist.
  • Validate your experiences: Self-validate by admitting what you went through and how it still affects you in your current life. There are books about childhood trauma that have stories about things that people have been through.
  • Mindfulness and meditation. Doing mindfulness exercises can help us find peace in stormy emotions from past trauma. By anchoring our consciousness in the present moment through meditation, we can build a life raft that will support us through the highs and lows of our emotions.
  • Understand what you actually feel. Being aware of and naming your emotions is better than suppressing them. In other words, you have to feel a variety of them and be aware of them. 

You could start by taking a test to find out your EQ level, for example. Or, read more about the list of emotions humans can feel and figure out what each one means. 

Wrapping Up

Reflecting on these signs that you might have emotional baggage that might hold you back isn’t about placing blame on ourselves or others. It’s about developing self-awareness and gaining control over our lives.

It means putting on our thinking caps and taking care of our own emotional baggage, sorting through the stories that time has etched into our minds.

Rychel Johnson, M.S., LCPC photo

Reviewed by Rychel Johnson, M.S., LCPC

Rychel Johnson, M.S., LCPC, is a licensed clinical professional counselor. She owns a private practice specializing in anxiety tre...