How To Let Go Of Relationship Baggage, According To Psychologists
As people say, sometimes your past comes back to haunt you.
About five years ago I met someone we'll call Josh via Tinder. He was charismatic and smart, and I was new to New York and desperate for something stable. As our relationship progressed, red flags sprung up, but I was too manipulated by his charm. He became extremely unreliable and would gaslight me into thinking I was just being overly emotional during our fights—even though he did extreme things like kicking me out of his apartment late at night and even cheated on me. I finally ended the relationship when he became physical during a nasty fight. To put it simply, those 10 months were a roller coaster so insane it would put Six Flags to shame.
Even though I haven't had contact with the guy for years, the anxiety and pain from that experience still festers up inside of me each time I start to see a new guy. Will he be just like Josh? Will I not realize it until I'm knee-deep in it again? Or is this all just me? My heartbeat quickens whenever a guy's behavior even remotely reminds me of Josh, and at its worst, I can spiral or pick a fight with my new partner when I perceive any even slight similarities. My relationship with him has somehow put a negative filter over any new relationships I've created.
Emotional baggage is the intangible but very real emotional weight we carry due to unresolved issues or traumas from previous relationships or childhood, according to Chicago-based clinical psychologist John Duffy. Until we face these issues, we'll most likely bring our baggage into each new relationship.
"When a previous partner did something that your body perceived as a threat to security, your body will often have an emotional reaction, which is known as a trauma response," Jessie Leader, a Minneapolis-based marriage and family therapist, tells me. It's comforting to know how I'm feeling is a physiologically appropriate response. "Your body is trying to keep you safe and will prompt you to fight, run, or freeze from the threat."
It's normal for traumatic relationships to have such an impact on someone's life. A 2011 study1 examined 63 intimate partner violence survivors and their mental health needs and found they have significant associations with post-traumatic stress disorder, including feelings like shame and guilt-related distress.
Tired of letting my bad memories make me feel ashamed or afraid—and thus tucking them away into the back of my brain—I'm starting to think of them as a chance to reflect, heal, and grow in my new relationship. Besides, everyone has baggage in some form or another.
"It is your job to be curious and explore why it happened and process feelings associated with the hurt," Leader says. "It isn't about letting go, rather about having a better relationship with this part of you."
Here's how to begin this process of healing and acceptance, according to psychologists and therapists:
While getting pampered at the salon is always a nice way to practice self-care, getting a new haircut doesn't mean you'll instantly forget about your previous relationship. That being said, physical changes actually can help to some degree, explains Massachusetts-based psychological counselor Morella Devost. They can help you "remap your subconscious mind" as you create a new life, she says. So feel free to get a new hairstyle or rearrange your furniture—whatever helps you change the energy of your environment and feel like you're on the cusp of a fresh start.
Additionally, it can be very helpful to get rid of all reminders of the toxic relationship, like pictures or gifts, she says. It's especially constructive to discard this "visible baggage," not only because it's triggering to look at but because the very act of tossing it out can be powerful to the subconscious mind. In other words, purging your physical space can help you purge your mental space.
For me, it was so liberating to dispose of anything and everything that reminded me of Josh. Give those items a new start by donating whatever you can and throwing away the rest.
2. Open up with trust.
Since my relationship with Josh, I told maybe a total of two guys about what I went through. I was afraid it would sound like I had brought the entire thing on myself or that I was lying about such an extreme experience. So I kept it to myself—and let it consume me. For example, when my current partner Brendan showed up late to my apartment a few times, I found myself feeling frustrated and anxious because it reminded me of when Josh would leave me waiting for him for hours past our meeting time and without so much as a text.
"If you find yourself doubting your partner's commitment, ability, or intent—consider how you might be activated by past hurt," Leader says. "Then compare this to current evidence from your partner's actions. Maybe you find that your partner is showing up in many ways, but your hurt from the past relationship is blinding your ability to see it." (If they're not, then this is the time to have a conversation about that.)
It was getting to the point where I felt like I had to let Brendan know why just showing up late bothered me so much. Leader encourages opening up to our partners about our past if we fully trust them.
"You can be compassionate with yourself and current partner by being explicit about past hurt and how trauma responses show up in an irrational way," she said. "If this part of your story is named, then you can team up against this insecurity. If your partner is able and willing, they can use awareness to be more sensitive about how they show up. Awareness will help them notice actions that might make you feel insecure, scared, or distrusting."
3. Focus on you.
The most important person in unpacking your emotional baggage isn't the perpetrator or your new partner (no matter how awesome they are). It's you.
"A toxic relationship can undermine your self-esteem and leave you with new limiting beliefs about yourself, about the nature of relationships, and about life that you didn't have before the relationship," Devost says. The best way to tackle these consequences is by working with a professional who has experience in trauma and PTSD. It's vital that you take the time you need to fully process what happened and to let your wounds heal.
On top of that, you should look into simple practices like affirmations, deep self-care, and journaling. The beauty of these exercises is that you can turn to them whenever you feel triggered and overwhelmed. Devost especially recommends journaling because it can help you sort out your thoughts and feelings about the relationship and yourself. Some questions to ask yourself:
- Who are you blaming?
- What needs to heal?
- What can you learn from yourself about the experience?
Although I don't journal that regularly, I've found it cathartic to write down my thoughts while listening to one of my favorite playlists. Getting my thoughts out on paper is like transferring my spirals onto something more tangible and out of my system.
Healing from my relationship with Josh hasn't been easy, and it isn't entirely over. It's a process in which I'm learning more about myself both alone and with a partner. As each day passes, I find myself growing more into the person who I know deserves all the love they can get. I find myself no longer ashamed of what happened and instead proud of myself for not letting it define me.
Born on the mainland but raised in Hawai‘i, Kathleen Wong recently moved back to the islands after working as a journalist in New York. Covering everything and anything lifestyle, she has bylines in The New York Times, The Cut, Broadly, and more. Wong has bachelor's degrees in both journalism and sociology from NYU, and is currently the Communications Manager for the ACLU of Hawai’i.