Free to Flourish: Unload Emotional Baggage

It’s happened again.

You got pressured into doing something that you really didn’t want to do. Or you found yourself trying to force something to happen that you know is NOT going to happen. (You know this because you’ve failed to make it happen the other hundred times you tried.)

We all fall prey to misguided beliefs about about how we should spend our time and make choices we later regret. There are certain unhealthy tendencies that can wreak havoc on our decision-making process over and over again. This emotional baggage encourages us to have unrealistic expectations of ourselves, pushes us to take on responsibilities that don’t align with our values, and drives us to cram our to-do lists with essentially unimportant things.

Recognizing and freeing ourselves from some of these unhealthy influences can be immensely helpful in helping us make better decisions about how we spend our precious time and energy. Here are a few tendencies to watch out for.

Guilt.

We all experience guilt from time to time. But there’s guilt and then there’s Guilt with a capital “G”.

The first type is fairly harmless and can actually be helpful. For example, the pang of regret you feel over a specific incident that encourages you to make amends or avoid a misstep in the future.

The second type of guilt is more corrosive. Psychologist Michael McKee describes it this way: "Some people don't have the positive guilt that keeps you on the straight and narrow. . . they have guilt that eats away at their soul; they rarely have a moment of peace.”

Sad toy robot holds two pieces of a broken heart

In other words, corrosive guilt is much more destructive. It speaks to the quality of the individual (not to the quality of an incident or act) and doesn’t dissipate after amends are made.

Corrosive guilt and shame bring on a number of negative psychological and physical effects including significant stress, anxiety and depression. Intense guilt can lead to a host of destructive behaviors including self-neglect, perfectionism, self-abuse and rage at others. It also impedes our ability to think clearly, interfering with concentration and creativity - two things necessary to make thoughtful life choices.

Some people think it’s an effective practice to “harness” guilt and shame as motivators to get things done, but experts say this isn’t a healthy way to function. Shame researcher Brené Brown agrees. “Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change. . .You cannot shame or belittle people into changing their behaviors.”

If you want to make better decisions for yourself this year it’s important that you take steps to effectively deal with feelings of intense guilt or shame. If this topic interests you, I found this blog about self-forgiveness useful, as well as the book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Kristen Neff PhD.

Trying to control other people’s behavior.

It’s like beating your head against a wall: painful and totally useless.

You keep trying to make your cranky and demanding boss like you (even though you know you’re not a jackass whisperer). You constantly hope for praise from the parent whose proven to you time and time again that their “M.O.” is to criticize. You keep trying to deepen a friendship when the other person clearly isn’t interested.

We try to control people and circumstances for a variety of reasons - fear of the unknown, insecurity, and a desire to improve the quality of our life, to name a few. Trying to make your boss like you might be fueled by a desire for job security. Trying to deepen a friendship with someone who isn’t interested might be an attempt to deal with feelings of loneliness.

But trying to improve our lives by getting a certain reaction from someone is a waste of time.

“As we all know, we can’t control anyone else’s behavior, and we can’t make another person want to or be able to change,” says psychotherapist Nancy Colier.

Expending this kind of energy is harmful in a variety of ways. In an effort to earn praise, you might take on more responsibility than you can effectively manage at work, causing more stress and inviting the criticism you’re hoping to avoid when you're unable to fulfill the obligations you've taken on. Or you might find yourself behaving in ways that don’t square with your values in an effort to win over a new friend.

Man shaking finger at you

Caring too much about how other people think and behave clouds our ability to make the best decisions for ourselves. If you find yourself spending too much time trying to control others’ reactions to you, it might be time to consider exploring better motivations for your decisions. Your time is too precious to waste in this way.

Letting your self-worth be defined by others.

One of the reasons we try to control people’s reactions to us is that we feel our self-worth is tied up in their opinions. We erroneously equate our value with their opinion of us. We might unwittingly think, “If my boss likes me, it means I’m a valued member of the team.”

Attaching your sense of self-worth to another person’s opinion of yourself is a bad idea. For one thing, it’s risky.

Psychologist Jeffrey Nevid says that letting other people define your worth is “like putting your life savings in a bank that makes no guarantees of safeguarding it. One day the bank decides to close its doors, wiping out your life's savings. So you start all over again, finding another bank you think you can trust better. But you never know when it may happen again.”

Second, it’s faulty. Psychologists agree that when it comes to making decisions for yourself, your opinion is the only one that really matters.

Psychotherapist Eric Maisel says, “Self-connection — understanding that you are your own advocate, taskmaster, coach, best friend, and sole arbiter of meaning and that no one else can or will serve those functions for you — is crucial.”

The famed German writer and statesman Goethe agrees. “As soon as you trust yourself, you will know how to live,” he says.

Eleanor Roosevelt gives us more pointed advice. “Remember always that you not only have the right to be an individual, you have an obligation to be one."

When making decisions regarding how to spend your time, only you have the information necessary to make the best decisions. This is true even though none of us has the clairvoyance to always get it right.

Untangling yourself from harmful tendencies like these can be tricky, but there are strategies that, over time, will help release you from their grip and make better decision-making easier.

Woman, face upturned to the sun, smiling

Here are some initial steps you can take.

  • Define your values. Take the time to define the values that you hold most dear. Write them down. Carry them with you. Refer to them often. Use them as a touchstone for all decisions regarding how you spend your time.
  • Understand and accept your true sphere of influence. When it comes to your sense of self-worth, forget about the opinions of others. Yours is the only one that really matters, and you can’t control their feelings and actions, anyway.
  • Take charge of your self-esteem. Work to let go of corrosive guilt (engage a qualified therapist if necessary.) Recognize that you define your own self-worth; no-one else should (or can) do this for you.
  • Take a small step in a new direction. Rinse, repeat. Philosopher Lao Tzu says, “The journey of 1000 miles begins with one step.” You can set a new course for yourself one small step at a time. To learn more about how small steps can change your life, read my previous blog on the topic.