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Carried Emotions


March 12, 2024

There are many articles out there about carried emotions that are handed down from one generation to another, usually based around a family theme or an originating event. This article is not about that concept.

What are Carried Emotions?

Carried emotion (carried anger/fear/guilt/sadness, etc.) is the emotional energy that we carry that belongs to someone else. The reason a person would do this is a lack of boundaries, or for some form of approval or attention.

And it’s not an agreed upon arrangement. Two people did not sit down and formalize an agreement saying, “I will carry that feeling for you, if…” 

This happens where the originator of the emotion does not own their emotion. They may tell a good story with lots of detail, but without actually owning the emotions by stating, “And I’m angry about that.” And then because the second party, oftentimes a child, wants the approval of the first, they pick up that emotional energy and carry it for them.

Carried emotions sit on top of our own emotions. So when we experience an emotion, let’s say anger, at a level of a 4 (0-10) but we then express our anger at a 7. This comes across to others as more significant than we mean it, which makes little things feel much bigger than they should emotionally. 


The classic example is a child of divorce. While the child is at one home, let’s say mom’s, they hear mom discuss how angry and hurt she is at dad for what he did that caused the divorce. Whether that is actually true or not is a separate argument. What the child hears is, mom is angry at dad. Then when the child is at dad’s house, the anger that is now carried by the child gets played out at dad over the smallest of things. And big things become huge. Keep in mind, it’s the emotion that gets played out, not the idea that mom is mad at dad. The child doesn’t realize what they’re doing. They just know they don’t want to lose mom.

Or perhaps the true story of a twelve year old girl all dressed up on Christmas Eve. With her mom and sister all dressed up as well, they are waiting for dad to get home to go to a Christmas party. Two hours late, dad pulls into the driveway and stumbles out of the car drunk. He gingerly makes his way up the stairs and into the front door of the house. Now standing in the front room is a drunk dad, an angry mom, and two Christmas postcard little girls. They all look at each other without saying a word. And because dad does not own his sense of shame and guilt, at least one of his daughters silently picks them up and plays them out in her own life (drugs, alcohol, and sex) for the next 15 years. Dad then stumbles off toward the bedroom, obviously not going to the party. Mom and the two girls walk out the front door heading to the party.

Abuse survivors talk about feeling shame from the abuse event, like it was their fault. That is carried shame. The abuser did not own their rightful sense of shame and guilt for what they did. So the survivor takes on that guilt and shame.

The Solution

The emotional energy that is being carried needs to be “returned” to its owner. You can do this directly with the person by talking to them, recognizing what has happened, and then verbally giving responsibility for the emotion back to them. That might sound something like this, “I have come to realize that some time ago I took it upon myself to carry your anger. I did so because I wanted your approval because I was afraid you might not want me around. I have decided I am no longer willing to do that. This anger belongs to you, and I refuse to carry it any longer.”

If that person is not available, or is unwilling to participate, there are a couple of things you can do. First, you can write a letter (sent or not) just like you were having a conversation with the real person. Second, you can verbally acknowledge to another person the situation and your unwillingness to carry the emotional burden anymore. Of course there are therapeutic processes for these situations that you can walk through with a professional.

Boundaries allow a person to recognize what is about them and what is about someone else. The ability to not take on someone else’s emotions is done through appropriate boundaries and self-awareness.

If you would like help in the area of carried emotions, please contact us.

Todd Call
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