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What’s in Your Emotional Chamber of Pain?

Your emotional baggage from childhood likely still haunts you.

Key points

  • Few people emerge from childhood unscathed from their upbringings.
  • The unfortunate aspect of emotional baggage is that it continues to shape and influence our lives into and through adulthood.
  • We create a "chamber of pain" in which to store agonizing emotions and protect ourselves for their overwhelming force.
  • The seal on the chamber of pain leaks and we experience a slow-drip of fear, sadness, anger, shame, and other hurtful emotions.

My experience, both professionally and personally, is that few people emerge from childhood unscathed from their upbringings. You get your psychological and emotional baggage from your parents (e.g., neglect, abuse), peers (e.g., rejection, bullying), traumatic experiences (e.g., loss of a parent or sibling), or popular culture (e.g., unhealthy values, expectations), to name a few. Sadly, this baggage seems to be an almost inevitable part of the human condition. It may help you cope with difficulties you face early in your life, yet it seems to serve no healthy purpose as you get older.

Cottonbro from Pexels, used with permission
Source: Cottonbro from Pexels, used with permission

The unfortunate aspect of this baggage is that it continues to shape and influence your life into and through adulthood—usually for the worse—in how you think (negatively), the emotions you feel (unpleasant and unhealthy), the behaviors you engage in (self-defeating), and the interactions you have with others (self-destructive). The severity of the baggage you carry into adulthood can range from mildly neurotic annoyances (e.g., overly neat and orderly) to happiness- and success-impeding (e.g., low self-esteem, perfectionism, fear of failure) to relationship-killing (e.g., fear of intimacy, anger) to clinically diagnosable (e.g., substance abuse, eating disorders).

At the heart of emotional baggage lies attempts to avoid the pain of the situation that led to the baggage. Fear, anger, sadness, loneliness, and shame are just a few of the painful emotions that can arise during your upbringing for which you, as a child, have no capacity to resolve on your own. Given the ubiquity of the forms of baggage that I described in the previous paragraph, we all seem wired to react to the traumas of childhood with common, unconscious defense mechanisms that are extreme and, ultimately, harmful to us. For example, in reaction to feeling out of control, you become a control freak. To cope with a demanding parent, you become a perfectionist and fear failure. To deal with bullying, you become timid and passive. All of this is in the service of preventing you from feeling the pain that these harsh experiences evoked in you.

Chamber of Pain

You also took steps to dull the pain you felt in the moment. You created what I call a “chamber of pain” in which to store those agonizing emotions. This chamber protected you from the overwhelming force of the painful emotions for which you lacked the resources to cope with it in a healthy and effective way. Every person can imagine their personal chamber of pain in their own way. I see mine as a pill-shaped vessel about six feet long and three feet wide composed of a rough metal floating horizontally suspended in an austere room with white walls and harsh light. My chamber has a hatch like those found on a submarine that is intended to keep the excruciating emotions sealed inside so I don’t have to feel them.

Unfortunately, unlike submarine hatches which, by design and function, are leak-proof to prevent water from flooding the vessel, the hatch on the chamber of pain doesn’t provide an absolute seal. Rather, the trapped emotions leak out despite your best efforts and hurt you nonetheless in several ways requiring that you to continue to defend yourselves. First, your emotional baggage, for example, a need to please, avoidance, and aggressiveness, protects against the situations and relationships that trigger the pain. You simply avoid putting yourself in circumstances and with people who cause you to feel bad.

Second, you engage in what is called “self-handicapping,” which involves a variety of strategies aimed at maintaining your psychic integrity including actively, though unconsciously, sabotaging your efforts, thus ensuring failure, but enabling you to blame your failure on your lack of effort rather than on an inherent lack of ability. Similarly, you create a catalog of excuses that are outside of your control, and which prevent you from having to take responsibility for your failures. You also subject yourselves to harsh self-appraisal as a means of preemptively preventing others from doing so and, further, evoking sympathy rather than judgment from others. Specifically, you think and behave in ways that punish you for your perceived flaws and failures including self-criticism, negativity, doubt, worry, and stress.

Third, because the seal isn’t intact, you experience the aversive emotions that escape from your chamber of pain at a milder intensity, so, in theory, their impact on you is less painful and more manageable. However, the cost to this “benefit” of the toned-down emotional volume is that the painful emotions are ever-present and without respite.

These leaked emotions from your chamber of pain also have immense and detrimental consequences on all aspects of your life. With your chamber of pain situated deep inside of you, you live in a persistent state of high alert to the threats the world presents you and immediately deploy your defenses to ward off attacks regardless of whether they are real (quite rare) or illusory.

In this hypervigilant state, there is little room for happiness, joy, or pleasure. You can’t cherry-pick your emotions and only choose the ones you want to feel. Rather, to feel the pleasant emotions requires that you be open to all emotions including the “feel bad” ones that your baggage forces you to feel. You are so afraid and defended against those painful emotions, that, without realizing it, you also close yourself off to the “feel good” emotions.

Your self-esteem takes a major hit as well. With thinking, emotions, and behavior that are predominantly and decidedly negative, there isn’t a lot to feel good about yourself. Instead, you live in a perfect storm of self-deprivation and self-diminishment. You are caught in a vicious cycle of internal negativity which is expressed outward, and which, in turn, sends you back what you would expect, negative feedback from the world in which you live, ad nauseam, ad infinitum.

A part of this vicious cycle involves the messages you send to others and how they respond. The negative glow that comes out of your chamber of pain is seen and felt by those around you. It discourages healthy people from wanting to move within the unpleasant force field that emanates from you yet is like a flame to a moth for those with their own unhealthy needs. As a result, you have trouble establishing and maintaining healthy relationships and likely have a pattern of short-lived and unsatisfying relationships.

The dark place that you inhabit is only lit by the negative energy of your chamber of pain, so any efforts you devote to pursuing healthy goals you may have will likely end in failure. You can’t commit all your capabilities and resources to progress toward your goals because you must direct most of your energy to keeping your chamber of pain from exploding and obliterating you. What energy you do direct toward your goals is usually used to sabotage your efforts, thereby protecting you from the chance, however remote it might be, that you will fail to achieve them. Thus, success, and the meaning, fulfillment, and joy that it could bring, are stopped dead in their tracks.

In my next article exploring the chamber of pain, I will describe to you the value of emptying your chamber of pain and how to release your long-repressed emotions. In doing so, you will liberate yourself from your past and free yourself to live your life based on who you are rather than on who you once were.