What is emotional baggage, and what causes it?
Emotional baggage refers to the collection of unprocessed, negative emotional experiences that we haven't fully been able to learn from that we metaphorically carry around with us.
“We all have negative experiences in our lives and face adversity of some sort,” says Liz Liepold, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist. “When our family, social, or work environment is not conducive to learning from these negative experiences, it is very difficult to move past them. We can end up carrying around the impact of these painful emotional experiences until we can face them and understand them in a meaningful and emotionally nuanced (less black and white) way.”
Let’s unpack how emotional baggage can affect your ability to collaborate and manage effectively at work, how to move on from a toxic work environment, and solutions for dealing with the negative feelings associated with emotional baggage.
How emotional baggage affects your work
Emotional baggage related to unprocessed anger, self-doubt, low self-esteem, and mistrust can be particularly problematic in the workplace since it can affect our ability to manage, interact, and collaborate effectively with others. Liepold lays out how each feeling affects us at work:
Liepold says, “However justified, [unprocessed anger] can lead to resentment anytime we feel unfairly treated. This can corrode our relationships because misunderstandings are inevitable. When our anger is about our past and not [present], we can give disproportionate energy and weight to the event. Chronic resentment can really burn people out because their mind is so busy fighting with others, and they end up having very little energy left to build new positive relational experiences.”
Self-doubt and low self-esteem
Self-doubt and low self-esteem can lead to shame and isolation. We feel valued and appreciated when we collaborate with others, so when we’re apprehensive to do so, we might miss out on a vital opportunity to learn about ourselves in a positive way. This immobilizing apprehension and fear of how others will perceive us prevents healthy social and professional risks.
Read more: 15 Ways to Crush Self-Doubt at Work
A chronic state of fearfulness and mistrust in other's intentions and reliability can be the product of unresolved past trauma and can hinder our ability to manage effectively in the workplace. If we’re always uncertain and suspicious about others motivations, we can’t move forward.
All of these aspects of emotional baggage can make collaboration and interaction with others very difficult. Liepold explains that when we’re constantly fearful, it’s difficult to be creative and problem-solve. Emotional baggage traps us and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy—we’re fearful of others so we don't try to collaborate with others, but then we never get the corrective experience and learn that others can be reliable and trustworthy.
What can women do about the emotional baggage they carry from a toxic employer to a new job?
One of the best ways to manage negative experiences of all kinds is to grieve and try to learn from the experience. Liepold says when you leave a toxic job, it's normal to be curious about your new work environment and whether your current feelings of mistrust are being carried over from your former job or not.
“Sometimes, negative experiences can lead us to see new experiences through ‘trauma goggles.’ Everything gets colored by the past. We want to disrupt the pattern as much as possible, so we can grieve the negative experiences that got us to where we are today,” says Liepold.
Lastly, watch out for self-blame, which is common for women leaving toxic work environments. Self-blame holds us back, and prevents us from learning or growing. Liepold says, “Blaming ourselves— rather than taking responsibility for what we contribute to a situation—can feel productive because it's active, but it knocks us down rather than builds us up. In general, I recommend understanding why we do what we do, without judging. It helps us be compassionate to others and, most importantly, ourselves.”
Read more: 20 Signs You’re Too Self-Critical at Work
Solutions for dealing with emotional baggage after working in a toxic environment
As we’ve learned, emotional baggage can stick around for a while if not dealt with. If you’re at a brand new job but notice feeling fatigue, exhaustion, depletion, or burnout after you’ve just started, that's an indicator that you might still be recovering from a toxic work environment. The first step is recognizing and acknowledging those feelings as valid.
Dealing with the feelings underneath that layer of exhaustion is the next step. Grieve the negative experiences, learn what you can about how you may (or may not) have contributed to the situation, and identify your values and goals for the future in terms of finding, fostering, and enjoying a positive, enriching work environment.
If you have trouble working through these emotions and experiences on your own, ask for help. Emotional baggage can start to affect your mental health and contribute to anxiety or depression. Talk to a trusted friend, family member, or therapist who can help you navigate painful feelings lingering from a toxic work environment and find a path forward.
About our source
Liz Liepold is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and psychotherapist based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She has dedicated the past decade to the study of psychological trauma, its impact on individuals and communities, as well as the best available treatments to understand and heal from overwhelming, distressing experiences and painful relationship patterns. Her past work experience includes outpatient, inpatient, residential treatment, community-based, and school-based settings with adolescents, adults, couples, and families.