Free Yourself From Emotional Debt: Move Beyond Pain from the Past

Feeling Free

“He who is brave is free.” ~Seneca

We all know what debt is. Some of us, most of us, still have a few we’re paying off.

Student loans, car payments, mortgages.

But what about the unseen debts, debts that are invisible to the naked eye but instead live within our hearts?

There are many invisible debts we pay—debts that are alive within us from the past: The father who walked out when we were little, whose approval we’re still seeking. The mother who was over critical, so we overwork ourselves to prove that we’re good enough. The time someone humiliated us, and it still stings.

What about these debts?

When will those be paid and filed away?

How do we cleanse ourselves of these, which are less obvious but certainly feel more real?

My emotional debt began when my dad left. I waited 15 years for him to come back, and when he did, he slipped back into my life like he never left.

He taught me to drive, took me to dinner, came to my graduation—all the great things that dads are supposed to do.

Then one day he disappeared again, and all those good feelings, the love we built between us, were gone, and all that was left was pain and devastation.

What I didn't know at the time was that I created a wall around my heart—a wall to protect myself from getting hurt.

I decided that from that day forward I would always leave others before they could leave me.

I paid this debt for many years, getting close to people and leaving them on a whim. I felt no love really, but I also felt no pain. I was numb. I was detached from the pain I caused others because I wasn't in touch with the pain inside my heart.

Through personal work I began to see the pattern I was living out, a debt I was paying, and I slowly developed tools for bringing myself back into the positive.

I want to share with you these tools that helped me dissolve my invisible debt so I could live a life of happiness and peace.

5 steps to getting out of emotional debt:

1. Tell the truth.

When we cover something up or don't tell the truth about “what is,” we rob ourselves of a great opportunity to learn and grow.

By facing things and telling the truth about them, we experience great relief and freedom. This starts with gaining clarity. In my own example, with my father, I first told the truth about what was happening for me. The truth was I left others before they could hurt me.

Another example:

Say we find ourselves overworking and wearing ourselves out. Take a moment to inquire into this. Why do I find myself overworking? (Write down the first answer that comes to you). To please my boss. Why do I want to please my boss? So that he will like me. Why do I want him to like me? Because I don't see the value in myself.

So the truth is that we lack love for ourselves and are trying to seek it from external circumstance.

Once we tell the truth about something, it automatically shifts the pattern. A weight will lift, and we will have the opportunity to choose differently.

But don't confuse telling the truth with fixing, changing, or improving. All we have to do is be honest. No further action is required.

2. Be aware.

Once you tell the truth, keep your attention on the patterns and the invisible debts. If you notice that you work hard to please your boss, you can bring awareness to this while you're doing it. In the instance with my father, I noticed my pattern of leaving others when I sensed danger of them leaving me.

Nothing needs to be changed. Just spend a few weeks noticing your automatic habits.

3. If you feel inspired, you can take action.

With my pattern of leaving others, I consciously decided to take action by putting myself in a position where I could potentially be hurt. The example I used in working too much—if you notice you no longer have the desire to stay late at work, then go home early. You now have the choice of what feels right for you based on awareness.

4. Be a guardian at the gate of your mind.

The ego likes to keep our pain-body in place. It would like us to stay in ignorance and suffering, but that doesn't mean we have to comply.

If you notice old thought patterns and limiting beliefs come up, notice, but you don't need to buy into them. I know for myself, I have to be constantly diligent at my mind's gate because if one sneaky thought slips by, a few others are sure to follow.

5. Take risks.

I'm not talking about one night stands and sky diving, but fear likes to keep us “safe” and in our comfort zone. If we want to move beyond an invisible thread that’s holding us back, sometimes we have to break the mold by shaking things up.

We all inherently know in our hearts what's true for us; sometimes we just need a little courage to take the plunge. Like in the example above, where we want to please our boss, maybe the only reason we took the job was to gain approval and value. Perhaps this job no longer serves us but would be scary to leave.

In my own personal example, where I was afraid of getting close to others, I took a risk by allowing myself to love someone even though I knew that person didn't love me back, and allowed myself to feel the pain from this.

Sometimes we have to take risks in order to let go of the past and move forward.

If you feel pulled by that invisible thread—that emotional debt from your past—tell the truth about it and then put awareness on it. In no time life will show up better than you could have ever imagined.

Photo by mitwa17

About Ashley Ryan

Ashley Ryan is co-founder of ‘Busy Moms Parenting’ and author of the “Happy Child Guide," whose mission is to help mothers achieve greater home, work, and life balance through self-love and empowerment.

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  • Razwana

    Thank you for this post, Ashley! I never really thought about it as emotional debt before. It can’t be seen like financial debt, but weighs more for sure.

    Telling the truth is the most important thing – being honest with yourself about why you do what you do, and then being honest about what can be done to change it.

    A little bit of forgiving yourself goes a long way too 🙂

    – Razwana

  • GiantBuddha


  • What is the 6th step? :o)

  • This is interesting and helpful. I really enjoyed reading this!

  • PhiPhi

    I was in the same situation like you with my dad. Thank you for a great post, I feel like you were talking to me. 🙂

  • Mary Dyann

    This post really spoke to me. I felt like it was written just for me. Thank you!

  • Free2decide

    Wow! I feel that this post couldn’t be more suitable for my current life circumstance. I recently quit a job that I realized I was completely enmeshed with . I was unhappy and feeling stagnant. I no longer felt the potential to grow and learn from it and it had become somewhat of a monotonous, mindless routine for me. However, I was also fearful of leaving because it provided me with this feeling of comfort (as you had mentioned) and security. I was extremely busy with this job and simply didn’t have time for myself or small pleasures. One day, upon journaling, I realized that I needed to take a leap of faith and delve into the unknown in order to move beyond the stagnation and reach new growing opportunities. It was a very emotional decision and affected me on so many levels, which I am still dealing with. However, I know that the decision was right and liberating in many ways. Thanks again for reinforcing this idea with your post!

  • Great feedback! Love this, good for you for taking the steps, what a great leap of faith 🙂

  • You’re welcome Mary! It was written for you!

  • Thanks PhiPhi. 😉

  • So glad Sandra!

  • I know LOL, mistake! Just sent it in for correction! LOL, you’d think myself and editors would have caught it…ha!

  • Thank you!!

  • Love the feedback Razwana, really super, telling the truth is the most important I think…

  • 01_cupcake

    Great Post..I feel that I can relate a lot to this article. Sometimes when we are caught up with so many negative thoughts in our mind, we feel as if we are trapped or prisoned, when really we need to let it out in an affective, relaxing manner rather keeping it all in. I am sure many people have faced different situations but have felt the same.

  • Ebina

    This article has given me the inspiration to free myself from the pain of recent break-up. Thanks a lot!

  • wyawyacha

    Sometimes truth can be bitter. But, being honest and telling the truth is way better than carrying an emotional debt forever.

  • RenzR

    Wow, this is an amazing article. I hope that it will be helpful to many people!

  • Rojy

    Love the article! No matter what has happened in your past, remember that it is the present and the future that matter most. Everyone can start over. It’s just a matter of deciding to do so.

  • Sunanda

    Thanks for such a insightful article! <3

  • Sichu

    Awesome article! <3 <3 <3

  • Shiva

    Loved it. Wonderful tips.

  • Thank you!

  • Chimi

    One of the most applicable and insightful articles Ive read on this site. I marked it with the intent of reading again and again in the future. You have the makings of a book in you with regard to this matter. Thank you for sharing!

  • Anne

    I had the exact same thing happen to me with my father, and didn’t realize how much I was distancing myself from others until right now. I also am allowing myself to feel that pain, so I can let it go as a barrier between myself and others. Thank you so much!

  • Michelle

    This was an amazing article for me because I completely relate! I was always a workaholic, working harder than anyone else, plus I spent most of my free time writing, in school…well, you get the idea, I didn’t give myself much of a break. I ended up burning out and never having enough time for anyone, especially not myself. I later saw that I did this because I felt unloved. My dad died when I was a baby and my mother was emotionally detached and her praise was limited and sounded more like hollow words that she felt she was supposed to say, rather than heartfelt. I was working my ass off to get someone’s attention. I now see why I was doing it but I still occassionally fall back in these patterns so really appreciated your article with the tips on how to monitor yourself and allowing yourself to get close to anyone – this one is a really hard one for me. Thank you for sharing. Loved the article!

  • Everyone would really love to be in a debt free and it’s really a wonderful feeling if you are debt free.

  • producer

    today i feel the absolute terror and pain of the horrible things i have passed through.
    abusive family. abusive high school. religious cults. neighbours. tricksters. betrayers.
    i feel.
    i am happy too.
    you see
    i never used to feel.
    i was numb
    now i feel.
    i am coming back to life.