Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


5 Steps to Unpacking Your Emotional Baggage

Replace your unhealthy emotional habits with healthy ones.

Key points

  • Emotional baggage is a source of immense unhappiness and life dissatisfaction.
  • Emotional baggage can be unpacked through deep exploration with a qualified mental-health professional.
  • Emotional baggage can be seen as bad habits that have developed through repetition.
  • Emotional baggage can be replaced with healthy emotional habits through awareness, repetition, and control.
Pexels, Ketut Subiyanto, Used with Permission
Source: Pexels, Ketut Subiyanto, Used with Permission

In my last post, I explored the powerful influence of your emotional baggage on your life; its harmful effects on your happiness, relationships, and the pursuit of your life goals. Your response might be: “Okay, I now understand where my emotional baggage came from and how it affects me. But how do I unpack my emotional baggage so it doesn’t continue to drive my life in an unhealthy direction?”

Unpacking your emotional baggage is no small task, to be sure. You have likely been driven by your emotional baggage since you were a child and, as a result, your ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving have been hard-wired into your brain creating strong and immediate reactions.

Though emotional baggage can be approached in a variety of ways, I consider it as bad psychological, emotional, and behavioral habits that have been deeply ingrained in your psyche. The way you respond to yourself, others, and your world driven by your emotional baggage occurs because you’ve engaged in those thoughts, emotions, and behaviors thousands upon thousands of times in your life. Emotional habits can be understood as automatic reactions that were instilled through repetition of exposure to situations that share common qualities.

From this perspective, letting go of your baggage is about identifying those unhealthy habits and retraining new habits that are based on who you are now and that are productive in your present adult life. In essence, you break the habits that have been instilled in you by your emotional baggage by engaging in healthier thoughts, emotions, and behaviors so many times that your brain literally gets re-wired and the old habits no longer have the neural circuitry to impact your life.

You can think of this journey as containing “forks in the road.” You have for years taken the “bad road” that your emotional baggage has propelled you down because its power over your life has been significant and because you didn’t see another road, the good road, to take.

Step #1: Your Emotional Baggage Under a Microscope

The first step in changing the road you are traveling involves taking a clear-eyed look at the bad road you are on; how it impacts your happiness, mental and physical health, relationships, and aspirations. You likely already know that this road doesn’t feel good, but an “under the microscope” look will hopefully open your eyes wide to how bad a road it is and, perhaps more importantly, fuel your determination to get off the bad road as soon as possible.

Step #2: Identify Your Triggers

The second step involves identifying the situations that trigger your emotional baggage. This step is important because it enables you to recognize when a fork in the road can present itself. Typically, there are characteristic situations that have similarities to situations in your past that were painful and in which your emotional baggage is rooted. What happens is that your unconscious connects a current situation with painful memories. In doing so, your limbic system instigates a protective reaction grounded in either a fight-or-flight reaction. The result is a negative reaction (anger, sadness) that is out of proportion to the situation you are in.

By identifying these common situations, you can understand how they are related to your emotional baggage. That is, what it is about the present situation that provokes such a strong and unpleasant reaction? This exercise also enables you engage your pre-frontal cortex, which helps you to disengage your limbic system, thus reducing or removing the threat that is triggered by your emotional baggage. Importantly, it allows you to place a sign by the side of the bad road that reads: Fork in the Road Ahead, which alerts you to another road you can take.

Step #3: Prepare Alternative Responses

When your emotional baggage gets triggered, it is exceedingly difficult to just flip your limbic system’s switch off and your prefrontal cortex’s switch on. At that point, your inner animal is in full protection mode with all of the attending psychological (sharpening of senses, narrowing of focus), emotional (intense feelings of fear or anger), and physiological changes (racing heart, shortened breath, muscle tension, shot of adrenaline). Your primitive brain just reacts to your emotional baggage in a way that worked on the Serengeti 250,000 years ago (fight or flight), but isn’t usually effective in the 21st century.

Because of this eons-old defense mechanism, your only chance of short-circuiting your limbic system and allowing your prefrontal cortex to gain control of your response when you get “lit up” emotionally is to use your knowledge of the situations that commonly provoke your emotional baggage and create a more positive alternative response. Ask yourself: What would be healthy ways of thinking, feeling, and responding in this situation? With this “good road” identified and your plan to take that road planted firmly in your psyche (and even rehearsed using corrective imagery), when you get lit up next time by your emotional baggage, you can more readily conjure up that alternative response by your prefrontal cortex, allowing you to override your initial emotional-baggage-driven reaction. In other words, by creating for yourself a healthier psychological, emotional, and behavioral response that is specific and detailed, you are revealing a fork in the road that you can clearly see when your emotional baggage gets activated.

Step #4: Put Your New Responses into Action

Of course, given the weight of your emotional baggage, just because you have a plan to take the good road doesn’t mean that your primitive brain will give up without a fight. Remember that your emotional baggage is well entrenched in both your psyche and your neural pathways. You may find that the next time your emotional baggage gets triggered and your prefrontal cortex presents a healthier option, you will still react in an emotionally unhealthy way. But, as you bring your new response to the fore more and more, at some point, you will take the good road. And, when you do it once, and you see how much better this new response is (it is self-reinforcing because it feels better and the outcome is better), it gets easier to implement in future situations in which your emotional baggage tries to assert itself over your thinking, emotions, and behavior.

During this process, you are likely to feel frustrated and get discouraged by your inability to quickly and easily replace your old emotional habits with new ones. These feelings are normal. You must resist these feelings because they will only slow the retraining of your emotional habits.

As time passes, the internal battle will continue, but the tide will slowly turn. With each experience in recognizing how truly destructive your emotional baggage is and how attempting to put your new response into action, your old emotional habits will lose their power and your new emotional habits will gain strength. Then one day it will happen. You will see the opportunity to respond to your emotional baggage in a healthy way, your prefrontal cortex will override your limbic system, and you will think, feel, and act in ways that are life-affirming rather than life-destroying.

Step #5: Reinforce Positive Emotions

While the primary focus of unpacking your emotional baggage is on relieving you of negative emotions, it is equally important to learn to experience and express positive emotions. An unfortunate byproduct of an upbringing which emphasized strong negative emotions or no emotions at all is that positive emotions were rarely experienced, so positive emotions are largely unfamiliar, and perhaps even alien, to you. Positive emotions are important because they communicate what we want to seek out and look forward to. Love, excitement, joy, enthusiasm, contentment, and happiness are the emotional goals toward which we should strive and are the emotional rewards for our efforts in all aspects of our lives. By experiencing and expressing positive emotions, you are, in fact, ingraining new, positive emotional habits that can replace the old negative emotional habits.

You have opportunities on a daily basis to create, express, share, and talk about the positive emotions that you can replace those generated by your emotional baggage. When you are happy, show it. When you are excited about something, share it with someone. When you thoroughly enjoy something you are doing, sit with the positive feelings briefly. Most importantly, when you are with others whom you care about, express your love in any way you can because love is the ultimate defense against emotional baggage (because a lack of love is the most likely cause of your emotional baggage in the first place). By experiencing and expressing positive emotions regularly, you gradually replace the negative emotional fuel that powered your emotional baggage with positive emotional fuel that can propel your life in a new and healthier direction.


Previous experiences and emotional baggage as barriers to a lifestyle change, a qualitative study of Norwegian Healthy Life Centre participants. BMC Family Practice.

More from Jim Taylor Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Jim Taylor Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today