Ep. #11: How to Let Go of Emotional Baggage

Emotional baggage causes so many problems. It causes us to overeat and overdrink. It keeps us stuck on the couch instead of moving our businesses forward. It can feel insurmountable. But the good news is that our past doesn’t have to haunt us in the present. Listen to this episode to find out how to let go of your emotional baggage.


Welcome to Rich & Thin™ Radio, the only podcast that helps you get more bank with less bulk. Today’s show is for every listener who is feeling burdened by emotional baggage. I’m Kelly Hollingsworth and I’m glad you’re here because too many of us are soldiering on with the weight of the past on our shoulders, and it makes for a tough road. So today we’re going to talk about exactly what this emotional baggage is, why it’s so damaging, and how to get out from under it.

With so many entrepreneurs I work with, the weight of the past looming large is a recurring theme. Too many of us are wandering around thinking that we need to heal from past traumas before we can get on with our business and get where we’re going. We’re also attributing our current difficulties to things that came before. The way we were raised is affecting something that we can’t do now. What we learned or didn’t learn. The examples that other people set for us or how they treated us are affecting us in the present moment.

All of this is a particularly damaging as a thought process. If the challenges that we’re having right now were caused by things that happened in the past, what would happen? We would become powerless to fix anything.  We would be stuck. We would be permanently tormented and heartbroken because we can’t change the past, and if that’s the way things really worked, we would be permanently broken and irreparably harmed.

Unfortunately, this is the way so many of us tend to think about present emotional pain from a past event. Our conventional view is that emotional pain arises from a seed that was planted before, maybe decades before, and that seed has metastasized into an inevitable present malignancy. Of course we cannot go back and change past events. That’s impossible. They are what they are. And many of us think this extends into the future. We think that the current pain from past events also is inevitable. It is what it is, and there’s no way around it.

But the great news is this isn’t actually true, and the way we know it’s not true is because the truth, the way things really work, is illustrated very nicely for us through principles of story. So now let’s look at that.

In story terms, we refer to the events of the past, and the emotional baggage that we create around those events, as back story. What exactly is back story? It’s everything that led up to where we are right now.

A hallmark of meandering novels and bad screenplays is a barrage of back story. Backstory is something that struggling storytellers fixate on. They pack it into their pages because it all seems terribly relevant and important. They can’t let it go.

A very important thing to notice here is that we dislike these stories. We dislike them intensely. Publishers won’t buy them, and Hollywood won’t make them into movies.

Why don’t we like these stories? Because they go nowhere. Backstory bogs us down. It bogs us down because what came before is irrelevant to any hero’s journey. On the screen and in real life. Why is it irrelevant? Because it’s over. It happened before. In a great story, all that matters is what the hero is thinking and doing right now. If what the hero is thinking and doing right now is wringing their hands about the past, we don’t actually have a hero. What we have is the opposite of a hero.

This is why, if we are watching a character who is presented with a big opportunity, a challenge of some kind, something important to accomplish, if there are high stakes and guns going off and civilization is at risk and all of this stuff happening on the screen, if that character sat down with his head in his hands and said, “I just can’t cope with all of this because of everything I’ve been through with my parents or my past or my divorce or whatever,” that character would immediately lose our attention and admiration. It would happen in a heartbeat.

Is this because we are heartless and cruel and overly demanding of our movie heroes? No. Absolutely not. A character who is mired down in his own back story would lose us because on some level, consciously or subconsciously, we know that the character has a choice about whether to carry that baggage around or to let it go. We see that the character is going nowhere fast for reasons that are entirely within his power, and we don’t want to take that ride. Because there is no ride. The character is stuck. There’s no story.

The same thing happens in real life. When a friend says, “I can’t really do the right thing, or the thing that I want to do, or the thing that I’m capable of, because of everything I’ve been through…” When we hear these words coming out of the mouth of a friend,  someone we don’t know very well, how do we respond? Generally, we think, we may be sympathetic initially, but generally we think, “Let go of all that stuff. Put it down so you can get going on your journey.”

Why do we think this? Again it’s not because we are heartless and cruel and overly demanding with our friends? It’s because we recognize, consciously or subconsciously, that the friend has a choice about whether to carry that baggage around or to let it go. It’s just like in a movie.

So the first thing I’d like you to notice about back story a.k.a. emotional baggage is that it is exactly like physical baggage. If we see someone struggling through an airport or train station and they’re just loaded down with too much luggage, what do we think? We think let go of some of that stuff so you can enjoy your trip and get where you’re going. It is clear to us when we’re talking about someone else’s baggage, whether it’s the literal or figurative kind, that it is possible and wise to let go of that stuff. To not drag the past into the present with us.

But a funny thing happens when we start talking about our own baggage. Then it’s different.  This is when we start making excuses. We say things like, “If you only knew what I’ve been through, you would know why everything is more difficult for me than it is for everyone else.” If we don’t say these things out loud, we think them. And when we’re talking or thinking about our own emotional baggage that we’re dragging around, letting go of it no longer seems wise or even possible. It’s not even baggage anymore. It’s not something separate that we’re voluntarily lugging around. It is as much a part of us as an arm or a leg, at least in our minds it feels this way. It feels inextricably woven into our very identity.

Why does this happen? Part of the reason it happens is because we’re not objective about our own stories. We’ve talked about this in prior episodes. This lack of objectivity as far as our own stories is concerned is why novelists need editors. People who write screenplays need script doctors. High-performing athletes and entrepreneurs need coaches.  We all have blind spots about our own lives, our own stories, our own achievements, and what’s possible for us.

But another reason we think we can’t escape the weight of our past, that we think that it’s a part of us, that it’s something we can’t possibly let go of, is because too many people have assured us that the past, in the form of trauma and drama, follows us into the future. It’s not just people who are assuring us of this. It’s experts.

The other day I was listening to a podcast hosted by a counselor/therapist. The episode was a recording from a real counseling session in which a woman, the client or the patient, was describing events of her past and the relationship she had with her parents. And the podcast host, this counselor/therapist, listened for a while and then emphatically assured the woman that none of this should ever have happened. Her parents shouldn’t have treated her that way, and the relationship shouldn’t have been the way it was, and the counselor went on to assure the woman that if the counselor had been around at the time that none of this would have gone on. The counselor said that she would have stepped in to prevent it all. And now of course the woman must have ongoing counseling to get past the trauma of this.

One thing I’d like you to notice here is how some experts create their own clients. To feel what I’m talking about, try this idea on for a second. Think about something that occurred in your past, and then think about it as something that never should have happened to you, something that should have been prevented. Something you should have been protected from. How does this idea make you feel in the present moment? For most of us, the idea that something never should have happened to us brings up powerlessness. We feel like beleaguered victims in our own back story. The idea that it shouldn’t have happened is a current thought that we are thinking, it’s what we’re thinking right now in this moment, so with that thought we bring that powerlessness, that victimhood, into the present day and it lives on with us for as long as we have those thoughts going. It can live with us in perpetuity.

This is not a great platform for wealth creation, and it’s unfortunate because it happens so much I can’t even tell you. Recently I coached a brilliant young man, a podcast listener, who was mired down in the past trauma of having been born prematurely. As an infant, he spent about ten weeks in an incubator before leaving the hospital. And he’d been told as an adult that he needed to heal from this event before he could move on and get his business going.

What did he need to heal from exactly? Not the time in the incubator itself. That wasn’t causing him problems. The thing that was causing the problem was the idea that it shouldn’t have happened and that it damaged him somehow. But it actually should have happened, and the reason we know that it should have happened is because without that time in the incubator, he wouldn’t be alive. Things happened perfectly. The way that incubator fit into his existence was perfect. It didn’t damage him. It enabled him to live. So his new thought is that the incubator was all upside. When he directs his brain towards that better-feeling thought, he no longer feels angry and alienated and damaged and traumatized. He’s able to move forward with his journey as an entrepreneur rather than staying mired down in his backstory about the incubator.

This editing of our backstory, the ability to change not the events themselves but the way we talk and think about the events of our past, is available to all of us. Whatever “incubator” in your past is troubling you can be viewed as a traumatic event, or as a life-saving grace that changed everything in the best way possible. It doesn’t matter what the past event was. It could be a physical injury. Something as small as a verbal slight.` An explicit insult or slap in the face. A friend could reject us. We could go through a divorce or another kind of romantic breakup. A business failure. All of these are examples of neutral circumstances that occurred in the past. If they are painful in the present moment, it is only because of the thoughts we are thinking about them in the present moment. So a shift in the way we write our backstory in our current day, in the present moment, will govern whether we experience present-day anger and anxiety about these events, or growth and gratitude.

One way we can write better-feeling backstory is to think of past events as rites of passage. Rites of passage are the things that happen to everyone. They’re part of our growth, they’re part of becoming successful adults and successful entrepreneurs. And we’re not traumatized by them. When we describe something as a rite of passage, we don’t have big dramatic issues with it in the future. It’s just an innocuous event and it causes no pain.

Other events, we, and the experts we hire, describe as “things that shouldn’t have happened.” This idea that it shouldn’t have happened, far more than the event itself, is what makes us feel traumatized.

So here’s what I have to offer to you today. If you have some trauma from your past that’s biting you in the present, one way you can wrap your head around it and get into a better emotional place about it is to flip conventional wisdom on its head. Instead of thinking, this shouldn’t have happened, which begets misery in most of us, look for the reasons why it should have happened.

Byron Katie wrote a great book about this called Loving What Is. Her thinking is very much in line with the Stoic philosophy that all human suffering comes from the idea that this shouldn’t be happening, not from the event itself. Byron Katie calls this arguing with reality. She says, “when we argue with reality, we lose, but only 100% of the time.”

In other words, it’s the way we characterize the event that matters, not the event itself. If we tell ourselves a painful story, we will feel pain. If we tell ourselves an empowering story that’s steeped in meaning, our lives will feel meaningful and we will feel powerful and productive. Story matters, and we’re all writing our own stories as we go along. The way you can draft a terrific story of your own amazing life and your own amazing journey as an entrepreneur is to ruthlessly edit your back story into something that serves you rather than something that shuts you down. When you do this, your story morphs from emotional baggage and past trauma that is weighing you down into rocket fuel that powers you along on your own hero’s journey.

Whatever your journey is, I hope you make it amazing, and I’m here to help you if you need some help. I think this is the last week that I’m going to be able to offer the free sessions because now that I’m recovering I’m going to roll up my sleeves and dive into back into my work to the extent that I am physically capable. So if you’ve been thinking of taking advantage of one of the free sessions, please do it now because my schedule is going to begin filling up again very soon.

But this doesn’t mean I won’t have great things to offer you in the future. I’m going to start putting together some online training to help with earning more, weighing less, and all other aspects of wealth-creation that we talk about in this show. I’ll be announcing those in upcoming episodes very soon so if you haven’t subscribed to the podcast please do so now to make sure you don’t miss out on those announcements. And once again I’d like to ask you, if you are enjoying the podcast please share it with a friend and leave a rating or a review in iTunes or wherever else you listen to podcasts. I would be very grateful and happy if you did that, and I am looking forward to connecting with you next week, so thank you so much for joining me today.

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