The Empowered Self Series: Part 5 Owning the Past – How to Outgrow Your Emotional Baggage

Posted on May 11, 2014
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You’re probably familiar with the encouraging saying “my past does not determine my future.” However, like for many people you may have also found that the opposite appears to be true. Traumatic events, disappointments, betrayals or embarrassments, no matter how long ago they occurred, can stick like superglue to your mind and keep you trapped in the past.

Wouldn’t you agree that most of your current anxieties and insecurities are rooted in experiences of your early years? You still feel small and nervous, when you talk to an authority figure. You don’t like to open your heart again, because you have been rejected too many times. Or you don’t fully commit to pursuing your goals, because your prior “failures” still haunt you. Emotional baggage can be one of the greatest obstacles and power-drains in our daily lives.

So why do we hold on to the past in the first place and why is it so difficult to let go and move on? Rationally, it would make more sense to be able to just focus on the present and if necessary plan for the future. However, it isn’t our rational, conscious mind, but our subconscious mind, which is in charge of filing away and storing all of our memories. And this deeper part of our mind firmly holds on to the past for three reasons:

1) To protect and to please:

The memory storage capacity of the subconscious mind is sheer unlimited. Countless moments during the course of our lives are registered, recorded and sorted away. Yet, obviously, not all of our experiences are “memorable,” otherwise the accumulation of data on the past would eventually overwhelm us. What makes the difference are the emotions that are attached to the memories. Negative emotions, such as anger, sadness, anxiety or shame indicate to the subconscious mind, that similar situations needs to be avoided in the future. If you have been bitten by a dog as child or got made fun of during a presentation in grammar school, chances are that petting “Fido” or giving a talk in front of your peers still cause you heart-racing and sweaty hands.

On the other hand, memories, which made us feel happy, excited or loved, are used as reference points to find and create more similar positive experiences.

In other words, the subconscious uses emotionally charged memories as filters to sift through the massive amount of data, that surrounds us at all times, to either keep us safe or bring more happiness in our lives.

2) To obey our instructions:

We all are provided with an innate ability to free ourselves immediately from “negative” feelings. As infants and toddlers, we don’t hesitate to strain our little vocal cords and vehemently express our discontent. As we grow up and learn that we’re more accepted when we control, suppress, or at least hide our feelings, we gradually “unlearn” the natural instinct to release emotional pressure. By the time we enter adulthood, most of us have lost sight of how to handle these feelings, other than shoving unpleasant emotions under the subconscious rug. Because our subconscious supports us like a faithful servant, it patiently continues to execute our conscious decision to shove our emotions underneath the proverbial rug, until we instruct it differently―or until we have stuffed it to capacity, and it forces us to address those emotions.

3) To make us learn and grow:

It’s a basic evolutionary principle: only when we continue to learn and grow can we survive and thrive. Since there isn’t yet much to grasp from the future and learning on the fly while dealing with the present may be too much to ask from most of us, our subconscious considers the past as the vast library of life. An interesting phenomenon we’ve all observed is that the lessons we learn from a negative event can be more profound than those learned from a pleasant or neutral encounter. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense. When it comes to sheer survival, experiences that cause us to feel anxious, hurt or ashamed are simply more important for our subconscious to store, process, and learn from.

However, while the protective aspect of our subconscious mind wants us to simply avoid similar negative experiences, another part continuously nudges us forward to grow and evolve – which is, for example, why we eventually succeeded in learning how to walk and talk, despite all the frustrations and pains we had to go through to get there. Many of the emotional charged events of the past, contain a deep-seated confusion about whether we are powerless or powerful, whether we need to just avoid certain circumstances or are able to grow beyond them.

So what has felt like emotional baggage from the past has actually a much more important purpose than to just haunt us and weigh us down. Unresolved anger, sadness or anxiety serve as signals, red flags marking the memories that still require our attention. Our subconscious mind holds onto these emotions until it’s safe and we are ready to address and resolve these events. Then we can understand the lessons and claim the growth potential that has been enclosed within these memories. Taking this notion further, you’ll come to a very empowering conclusion: the more unresolved emotional baggage you’ve stored in your subconscious, the more untapped potential awaits you.

When we understand how and why the subconscious mind keeps track and holds on to our memories, it becomes obvious, that we can’t just ignore our past, because it does determine our future. However, whether we repeat the patterns of the past or grow from them, is up to us.  Listen to my upcoming radio show and learn more about how you can use the power of your subconscious mind to heal and resolve the emotional baggage of the past.