Look not mournfully into the past. It comes not back again. Wisely improve the present. It is thine. Go forth to meet the shadowy future, without fear. —

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Ever thought about what’s in the luggage that makes the rounds at the baggage-claim area in the airport? As you are waiting for your own bags to arrive, perhaps you think to yourself or say to a friend, “That monogrammed Louis Vuitton piece must surely contain valuables. That hot pink Samsonite number with the stickers on it looks intriguing. Wonder who owns that cardboard box held together with duct tape and string? Or how about that sleek silver case with the sturdy lock?”

Allow us to ask what may seem like a strange or even silly question: If your psychological baggage was traveling on that same conveyor belt at the airport, what kind of shape would it be in? How would it look? Would it be scuffed up? Tightly locked? Nondescript? How would you describe it?

We ask such a question because your answer reveals a bit about how you consider your past. It provides a glimpse into your feelings about your personal history. And those feelings are what we psychologists are getting at when we talk about your proverbial baggage.

History is what has happened in our lives. Baggage is how we feel about it. Your psychological perspective on your past determines, to a great extent, your personal health and vitality.

We know a couple who has a huge heart for hurting kids. Ramona and Jeff have been foster parents for more than thirty struggling teenagers over the last dozen years. They have stories that don’t quit. Recently, Ramona told us about two women, Marian and Andi, who are now in their early twenties. Both have been in counseling for childhood abuse, but the outcome for both could not be more divergent.

Marian repeatedly endured every-night assaults from a stepfather from the time she was eight years old until she ran away from home when she was fourteen. Andi was used multiple times in her uncle’s sexual experimentation ? all when he was supposedly “baby-sitting” her and her younger brother. As a result, both of these young women have suffered low self-worth, have distrusted any male, and have felt “used and dirty,” unfit for anyone to love them for who they are. Through extensive counseling, both came to the same realization: that they had to unpack their baggage in order to move ahead in their lives.

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Marian chose to do so — even though the baggage was tightly locked in her suitcase and even a slight peek was horrifying. Andi chose not to do so. She was not ready to let go of any of the items in her suitcase. Today, five years later, it’s easy to see the huge impact that simple choice has made for both of them. Marian is now happily married to a loving man, has a beautiful baby (although she was told by several doctors that she could never conceive due to the massive internal damage from her early abuse), and is actively involved in her church and community, helping other young women who have suffered such abuse as well. And Andi? She has chosen to flit from relationship to relationship, running away when any problem needed to be addressed, rather than facing it head-on. She has difficulty keeping a steady job, won’t look anyone in the eye, and spends her nights alone — painting angry portraits.

By the way, you need not suffer a traumatic accident or something as dreadful as abuse to have baggage. We all have baggage. Even the most well-adjusted, healthiest people have baggage. No one is exempt. You may have childhood angst over paternal divorce, conflicts with friends and family, or remorse over missteps and lost opportunities. Everyone has a history and an emotional response to it. What matters, when it comes to being a healthy, thriving human being, is whether or not you have deliberately unpacked your baggage. If not, it is bound to thwart your personal growth. You can never feel profoundly significant at your core until you make peace with this emotional baggage. The healthiest among us, you can be sure, have rummaged around in the contents of their own suitcases. They have explored what they feel and why they feel the way they do about their history. And this act of simply identifying and labeling their emotions as they explore their past serves as an amazing springboard to personal growth, self-insight, and maturity. It even impacts physical well-being.

Consider the following study, which is only one among hundreds that substantiate this point. Participants were asked to write for just fifteen minutes a day about a disturbing experience. They did this for three or four days in a row. Forget polish and politeness. The point was not to craft a wonderful essay but to dig deeply into one’s emotional junkyard, then translate the experience onto the page. James Pennebaker, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of the study, then compared a group of college students who wrote about trauma with a group who wrote about trivial things (how they named their pet or the kinds of clothes they like). Before the study, the forty-six students in the study had visited the campus health clinic at similar rates. But after the exercise, the trauma writers’ visits dropped by 50 percent relative to the others. Other studies have found that identifying one’s feelings about past events actually increases the level of disease-fighting lymphocytes circulating in the bloodstream. It also lowers blood pressure.

Notice an important distinction. Spending time with your past, coming to terms with it, putting it in perspective, is different than wallowing in your past and using it as a scapegoat. In order to get beyond your past, you sometimes need to get into your past.

At this point you may be shaking your head vehemently. No way am I going to relive that again. Especially when I’ll get hurt all over again — You’re right — reliving your past may hurt. And that’s not fun. But you’re also wrong — spending time with your past does change things. In fact, it can change your entire life perspective. So hang in there with the process. Coming to terms with your past isn’t easy, but it’s necessary in order for you to move on. It will free you not only to like your current life, but to love your current life, and have great hope for the future. The very process of exploring, identifying, and owning your emotional response to your history is what will allow you to move past your past. Contrary to what many of us may think, healthy people are not blessed with an unblemished history. Rather, they suffer the same struggles as you do. But they carry their negative history with little ill effect because they understand it to be part of their history. They have come to grips with the hurtful emotions a family member engenders, for example, and they acknowledge when those emotions arise. Because they have traced back the source of their hurt and examined it from different angles, they are able to set it aside. Their emotional baggage no longer pulls them down. In fact, they may even learn to joke about it in a healthy way. (Think about it: One person’s dysfunctional family background is another’s entertaining tale or comedy routine.)

If you want to become the person you were meant to be, you’ve got to unpack your baggage.

Copyright © 2003 Les Parrott and Neil Clark Warren, used with permission, published by Tyndale House Publishers. Adapted from Love the Life You Live.