What Does the Term 'Emotional Baggage' Mean?

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What Is Emotional Baggage?

You may have heard the phrase “emotional baggage” and wondered what exactly it means.

Emotional Baggage

The term “emotional baggage” refers to unfinished emotional issues, stressors, pain, and difficulties we’ve experienced that continue to take up space in our minds and affect our present relationships, says Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and professor at Yeshiva University.

Clinically speaking, emotional baggage is essentially unprocessed trauma, Dr. Romanoff explains.

The term “emotional baggage” can be stigmatizing as it generally tends to have negative connotations in relationships. For instance, people tend to avoid prospective partners whom they perceive as having “too much emotional baggage.”

This article explores the symptoms and causes of “emotional baggage,” as well as some coping strategies that may be helpful. Because the term “emotional baggage,” can be stigmatizing, this article will use the term “unresolved trauma” going forward, except for quotes from expert sources.

Symptoms of Unresolved Trauma

Below, Dr. Romanoff outlines some of the signs and symptoms of unresolved relationship trauma.

Lack of Trust

A major sign of unresolved trauma is lack of trust in your relationships. If you’ve been hurt in the past, you might use that experience as a template or a guide for what to expect in your current relationships.

Painful past experiences can lead to stress, doubt, and trust issues. This may manifest through difficulty with commitment and being emotionally unavailable to new partners.

Fear and Paranoia

When you’re operating on templates based on painful past experiences, you will likely experience fear or paranoia that they may happen again. If you are unable to move forward from that trauma, you might feel like your preoccupation with those experiences is helping you avoid future pain.

You might begin to live your life through a constrained lens that prevents you from being vulnerable or getting hurt again. However, that constriction also confines your life and causes you to miss out on many of the wonderful experiences life has to offer.

While it can be helpful to be cautious at times, paranoia usually creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, as it causes tension and conflict in relationships, leading to the very issues you were hoping to avoid.

Anger and Frustration

People with unresolved trauma tend to relive the very worst things that have happened to them on a daily basis, which holds them back from fully living their lives and connecting with others. 

Constantly being held back by your past can lead to residual feelings of anger and frustration, which might be directed at yourself, current partners, friends, or family members.

Guilt and Regret

You might tend to repetitively think about the past or a current issue you haven’t been able to resolve. You might also experience regret about decisions you’ve made in the past or guilt for your behaviors.

You may be preoccupied with the past to the extent that you may try to make penance through your ruminative thoughts, in the hopes of somehow changing the situation.

Exposure to trauma can also lead to mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), mood disorders, and anxiety disorders.

Causes of Unresolved Trauma

These are some of the potential causes of unresolved trauma, according to Dr. Romanoff:

  • Abuse
  • Childhood trauma
  • Neglect or unmet needs
  • Painful break-ups or romantic conflicts
  • Other stressful, frightening, or traumatic events

For example, maybe someone didn’t appreciate your efforts, you experienced physical or emotional abuse, or you stayed in a relationship that was unhealthy for far longer than you should have, Dr. Romanoff explains.

Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD

The common theme is when one person is contributing a great deal of resources to a situation or person–time, money, emotions–and the outcome is not proportionate to what they are putting in.

— Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD

If you or a loved one are a victim of domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Coping With Unresolved Trauma

Dr. Romanoff shares some strategies that can help you cope with unresolved trauma. 

Recognize How It’s Affecting You

The first step is to identify the metaphorical baggage you’re carrying. Recognize the impact it's having on you and how it's coloring your world today. It’s important to develop self-awareness and insight.

Once you are able to understand the impact your past experiences have on your present, you can begin to question whether you are responding appropriately to current situations or whether you are carrying threats from your past into your present.

Change Your Perception

The reality is everyone has been hurt and treated poorly, or experienced pain in the past. The distinction is what you do with those experiences.

If you can make the shift and try to understand what you can learn from those experiences, how you can evolve, and become better from them, it can help you feel stronger, more empowered, and better in the long-run, rather than viewing yourself as permanently damaged because of what happened to you in the past. It’s all about perception.

Focus on the Present

People with unresolved trauma tend to have their feet planted in two worlds–one in their past experiences and one in their current life. It’s important to recognize when you’re responding to the current world through the lens of the past and bring yourself back into the present. 

A Word From Verywell

Traumatic experiences can change us and the way we view the world. They can affect the way we function and make it hard for us to trust people again. They can affect our behavior in present relationships, which may disintegrate as a result of self-fulfilling prophecies that make our worst fears come true.

It’s important to understand how unresolved trauma from your past is affecting you and take steps to address it, so it doesn’t continue to harm your present. If you find that you’re unable to cope with it, it can be helpful to seek the help of a professional.

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Ponnamperuma T, Nicolson NA. The relative impact of traumatic experiences and daily stressors on mental health outcomes in Sri Lankan adolescents. J Trauma Stress. 2018;31(4):487-498. doi:10.1002/jts.22311

  2. De Bellis MD, Zisk A. The biological effects of childhood trauma. Child Adolesc Psychiatr Clin N Am. 2014;23(2):185-vii. doi:10.1016/j.chc.2014.01.002

By Sanjana Gupta
Sanjana is a health writer and editor. Her work spans various health-related topics, including mental health, fitness, nutrition, and wellness.