Updated: Aug 1
Life is full of transitions and changes. Some are good and inviting and others are full of pain and grief. These transitions could be due to failures on our part, such as loss of relationships, loss of jobs, or alienation. Transitions can also be positive things, such as graduations, new relationships, promotions, or moving to a new home or community. Even if we stay in the same situation for most of our lives there are still natural transitions that happen like growing older, our children moving from babies to preschoolers, on and on until we become empty nesters.
With each life transition, you arrive at your destination with a piece of emotional baggage. Imagine that for each life transition, you had one emotional suitcase stored away in your emotional storage center. This suitcase is full of memories – good and bad. It is full of identities, emotional ties to others, and beliefs about yourself and others. It has contributed to your sense of self. Let’s consider an example:
Sally and George are high school sweethearts. They were both involved in sports in high school, came from the same small town, and grew up together. They were both considered in the “in” crowd at school and felt they were good for each other socially. Sally had a troubled home life and George made her feel safe and secure. George on the other hand came from a stable and supportive home. He enjoyed feeling needed by Sally but sometimes felt overwhelmed by her emotional needs. After high school, George left home to go to college in another state while Sally stayed behind. Their breakup was difficult for both, but George had a good support system and dreams that propelled him forward.
George later graduates with a business degree and finds himself struggling to get his foot in the door of his field. Although he was the big man on campus in high school, he now feels like a fish out of water. He always felt needed and in control back home but now he is in a field flooded with college graduates and feels he must prove himself. If he hasn’t unpacked the suitcases of transition, he may feel that he doesn’t fit in, that he isn’t needed, and that he doesn’t belong. His prior identity was being good at sports, being under the loving care of his parents, and being vitally needed by Sally.
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How would George go about unpacking the suitcases? Basically, he needs to “try on” the ideas, identities from the past, and memories to see if they still fit. For example, if his identity was being the best kicker for the football team and he no longer plays football, the identity is a misfit. He must find his identity in something new. If his emotional well-being came from being needed by Sally, having Sally now absent from his life would cause an emotional vacuum. How would George know what needs to be unpacked? When emotional pain comes, or when questions of identity rise to the surface, he has the opportunity to push away the thoughts (as they are uncomfortable) or he can push through them and sort out how he now feels about his life.
What is the danger of not unpacking these suitcases? They lead to confusion, false identities, and emotional attachments that are no longer productive in his life. For example, he may come to the realization that his relationship with Sally was not healthy, but rather than evaluate the co-dependent nature of the relationship he shrugs it off and moves on. He later falls in love with a new woman who is quite independent. Since George was raised in a healthy home environment he is not intimidated by Sue’s confidence but is attracted to it. George and Sue fall in love and later get married. George recognizes that Sue and Sally are very different in their emotional needs, desires from the relationship, and the way they make him feel about himself. If he has unpacked the emotional suitcase from his relationship with Sally, George is able to go into the relationship with Sue with a clear head. Otherwise, he will find himself comparing Sue to Sally. Sally had a way of making George feel important, needed, and powerful. If George is having a relationship problem with Sue and he remembers how he felt needed by Sally, it could cause a stir in him. If George suddenly gets a friend request from Sally on Facebook, his relationship with Sue could be compromised. However, if he had unpacked the suitcase of his relationship with Sally he would recognize that the co-dependent nature of their relationship was shallow, unhealthy, and not the kind of relationship he wanted long term. This thought process allows him to sever the emotional ties that bound him to Sally. If he were to go back home to visit the family and run into Sally, he will not be faced with an emotional barrage but will be able to keep a healthy distance.
In the cognitive behavior psychology world, we talk a lot about how thoughts impact emotions and behaviors. Behind every emotion and behavior, there is a belief or a thought driving them. Many people move from transition to transition without ever unpacking the suitcases from the past. They are left with identity confusion, emotional ties to people they no longer are in a relationship with, and often have difficulty functioning in new relationships. This “maladaptive” thinking causes all sorts of problems. They may feel that they can never measure up in life due to their identity being wrapped up in the past. They may experience long-term grief over the loss of relationships or life phases. For example, a mother could have a very difficult time adapting to being an empty nester if her identity was centered on being a mom. Or a middle-aged man may continue to function according to the unrealistic expectations set by a critical mother when he was a child.
From a biblical perspective, this is considered renewing your mind. Believers must sort through their thoughts regularly to make sure they are in line with the Word of God. When a person receives Christ they are automatically a new creation in the spirit realm. However, all their thoughts and emotions remain the same until they evaluate their thoughts and “try on” their beliefs, values, and memories to see if they still fit. If a belief doesn’t fit anymore, it doesn’t mean that it is erased from your memory, but it no longer has a pull on you.
The process sounds simple but it can be hard to navigate and implement regularly. When confusion or emotional pain from the past comes, take the time to think it through. Ask yourself these questions:
“When did I first start to feel this way?”
“Is this thought true? Is it helpful? Does it still apply today?”
“Do I have an unhealthy emotional attachment to this person/situation/place?”
“If I could go back and talk to myself back then, I would say….”
Transitions are tough. Our initial reaction is often to run from the pain. Rather than run from it, try to embrace it. Feel it, process it, grieve it. Speak truth into your life. Then you can truly feel free.