If you are struggling with stress or depression, or know someone who is, you may have heard the expression that you, or they, must “have a lot of baggage.” Of course any of us over the age of five has survived tons of unhappy moments, and some of us severe trauma or stress. But how much we still carry is up to us and setting it down is not always as easy as it sounds.
I am sometimes astounded at the nuggets of wisdom that pop up in the media. A few nights ago I watched the Emmy Awards, American television’s night to celebrate good work, and do a few really corny jokes. Actors Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson were teamed as presenters because they star together in a detective show.
Presenters always have some fluff between awards, and McConaughey told a story about going to his friend Harrelson for advice about a problem that was really bothering him. “How do you handle these situations?” McConaughey asked. “What do you do?”
Harrelson’s answer in the story was short and quick. “I forget about it.” The essence of cool.
It got a laugh, or course, but that was the nugget. That little quip held a key to letting go of stress. When we are carrying a load of stuff that has bothered us…whether for a moment, or for years…there is nothing like just forgetting about it to make it disappear.
Now if you have a big load of emotional baggage, the mere idea of letting go can cause you to panic. If you picture this baggage like Santa’s big sack, does the idea of leaving it behind make you want to hold on tighter? Do you feel your arms wrapped around it? Do you want to scream, “No, those are my injuries, my injustices, my stress, my pain. I have to carry these to know who I am.”
If so, ask yourself why all these painful memories and wounds matter so much. Somewhere deep inside are you secretly plotting revenge? It could be serious, or silly. Like someday I’ll be rich and powerful and drive up in a Maserati and snub all the people who talked down to me in the little town where I grew up. Or maybe you want to find the perfect insult, to destroy every ounce of some imagined enemy’s self esteem.
Well, that’s helpful.
If just forgetting, or setting pain aside is hard to do cold turkey, it might be easier to take a few steps at a time. Imagine one memory…maybe not a really painful one…and try these tips.
1. Laugh at your revenge. Looking from a distance, you may be able to see how funny your planned put-downs might be. Ham it up in your imagination, and consider how it would feel if you pulled it off. Probably not nearly as satisfying as you thought it would be. Then maybe you’ll realize the people you wanted to hurt weren’t really worth all that effort anyway. Imagine releasing them as the perfect plot.
2. Ask yourself why on earth it matters. If you let this memory go, would it matter? Would it make you a different person? It might make you a nicer person if you are not so bitter, angry, or depressed all the time. Maybe you’ve never considered how life would be if you were more fun to be around.
3. Admit that carrying baggage is just too much work. What could you do with the freedom and energy you would have if you unloaded all this stuff? What kind of amazing things could you do? If we suffer from depression, we may not even realize how much our emotional baggage weighs. Letting go of even one burden can make a difference in how we feel.
4. Practice “forgive and forget.” Sometimes we may think we forgive people or situations, but we never really forget them. We just move them from the “injuries” bag to the “I’m so magnanimous I forgave these people, and they don’t even appreciate it” bag. We might as well call that Emotional Bag #2. Until we forget the injuries we have forgiven, they will never leave us, and they may actually weigh even more than the hurt we felt in the first place.
5. Make a decision not to pick up more weight. Every time we feel angry or resentful, we stuff more into our emotional bag. That is a perfect moment to follow Woody Harrelson’s advice. Whatever is was that just happened, forget about it now, before it has a chance to fester and grow. Ignore imagined insults or the disappointment when people don’t live up to our expectations. Shrug things off. Tell yourself to be cool. Remind yourself that none of it is worth the stress or the weight.
Any time you want, you can just throw the whole thing out. If your bag of old stress and pain is pretty enormous, there is probably stuff in there you can’t even remember. Stuff not worth looking at again. It takes some courage and strength of will, but you can forget the whole business. Imagine flinging the bag so far away that you can’t even see it anymore, take a deep breath and start fresh. The feeling of releasing all that old stress can be enormous.
Of course, memories might pop up from time to time, but once you have made the decision that none of it matters, you don’t have to pay those feelings any attention anymore. If you find yourself starting to carry a new little bag of grievances, just drop it somewhere, and move on. The more you practice forgetting, the better you’ll get.
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