Exploring Your Emotional Baggage
- Wednesday, December 29, 2004
Consider the following study, which is only one among hundreds that substantiate this point. Participants were asked to write for just fifteen minutes a day about a disturbing experience. They did this for three or four days in a row. Forget polish and politeness. The point was not to craft a wonderful essay but to dig deeply into one’s emotional junkyard, then translate the experience onto the page. James Pennebaker, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of the study, then compared a group of college students who wrote about trauma with a group who wrote about trivial things (how they named their pet or the kinds of clothes they like). Before the study, the forty-six students in the study had visited the campus health clinic at similar rates. But after the exercise, the trauma writers’ visits dropped by 50 percent relative to the others. Other studies have found that identifying one’s feelings about past events actually increases the level of disease-fighting lymphocytes circulating in the bloodstream. It also lowers blood pressure.
Notice an important distinction. Spending time with your past, coming to terms with it, putting it in perspective, is different than wallowing in your past and using it as a scapegoat. In order to get beyond your past, you sometimes need to get into your past.
At this point you may be shaking your head vehemently. No way am I going to relive that again. Especially when I’ll get hurt all over again – and it won’t change a thing!
You’re right – reliving your past may hurt. And that’s not fun. But you’re also wrong – spending time with your past does change things. In fact, it can change your entire life perspective. So hang in there with the process. Coming to terms with your past isn’t easy, but it’s necessary in order for you to move on. It will free you not only to like your current life, but to love your current life, and have great hope for the future. The very process of exploring, identifying, and owning your emotional response to your history is what will allow you to move past your past. Contrary to what many of us may think, healthy people are not blessed with an unblemished history. Rather, they suffer the same struggles as you do. But they carry their negative history with little ill effect because they understand it to be part of their history. They have come to grips with the hurtful emotions a family member engenders, for example, and they acknowledge when those emotions arise. Because they have traced back the source of their hurt and examined it from different angles, they are able to set it aside. Their emotional baggage no longer pulls them down. In fact, they may even learn to joke about it in a healthy way. (Think about it: One person’s dysfunctional family background is another’s entertaining tale or comedy routine.)
If you want to become the person you were meant to be, you’ve got to unpack your baggage.
Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past. – George Orwell
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