Emotional Baggage: Do You Carry This Around with You?

Emotional baggage image

What if I told you there are "things" you might be carrying around with you daily that are toxic?

At your organisation, you may have staff that are still mad at a manager who left the organisation years ago. We all know someone who is carrying these "things", sometimes for a colleague, or a family member.

What if you knew the real COSTS of carrying these dangerous "things"? What if you knew how to drop them and get on with your life?

Interested? Let's learn how these "things" work ... and prepare for a surprise!

The Research

Humans have both learned and hardwired emotions (Ekman, 2016). Some researchers believe that each of our core "hardwired" emotions serve a biological survival value (e.g. fear triggers fight, flight, or freeze). But the emotions that are learned may have only a perceived value by those in your environment, but not a "confirmed by survival" value. An example of an emotion that many believe holds value is resentment (or "holding a grudge").

To confirm, there is absolutely NO benefit for you to hold on to any resentment toward anyone who has wronged you. The colleague who rolled her eyes at you; the one who cussed you out in front of the rest of the group; your partner who made that one jaw-dropping comment at the last family gathering; and even the one who violated someone you love dearly.

Each one of these experiences is painful, heart-breaking, and potentially life-changing. I am sorry if any of these have been a part of your life story. They have certainly been in my own life.

But I want to offer you a belated holiday gift in understanding the peace and renewal that comes from not letting these feelings of resentment or hostility linger into 2019. The gift is forgiveness.

Before we dive into the research, remember that letting go of resentment and grudges in no way condones or minimizes the behaviour of those who have hurt you. Forgiveness is a personal health skill that puts you on a life path that can help you bring up the anchor you've been dragging along the ocean floor while struggling to row life's rowboat.

It's a huge breath of life and vitality.

What is Resentment?

So where on earth do grudges or resentment come from and how do you get rid of them? Let's first dive into the definition, the details, then the solution. I promise you, this next part can be life-changing, so lean in and learn.

To "resent" is to hold an emotional grudge against another. The grudge is an unresolved and unhealed hurt from something that another said or did where you felt wronged. This could be real or imagined; in either case, the pain is real.

Resentment activates the reward systems in your brain – specifically the nucleus accumbens and caudate nucleus (Billingsley & Losin, 2017). Did you just get that... the reward system? How?

It is the same reward system activated when someone uses hard drugs. In crude terms, we hold on to hurt feelings and get "high" off the anticipated reward of punishing them back. Our perception is that by holding this hurt in our consciousness, we will get some kind of "reward"... eventually.

But that's a lie we tell ourselves. There is NO reward for that!

But if you think that just the false hope of payback is the only side effect of holding onto resentment or a grudge, you're in for a surprise. The depth of toxicity reaches your physical, emotional, and cognitive health.

Dangers of Resentment and Grudges

Let's start with just your physical health. People who carry grudges and resentment are prone to a whole slew of undesirable outcomes – heart disease, obesity, insulin resistance, high lipid ratio, excess triglycerides, increased alcohol consumption and smoking behaviour... just to name a few (Toussaint et. al., 2018; Toussaint, Shields & Slavich, 2016).

You need daily emotional health, but resentment is actually tied to the opposite: it is linked to depression and other mental health challenges (Ricciardi et. al., 2013).

You need a fully functioning brain for your work each day. But people who harbour hostility toward others experience impaired cognitive function for up to 10 years or more (Toussaint et. al., 2018). Ever heard someone say, "I'm so angry I just can't think straight?" All those angry feelings cloud your brain function and make it difficult to think, learn and remember.

So, when people say that holding on to the hurt actually hurts you, there is a whole lot of truth to that.

Knowing that you personally hold grudges may be no "flash news bulletin" to you.

But, knowing: (1) the deep effects of the toxicity and (2) how to get rid of the resentment may be of immense value. The solution, as you may know, is forgiveness.

Forgiveness and Why Move Forward

Forgiveness is two things: (1) the reduction (or dissipation) of vengeful or angry thoughts, feelings or motives, and (2) a move of positivity towards the perceived offender (Toussaint, Shields, & Slavich, 2016; Quintana-Orts, & Rey, 2018).

Critical Insight

It's not about forgiving that one person or one family member for that one thing they did that one time. Letting go of just one resentment for a single, isolated, or situation-contingent experience is called "State Forgiveness", as in "For the moment, I can let it go". In a giving or kind "state", we all are more likely to do kinder things.

What you want is to develop "Trait Forgiveness", which is a permanent skill set to forgive in ALL circumstances. This level of forgiveness does not negate the gravity of the hurt created; rather it acknowledges the pain and supports you taking control of the hurt and choosing forgiveness for YOURSELF.

Why would you want to do this?

Are the same three reasons mentioned above: your physical, emotional, and cognitive health good enough reasons? Remember, you don't get to choose your parents, but you do get to choose your life through actions and habits which either enhance or derail your dreams. Check these out below and see if you are ready to forgive.

People with trait forgiveness experience better physical health. Let's get specific – they have healthier hearts, live longer, sleep better, are less likely to turn to medications or alcohol for relief (Ricciardi et. al., 2013).

They also have better emotional health – less stress (which also improves physical health), happier, higher levels of overall well-being (Ricciardi et. al., 2013).

Remember how resentment impairs your cognitive functions for up to 10 years? Well, the good news here is that self-forgiveness can mitigate those cognitive impairments that might linger 10 years later (Toussaint et. al., 2018). More on forgiving yourself in a minute.

So, what exactly is happening in the brain when we choose to forgive?

When someone is being forgiving, MRI scans show their pre-frontal cortex is active (Billingsley & Losin, 2017). Remember that the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) is a region of the brain involved in critical thinking, planning, and decision-making. Deciding what to wear today based on the weather? PFC will be involved. Deciding how to propose to your BFF? PFC will be involved. More importantly, deciding whether to forgive your partner, your children, or your colleague? PFC will be involved. The involvement of the PFC is significant because it reminds us that YOU get to CHOOSE forgiveness.

The PFC seems to inhibit the revenge-seeking motives generated by the reward centres in the brain that drive resentment (Billingsley & Losin, 2017).

If forgiveness activates PFC, then forgiveness is a choice.

When you say, "I can't forgive", what you are really saying is, "I chose to NOT forgive. I want to hold on to this. I am willing to risk my own physical, cognitive and emotional health for a non-existent win at a later date."

Remember, our relationships bring the greatest meaning and joy to our lives. Do NOT muck them up!

Practical Applications

Stick with me here as we break down HOW to forgive, and then apply that to forgiving others – your colleagues, loved ones, and even yourself.

Consider taking these five steps toward forgiveness:

  1. Acknowledge the hurt: If you are serious about getting rid of the pain, you must first acknowledge the feelings you are experiencing. Label them; feel them; express them in writing (no, you do not need to mail the note) or share with a trusted confidant. Then, the big thing: ask yourself how motivated you are to move through the experience and pain to a new, more joyful way of being.
  2. Recognize the powerlessness of resentment: Refusing to forgive gives a false feeling of power. You think you are powerful by withholding forgiveness, but in reality you are allowing someone else's choices to have power over you. This false sense of power is used to mask your own hurt and vulnerability, or frustration that someone was human and did not live up to your standard of perfection.
  3. Empathize with your offender: See your offender as a human, with humanity, character and a personality beyond their choice that hurt you. Take the uncomfortable step into their shoes and see their choice from their perspective. What need were they seeking to fulfill with their choice? Find similarities between you and your offender. All these empathic, perspective-taking strategies have been shown to support forgiveness (Ricciardi et. al., 2013).
  4. Make a Choice: The pain you reactivate by dwelling in the past is your choice. Choose to no longer be a victim, and allow yourself to feel differently. Surrender your desire for justice to a higher power and move on with your life. Regain personal power in your life by choosing forgiveness. Remember, forgiveness involves the decision-making power of the pre-frontal cortex. You choose a better, healthier life.
  5. Renew or release the relationship: It is up to you to decide whether the one who initiated the hurtful experience should be allowed to stay in your life. If so, work to renew the relationship and move forward. If not, remove them from your life and move on. Giving forgiveness to an offender is an event. Finding relief from your own pain is a process. Be kind to yourself as you take the time needed to fully heal.

Forgiving Others

Let's apply this process to the person who rolled her eyes at you or the one who cussed you out at a meeting:

  1. Feeling disrespected never feels good. It is natural to be upset and hurt by these experiences.
  2. Holding a grudge against these people will not offer you the healing you are looking for.
  3. Remember they are still people, with developing brains, social skills, and whatever else they are lacking. They are driven by social needs that often results in them doing things outside of their best selves to look good in front of their peers.
  4. Choose to forgive. Life is too short. There are too many people and so little time. Hopefully, you'll be working many more years to let their choices impact you.
  5. Work to mend the relationship. Remind yourself of the many positives you like about that person. Explicitly tell them, "What you did was not ok, but I am still committed to having a positive relationship with you."

Forgiving Yourself

It is possible you have been carrying around some extra emotional weight for years! All of this applies to the unnecessary heartache we bring upon ourselves by holding ourselves to a standard of perfection unequal to our human condition. As you just read above, holding grudges is highly destructive and some would say, nearly fatal.

Please be kind to yourself when you have a human moment of imperfection and say something foolish or insensitive at a social event, lose your temper with a colleague, or totally drop the ball on your responsibility for a big event.

Life has enough built-in bumps and bruises – no need to beat yourself up as well. Acknowledge your mistake, forgive yourself, and try to be a little better the next day.

There is no better day than today to make a powerful and healthy choice for yourself to forgive. You deserve all that is waiting for you on the other side of that empowering choice.

One Last Thing

If you mess up and don’t have a great day, DO NOT beat yourself up over it. Do not make up an excuse as to why you are unable to "do" a certain item or process on any given day. Guilt is a terribly unproductive emotion. Forgive yourself and recommit to the next day. Do not expect perfection of yourself; expect constant effort.

Every day, do something. Every day, put one foot forward. Tennis legend Arthur Ashe said, "Start where you are. Do what you can. Use what you have." You can't get any more profound (or useful) than that. So, you are about done reading. Go ahead and select the strategy to start NOW!


Billingsley, J., & Losin, E. A. (2017). "The Neural Systems of Forgiveness: An Evolutionary Psychological Perspective". Frontiers in Psychology, 8.

Ekman, P. (2016). "What 149 scientists who study emotion agree about". Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11, 31-34.

Quintana-Orts, C., & Rey, L. (2018). "Traditional bullying, cyberbullying and mental health in early adolescents: Forgiveness as a protective factor of peer victimisation". International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 15(11), 2389.

Ricciardi, E., Rota, G., Sani, L., Gentili, C., Gaglianese, A., Guazzelli, M., & Pietrini, P. (2013). "How the brain heals emotional wounds: The functional neuroanatomy of forgiveness". Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7.

Toussaint, L. L., Shields, G. S., & Slavich, G. M. (2016). "Forgiveness, stress, and health: A 5-week dynamic parallel process study". Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 50(5), 727-735.

Toussaint, L. L., Shields, G. S., Green, E., Kennedy, K., Travers, S., & Slavich, G. M. (2018). "Hostility, forgiveness, and cognitive impairment over 10 years in a national sample of American adults". Health Psychology, 37(12), 1102-1106.