If you’re like me, you’re well past the point of pretending everything’s fine, when it isn’t.
In everyday situations, you do your best to honor what you feel and express it in responsible ways. You’ve learned to take some deep breaths, write in your journal, do yoga, go for a run, or talk things out with a friend.
But what if a bigger emotion keeps taking up space in the background of your awareness and intrudes on your quality of life? Maybe you’ve even found temporary relief, only to have it resurface again during times of stress, success or intimacy.
If you can relate to this, there’s something you should know:
It’s probably not your emotion!
Sometimes without even being aware of it, we can feel so much empathy for a family member or close loved one that we hold their pain in our hearts as though it were our own. When it comes to an impactful circumstance in their life, a deep part of us understands how enraged they must have been, or how much shame they must have felt, or how scary life was for them. We identify with their experience so much that it becomes part of our own identity —we carry it around as an unseen agitation that influences the way we experience life ourselves.
Ironically, although our motivations may be loving and kind, the fact that we’re shouldering an additional emotional weight doesn’t actually relieve our loved one in any way. It would probably even pain them to know that we’re suffering on their behalf.
The tricky part is that many of us don’t even consciously recognize that we’re doing this. We aren’t aware that the big feeling we’ve been living with is rooted in what someone else went through.
No wonder an emotion like this is so hard to clear! We can’t process a feeling that begins in someone else’s life experience.
Is This What You’re Doing?
If you’re wondering whether a big emotion you have is something you’ve “taken on” for a loved one, here are some signs to look for:
- It feels too big for you (e.g., sorrow— for no particular reason — that makes it hard to get out of bed or hard to handle even a mildly sad event without bawling).
- You feel oddly justified about or attached to having the emotion (e.g., intentionally dumping anger on your partner, even though you rationally know he’s done nothing to deserve it).
- The feeling just won’t clear no matter what you do (e.g., persistent anxiety or hopelessness).
In any of these cases, you might be unconsciously carrying emotions for a loved one (usually an elder family member, ancestor or spouse).
What You Can Do About It:
To uncover where the feelings are coming from, here’s a simple meditation you can try.
Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths and drop into a quieter space.
Ask yourself this question, then wait for an answer:
Who in your family (or family’s history) had a right to feel this emotion – AND wasn’t able to fully experience or express it?
If nothing illuminating comes to mind within in a couple of minutes, simply carry this question with you for a while. In the upcoming days, remain open for the answer to become more clear. New insight may surface via a felt sense or even the revelation of new information about your family members.
[It’s worth noting here that we typically don’t carry emotional burdens for people who are younger than us. Not in the same way. We may worry a great deal or feel upset for what our child is going through, and our own childhood wounds may also get triggered, but we are likely feeling our own emotions — not theirs.]
An Emotional Legacy in Action: Carrying a Grandmother’s Shame.
I once worked with a woman who carried heavy shame. She couldn’t put her finger on where it was coming from because she’d led a fairly traditional life. But whenever she’d attend a social function at her young son’s school, or at her husband’s work, she felt like the black sheep and would slink off to the edge of the group until it was finally time to leave.
Through some ancestral work, we discovered that her grandmother who’d lived in the Philippines had been sold by her own uncle to a “fisherman” who prostituted her out. As you can imagine, the grandmother suffered tremendously from the abuse — and had to grapple with lots of shame. My client was unconsciously carrying the emotional burden out of love and compassion for what her grandmother went through.
After we supported her to respectfully and lovingly return that emotional experience to her grandmother, my client felt like a hundred-pound weight had been lifted off her shoulders. She was able to engage with others in a much more easy and confident way.
How To Find Relief and Honor Your Loved Ones:
You have ancestors (and possibly partners) who have been through great trials as well.
~ Your great grandmother had lost a child who she wasn’t able to grieve.
~ Your grandfather nearly died, terrified, on the battlefield and later lacked the support he needed in order to heal.
~ Your mother felt betrayed by your father and didn’t work through her hurt and anger.
~ Your spouse was the black sheep of his family and feels he doesn’t belong.
If you sense that what you’re experiencing is a burden you’re carrying for someone else, send a prayer for that person to be surrounded with the most helpful resources at their disposal (e.g., ancestors, angels, loved ones) — and surrender the burden back to them so that they may find peace in their own way.
As you do this, you begin to truly honor the dignity and strength they have as a human being. You are also then freed to focus on what you need to do in order to live your own unique purpose and service in the world.
When you’re no longer carrying an emotional burden for someone else, you’ll find that your uncomfortable feelings are much easier to manage. You can simply acknowledge them, feel them, express them, and move on to a new, more positive experience.