How to Handle Emotional Baggage
What is a Dysfunctional Family?
Traveling with four small children requires bringing a lot of stuff. Years ago, my wife and I took a family vacation to beautiful San Antonio. All our ‘stuff’ couldn’t fit into the vehicle we were driving at the time. Playpens, strollers, backpacks, everything went into a rooftop carrier. We had a wonderful time, except for the normal frustrations and challenges of traveling with four small children. At the end of the week, I packed everything back into the carrier, and off we headed toward home.
When we turned into the driveway, I instinctively pushed the garage door opener. In my excitement about arriving home, I forgot about the baggage on top of the car. I pressed the gas and—boom—drywall flying, boards, nails going everywhere. I ripped off the top of our garage. I had forgotten the bags were up there! I tore the garage to smithereens and it was expensive to fix.
Many of us can identify with that story. We're carrying around a lot of emotional baggage in our lives. Yet most of us are unaware that we even have baggage. We're used to it. We think it's normal. We may even think it's healthy. Yet, if we stop and look, we see the carnage and destruction the baggage is causing. If we keep on driving the way we've been driving, if we keep on forgetting about the baggage, we'll keep on destroying stuff, messing stuff up, and it'll be very, very expensive. Life is too short to go through each day like that.
Emotional baggage and family dysfunction
Most of the baggage we carry is from dysfunction in our family of origin. This dysfunction manifests in our lives in many ways. Here are some common ways that dysfunction shows up as emotional baggage in our lives:
We have a tendency to be perfectionistic when we emerge from dysfunctional families. Everything has to be right, everything has to be perfect.
I want to control my problems. I want to control my past, my spouse, my family, and my finances. If I'm out of control, it reminds me of my family of origin, because my family of origin was out of control.
This is a big one, isn't it? We all carry guilt. But some of the guilt we carry is not necessary. What if my kids had said, "Oh, Dad, the reason the garage got all jacked up and messed up is because of my Power Ranger duffle bag." Or the twins had said, "It's because of my portable playpen." No, I messed up. Do you see what I'm saying to you? Some of us are living life and we're carrying this guilt and shame around that we shouldn't carry. We're not made to carry it.
“It's all about me.” I talked to one family therapist who said that a dysfunctional family often has one member who's dysfunctional, and everybody in the family orbits around their dysfunction. And then as family members orbit around the dysfunction, they’ll fly out of the family with great force. Unfortunately, they’ll often repeat the dysfunction, creating a new orbit of dysfunction—whether it’s abuse, divorce, or addiction.
If you grew up in a family where your mom and dad criticized you, you might emerge from this dysfunction and criticize others. Instead of it making you feel better, you want others to feel as bad as you do.
Forgiveness (or the lack thereof)
Forgiving ourselves is a fabulous gift. When we preach the Gospel to ourselves every day, we are able to walk in grace, mercy, humility, and forgiveness. We’re able to forgive those in our lives who’ve taken advantage of us, shamed us, or abandoned us.
The level of lying we have in our culture today is unprecedented. People will flat-out lie for no reason. Of course, we have this deceptive depravity in our lives from our original family of origin. Remember Adam and Eve? So we have this desire to deceive, to exaggerate, to hide, to cover our tracks.
If you grew up in an anxious family, it’s no surprise that now you're anxious. As a society, we're anxious about the future, about the past, about our family now, and about our lives.
You show me someone who's grown up in a dysfunctional family, and I'll show you somebody who has an anger issue. They’re defensive and ready to pounce because they saw that modeled in their family and that's just how people roll.
Maybe you grew up in a family of a divorce situation, or alcohol, drugs, and narcissism. Maybe you grew up with some sort of abuse. As a young person going through puberty, you craved love and acceptance. You thought you would get it through intimacy.
For both young women and men, it’s easy to fall into the trap of sexual immorality when you have a dysfunctional family situation. You have confusion, and these are the families where you have an absentee father or mother, you have homosexuality, and addiction to porn, lust. We see it played out all the time.
How to Get Rid of Emotional Baggage
Comprehend God’s Character
Remember, God is sympathetic to your emotional baggage. Psalm 103:13, “He is like a father to us, tender and sympathetic.” God can change your problem. As Luke 18:27 says, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”
Comply With God’s Offer
Philippians 2:13 – ‘For it is God who is at work within you, giving you the will and the power to achieve His purpose.’ I can't change. But God, you can change me. Every day for the next week, wake up and say, “God, I can't change. But God, I believe and know you can change me.”
Commit to Community
You're not the only one who's carrying around this stuff. We all are. I'm happy we have a church like Fellowship Church that's open and honest about the baggage and the sin that’s so often connected to it. I'm glad we have a church that's open and honest about the problems it can cause.
Are you going to keep on driving the way you've been driving—clueless about your baggage? Clueless about the destruction? Continuing to just pay and pay and pay? Jesus paid it all. He took your destruction and mine. And if we'll just confess who we are to him, he'll come in and begin to change our lives. Isn’t that good news?
Everyone has emotional baggage in their lives for one reason or another. The first thing you can do is acknowledge that you’re carrying emotional baggage. Then, take some time to consider what types of emotional baggage you may be carrying. Once you take this step, it’s time to bring it to God. Remember that God is sympathetic and wants to help. Finally, take some time to share your feelings with a trusted friend; we all need encouragement along our path toward healing.