Editor’s note: We are continuing our blog series on mentoring using the Mentoring Pillars written by the late Jim Feiker, a former member of SEND International. This ninth pillar was co-authored by Jim and his wife Bev. It deals with how to help mentees deal with their emotional baggage from the past.

A friend asked me a great question some time ago. “What are some of the emergency brakes in your life, which if released, would bring you to a whole new potential for Christ?”

There are both external and internal brakes. External brakes are things such as lack of funds, not being on an effective team, or not having the skills we need to be effective. But internal brakes are things like emotional baggage, lies we believe, and idols that limit and enslave us.

Dealing with emotional baggage

We all have a personal history, but it is the negative feelings and responses we have about the past that we call emotional baggage. These need attention so we can move ahead in our lives and go on to maturity in Christ.

This is not easy to do, as Kierkegaard reminds us:

It is really true what philosophy tells us, that life must be understood backwards. But with this, one forgets the second proposition, that it must be lived forwards. A proposition which, the more it is subjected to careful thought, the more it ends up concluding precisely that life at any given moment cannot really ever be fully understood; exactly because there is no single moment where time stops completely in order for me to take position [to do this]: going backwards.’

Soren Kierkegaard

This is a hard topic to tackle in one blog post. We are basically only opening the subject here. But it is vital that we address it. We have observed the effect of unresolved past issues both in our own lives and in the lives of others. Here are a couple of thoughts on the subject:

  1. Working through issues of the past is a process that we come back to through various stages of our life’s journey and the seasons of our life.
  2. All of us deal with areas of dysfunction (after all we’re human!). In times of stress, we tend to revert to coping mechanisms we picked up as children.
  3. We need to be alert as to when it is necessary to refer people to professionals for the type of help we cannot provide due to our lack of training.

Remembering the good things

But our past does not just consist of negative things. Many things in our past should be remembered as vital and formative in a positive way. Here are a few:

  1. the works and miracles of God in our lives
  2. lessons we have learned from past successes and failures
  3. past heroes, heritage, and events that have shaped our lives
  4. the calling of God and how He has clarified that calling in our life.

All these are positive things in our past and will continue to shape our lives. We need to process these as well to gain maximum benefit from them. But there is negative baggage in our past as well.

Wounds of the past do not just fade away

We can easily think that the wounds, hurts, pains, and lies of the past will go away over time if we are abiding in Christ. But we would be very wrong. When Christ made us new creatures, some things changed right away. In other ways, we are still in process, not yet finished products. We are all walking with a limp, as God is working in us until the day of His coming (Philippians 1:6).

The sins of others

Before Christ entered our life, we were enslaved by an enemy. Now the scars and wounds of those days are forgiven, but often still need to be healed. We also have the past effects of the sins of our parents. Furthermore, we can bear the effects of the present endemic sins of our broken and fallen culture. We are often blinded to these because they are so interwoven into our cultural worldview. Our present identity often flows from our family of origin and our past experiences.

Unpacking the backpacks

Unpacking people’s backpacks, with all the emotional past, burdens, and lies in them is a necessary journey. Unlocking the past, bringing it into the light, then letting it go, by forgiveness and healing is essential.

We all have shrapnel from our past that needs to be identified, dealt with, and healed. There are land mines from our personal history that are ready to explode when triggered by stress or memories. As we look in our rearview mirror, we see a lot of things that have not been deleted. They have become the default mode of our life, our inadequate coping mechanisms. There are things about our past that we want to disappear, some buried so deeply in our subconscious that we don’t even know they exist. Our psychological perspective on our past determines to a great extent our present personal health and vitality.

Rebuilding the foundation

In our culture, people are often coming out of broken families and lives. Their life foundation needs to be repaired and re-laid. We cannot move directly from conversion to Christ right into discipleship, mentoring, and growth. There is an important interim stage that needs to be cared for first. And sometimes it will be a slow process. We must first deal with broken areas in their life foundation before we can go on to concentrating on building and developing character.

Alternatives to dealing with the past

  • Bury the past – deny, neglect it or just stuff it. If we take this route, we get stuck in the past, and are continually tripping over it as a victim, not living free.
  • Acknowledge it, but step around it, never dealing with it. In this way, we will never learn from it, but drag it behind us or carry it into every life experience and relationship.
  • Redeem the past, turning our emotional baggage into opportunities for growth and effectiveness. Reflect on it to understand the past and seek resolution and healing. In this healthy way, we will learn and grow from it and find new power in our walk with God and others.

Examples of emotional baggage from the past

  1. Lies we believe, which enslave us.
  2. Legalism and guilt which bind us. The many “do not’s” or “I must’s”.
  3. Vows we have made to ourselves or others that control us.
  4. Curses placed on us by other people.
  5. Generational sins of our parents that are still holding us in bondage.
  6. Idols that we turn to for significance, self worth, and security.
  7. Endemic sins in the very fabric of our culture and life, to which we are often blind.
  8. Abuse – emotional, verbal, physical and sexual.
  9. Unhealed hurts, resentments and bitterness.
  10. Unresolved grief, loss, memories, repressed fears and angers.
  11. Dreams that seemed so real and prophetic that we still think about them.
  12. Internal messages people have communicated to us, like sarcasm that went deep into our lives and hurt us, and which we now subconsciously believe.
  13. Unresolved guilt for which we continually condemn ourselves.
  14. Unresolved relationships that have not been reconciled

What happens if we don’t deal with emotional baggage?

Somewhere inside, an undetected emotional cancer may be growing, or a miniature volcano of buried anger may be smoldering. We may be harboring a toxic waste dump that is slowly poisoning us and spilling out in the way we relate to ourselves, to other people, and to God. As time goes by, we may reap depression and/or burnout and experience shattered hopes and soured relationships. We may end up defensive, critical, and repulsive rather than winsome and fresh in our old age.

If we do not deal with dysfunction from the past, it will prevent us from moving on to maturity. If we try to bury the agony of the past, we end up dragging it as a heavy load through all of our future. In Christ, we have been freed, but unresolved issues hold us captive. We are not living in the freedom He won for us.

Our emotional baggage will greatly affect our leadership style unless we deal with that baggage. It will cause us to unconsciously react to our baggage in the way we lead others. We will leave a negative residue of hurt or bitterness in the people to whom we minister.

For example, if we have grown up in an alcoholic family, our desire to control our hurts will cause us to lean towards controlling people under our leadership. If our sense of acceptance from our parents came through performance, that will easily cause us to accept others based on their performance as well. If we have been hurt by the way people have treated us through their leadership style, we will react against that hurt by modeling imbalance in our leadership.

How do we redeem the past?

We cannot change or relive the past, but we can redeem it and learn from it. The perception and feelings we hold of our history affect our present life journey.

Timothy, Paul’s faithful companion, had an interesting family of origin. He grew up with a Greek father and a believing mother and grandmother. These women created a faith environment in Timothy’s home. What Timothy’s relationship was with his father we do not know. But it appears that his family and culture of origin affected his life, shaping him and preparing him for his future ministry. Scripture says he was timid, shy, fearful in his leadership, and had stomach problems as a result. But his emotional baggage became a positive ingredient in his shaping by God for His purposes. He redeemed these negatives and moved past them with God’s help into the future.

So often the emotional baggage we deal with can be the very things God uses in our development. Spending time with our past, coming to terms with it, and putting it in perspective is different than wallowing in it and using it as an excuse or a justification. These are not wasted issues unless we do not deal with them in a mature way. They often become the very tools God uses to mold us.

Four areas of emotional baggage to explore

Family issues

Explore with them the issues of their family and culture of origin. Many times, the emotional baggage and lies they hold come from their family of origin or heritage. For example, they say that a boy is never really a man until his father tells them he is. If a father has never affirmed his son in this way, he will always try to prove himself to his father. Explore areas like this. “Tell me about your father.” “What was your home environment like?” Not all baggage comes from the home itself. Other life experiences are also important. But often the way the family handled or ignored that experience becomes the problem.

Life experiences

Discover with them their formative life experiences.  Include wilderness or hidden times. Look at failures and successes, times of suffering and prosperity, pivotal negative and positive learning experiences. Also explore lessons learned from the mentors in their life.

Their view of God

Help them ferret out their view of God. Our view of God is a window into our life and will affect the way we think and act. Is God an enforcer of rules or a grace giver? Does only good performance please him? Or does he delight in and love them regardless of what they do? Do they see themselves as God sees them, or is their self-view dependent on others or self-perception? Do they see themselves as one whom God loves and in whom he delights?

Generational sins

Help uncover any generational sins that are binding them. What are some repetitive and pervasive sins of their family?

Four steps to healing

  1. Let them explore their own emotional baggage, by sharing their life story and values of their family in full with you. Just listen with no interruptions.
  2. Later, seek for understanding by asking questions about their story. Ask for permission to delve deeper. “How did you feel about what happened?”
  3. Help them pinpoint their emotional baggage and the deeper root causes. “If your psychological baggage were traveling on the airport conveyer belt when you return from a flight, what would it look like? Would it be scuffed, tightly locked up, or very hidden? How would you describe it?” The answer to this question may help reveal feelings about their past.
  4. Help them discern and label their negative feelings, emotions and lies so that forgiveness and healing can occur.

We all bear scars from the past. But some people experience deeper scars and brokenness. They must not ignore these scars. If they are to move on to maturity, they must deliberately deal with their emotional baggage. They must explore what they feel, and why they feel the way they do about their history. This act of simply identifying and labeling their emotions serves as an amazing springboard to personal growth, self-insight, and maturity.

 The need for a healing community is vital, where people can safely reveal and confess things from their darkness, and find healing from those around them. We all have that same need to identify, process, and reveal ourselves to appropriate people and experience forgiveness. May we be graceful mentors, who listen, provide safety and help people lovingly unpack their pasts. We then can help them move to maturity.