Most of us have some so-called baggage, unnecessary fears, mistaken ways of thinking, and self-destructive behavior patterns. This is true for all people struggling with sex addiction as well as most of the rest of the population.
As we develop, we naturally grow out of these maladaptive ways of thinking, feeling and behaving but some of these patterns go so far back and are so deeply entrenched that they hang around. We know they are there from the way they have hindered our functioning in relationships or prevented us from reaching our potential.
Sometimes this baggage has to do with forgotten or irretrievable memories, but more often it has to do with what are sometimes called “frozen feelings.” We may remember the experience but the painful feelings that went along with it may remain frozen in time, a natural form of self protection.
Is it any wonder that most of us resist confronting these issues? I have had many clients say that they know there is a reservoir of painful emotions connected with the past but that they are frightened to dip into it. It can be like looking over a precipice.
Confronting our baggage takes some courage
Being intellectually aware of our own past pain whether it is physical or emotional abuse, abandonment fear, relational trauma, or other undue childhood stress is an important first step. Dredging up and re-experiencing these old feelings can seem overwhelming, but it is essential in becoming more empowered and happier in our lives.
Here are my ideas about how to take the steps to get rid of that old emotional baggage.
- Admit that you are damaged. There is a saying that “no one survives childhood unwounded.” Bad things happen to us whether we saw them that way at the time or not, and they leave a mark. The lack of appropriate nurturing, and validation constitutes emotional abuse for a child. In other words, it doesn’t take much to frighten hurt, shame or silence a child. This is particularly true for sensitive children, but it is even true for children who are pretty resilient. I grew up in a family with a lot of pressure to succeed and to be outwardly perfect. I accepted my parents’ party line that everything was great in our family. If I admitted that I was damaged it would violate my narcissistic sense of who I was, or rather who I was supposed to be. Admitting we are damaged can be a huge step in itself.
- Stop making excuses for your parents. The people who took care of us or failed to take care of us, our caregivers, parents or perpetrators were our support system as children. We had to believe in them and we could not see them as failing. But now it doesn’t help to give them a pass by saying “they did the best they could.” This is no doubt true, but it gets in the way of connecting the dots. You need to be able to see how their inadequacies affected you and to do this you need to look at them critically. To unpack your baggage you need to see the full impact that experiences had on you as a child. In other words, you may need to begin to be angrier than you ever were before. Forgiveness can come later.
- Look at your best and worst memories. Look with fresh eyes at the memories that are most seared in your mind. These are where you very likely had strong emotional reactions as a child. If it was a bad memory, ask “where were my parents? How did the situation arise in the first place? And why weren’t there more effective efforts to help, soothe and heal me afterward?” If it was a memory of some glaring transgression on your part as a child, ask “was it really that bad? Why was I treated so harshly about it?”
- Be ready for the emotional upheaval. There may be many very powerful feelings that are associated with your baggage. These can be feelings of rage, guilt, fear, grief, or a combination of many strong feelings at once. They are not logical. They are the feelings that you didn’t let yourself feel at the time, and thus they are basic, often violent, and young. But remember three important things (1) they are justified; they are there to tell you something real, (2) they will always pass in time of their own accord, and (3) you will come out the other side of the process a freer and stronger person.
So in some ways the hardest part is to make a decision to delve into this process. It is usually a good idea to get some help with the process like a therapist who does trauma work, EMDR therapy or whatever is called for. And it is especially helpful to get the input of anyone like a sibling who was there when you were young. Even a spouse or partner can often provide remarkably objective insights about your family of origin. The decision to do your “work” is a commitment to yourself as the child that you once were. You can’t change the past but you can work it through by giving that child the understanding he or she may never have had.