A few days ago I overheard two people at the gym discussing the idea that emotional weight was more difficult to shed than physical weight.
I was intrigued by this conversation. Early in my career I worked as a marriage and family therapist. Sometimes I felt the weight of the feelings in the therapy room. I struggled not to absorb emotions of clients as they dealt with one crisis after another. Effective work meant making a strong connection without taking on the heaviness of traumatic experiences, painful losses, abuse, loneliness, and infidelity that clients described.
As I reflect on my life, I know that I carry emotional weight related to various life disappointments. After both of my siblings died of cancer, grief left emotional scars and feelings of being an adult ‘orphan’. Although parenting was largely a positive experience, I often wondered if important mothering opportunities were sacrificed for evening commitments such as board meetings, continuing education courses, or work-related travel. My 40 plus years in a career were mostly successful but there were often times when I felt that I could have handled situations differently.
The scars of these experiences have healed; but, sometimes I remember the pain that I experienced as I learned to cope with grief, anxiety, disappointment, and hurt. The most valuable life lessons come often come from the bad stuff that happens. That’s how emotional weight begins.
What is emotional weight?
Emotional weight is a mental burden that causes stress. It may come from anxiety, sadness, fear, anger, loss, or resentment. It may come from an unfulfilling intimate relationship or an unsatisfying job.
Sometimes emotional weight becomes the ‘elephant in the room’ with the result that it dominates thinking and actions. It may lead to poor self confidence, avoidance of risk, and life-limiting tradeoffs.
Emotional burdens that last a lifetime may happen because of unresolved family issues. Many adults carry emotional weight from the residual pain of child abuse, child neglect, abandonment, or witnessing parental violence. Many women carry emotional weight from having faced domestic violence. Addictions, resolved and continuing, also cause emotional weight.
Carrying emotional weight can mean difficulty getting certain things out of the mind. It may take the form of people pleasing, rescuing, or co-dependence. Worries about not being good enough, smart enough, or pretty enough constantly intrude leading to negative thinking. Situations and events may be avoided due to the triggers that arise.
Is emotional weight related to physical weight?
Some people believe that dealing with problems causing emotional weight helps with physical weight loss and with maintenance of a healthy weight. Overeating and weight gain may be the method used when dealing with stress. Some psychologists believe that a thick layer of body fat can serve as a method of self ‘protection’.
Nobody is immune to trauma and pain. Many people with beautiful bodies also carry emotional weight that compromises happiness and weighs them down psychologically. A swelt and toned body can mask raw emotions, worry, insecurity, and misery. Being thin doesn’t lead to emotional well-being.
Loss, trauma and disappointments are by-products of living. Often residual scars remain. Finding ways to recognize the burden of emotional weight and, most importantly, learning to deal with the after effects determines how much stress it creates.
When I think about the loss of my siblings, I own the grief, say a silent word of gratitude for how each of them contributed to my life, and vow to live well on behalf of all of us. If I catch myself feeling badly about my capacity as a mother, I remember that there is now a loving and respectful adult son who has capably taken his place in the world. When I think back to career experiences, I focus on positive events rather than blunders and shortcomings.
What might help to shed emotional weight?
Shedding emotional weight starts with awareness. Constrictions in the stomach or chest or other body parts may be a signal. Sleep difficulties, recurrent thoughts or worries are other signals.
Secondly, it’s important to recognize what aspects of emotional weight relate to situations over which you have control. Does the emotional burden come from a mistake you made, from actions by another person or from a life event such as death of a loved one, an accident, or a painful experience?
Expressing the feelings associated with the cause of emotional weight is an essential component in dealing with it. Swallowing feelings rather than expressing them directly results with the feelings being blocked in our bodies. A trusted friend or support group may provide a safe place to express feelings. Sometimes a therapist may be needed.
Time is necessary for resolving a loss, for grieving, and for dealing with a changed reality. Shedding emotional weight means that thoughts, feelings and behaviours will gradually take on a new frame of reference. As we acknowledge unhealthy responses to life circumstances and do something constructive, we gradually regain emotional health.
Life will never be free of problems. Some emotional experiences will never leave you. However, the power to choose not to carry emotional burdens for months or years is within your control. Emotional weight can be conquered.