Imagine you're a sponge at a bustling marketplace, surrounded by vendors selling their wares, music playing in the background, and people conversing in different languages.
You're absorbing the sights, sounds, and smells, taking in the vibrant atmosphere. As the day goes on, you notice that your sponge starts to feel heavy, and you're not able to soak up any more. It's become saturated, and you need to wring it out to make it functional again.
Similarly, in today's fast-paced world, we're bombarded with a constant stream of information from various sources - social media, news, emails, work, and personal responsibilities.
Our minds can become like sponges, absorbing all of this input, leaving us feeling mentally overwhelmed and emotionally drained. It's crucial to recognize when we're sponging up too much and take steps to wring out our mental sponges to maintain our well-being.
In this blog post, we'll explore the concept of "sponging up" and how it affects our mental well-being. Let's dive in and see if you're unknowingly sponging up!
Sponging Up: What's Your Reason?
🧽 Lack of Boundaries:
One reason people may sponge up too much is a lack of boundaries. When we don't set clear limits on our time, energy, and emotional resources, we can end up taking on too much and becoming overwhelmed.
For example, if you have a demanding job that requires you to work long hours and respond to emails and calls outside of work hours, you may find yourself sponging up work-related stress and exhaustion that spills over into your personal life.
🧽 Need for Approval:
Another reason people may sponge up too much is a need for approval or validation from others. When we seek external validation, we can become consumed with trying to meet others' expectations and lose sight of our own needs and values.
For example, if you're constantly seeking approval from your boss or coworkers, you may feel pressure to work longer hours, take on extra projects, or compromise your values to fit in.
While empathy can be a powerful tool for connection and understanding, it can also lead to sponging up too much of other people's emotions and experiences.
For example, if you have a friend who is going through a difficult time, you may feel compelled to take on their pain and carry it with you. This can lead to emotional exhaustion and burnout.
Codependency is a pattern of behavior where a person relies on others for their sense of self-worth and identity. This can lead to sponging up too much of other people's emotions and experiences, and sacrificing your own needs and values.
For example, if you're in a relationship with someone who struggles with addiction or mental illness, you may feel responsible for their well-being and take on their problems as your own.
What Does the Science Tell us About Sponging Up?
The phenomenon of people acting as emotional sponges can be explained by a combination of psychological and physiological factors.
🧠 Psychologically, humans are social creatures and have evolved to be highly attuned to the emotional states of those around them. This is due to our need to understand and navigate complex social dynamics, as well as our innate drive for social connection and belonging. As such, we are often highly receptive to the emotions of others, and may even unconsciously mirror or mimic their emotional states.
🧠 Physiologically, the human brain contains specialized cells called mirror neurons, which are activated both when we experience an emotion ourselves and when we observe someone else experiencing that emotion. This means that when we are around someone who is experiencing strong emotions, our mirror neurons can "mirror" their emotional state, leading us to experience similar feelings ourselves.
🧠 There are also biochemical factors at play. When we experience stress or strong emotions, our bodies release a hormone called cortisol. High levels of cortisol can make us more susceptible to stress and anxiety, as well as increase our sensitivity to the emotions of others.
Overall, the combination of psychological and physiological factors can lead people to act as emotional sponges, absorbing and reflecting the emotions of those around them.
This can be both a helpful and a challenging experience, as it allows us to better understand and connect with others, but can also be emotionally taxing and overwhelming at times.
How to Self Assess if you are Sponging Up?
Here is a non-exhausting checklist to find out if you are sponging up:
Do you find yourself experiencing strong emotions (e.g. sadness, anxiety, anger) after spending time with someone who is also experiencing those emotions?
Do you feel overwhelmed or exhausted after spending time with someone who is emotionally intense or high-strung?
Do you often take on other people's problems or worries as if they are your own, and feel a strong sense of responsibility to help or fix their issues?
Do you have difficulty setting boundaries with others, and may find yourself sacrificing your own needs and wellbeing in order to support others emotionally?
Do you have a hard time disengaging from conversations or situations that are emotionally charged, and may find yourself ruminating on them long after they are over?
Are you highly attuned to the emotional states of those around you, and may find yourself "reading" people's emotions even when they are not expressed overtly?
Do you struggle with anxiety or stress, particularly in situations where there are strong emotions involved?
If the answer is "yes" to most of these questions, I would suggest you to seek intervention from a mental health professional right away.
How to Avoid Sponging Up?
1. Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness can help you become more aware of your own emotions and the emotions of others without getting overwhelmed by them. By practicing mindfulness meditation, you can learn to observe emotions without becoming attached to them or feeling the need to fix them.
You can also practice mindfulness in everyday life by paying attention to your own feelings and sensations as well as those around you.
2. Set boundaries: It's important to set clear boundaries with others to protect your own emotional wellbeing. This can involve saying no to requests that you know will be emotionally taxing, or being honest with others about your own emotional capacity.
For example, if a friend wants to vent to you about their problems but you know you don't have the emotional bandwidth to handle it at the moment, you can say something like, "I'm here for you, but I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed right now. Can we talk about this later?"
3. Practice self-care: Engaging in regular self-care activities can help you build resilience and protect yourself from emotional overload. This can involve activities like exercise, getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods, and engaging in hobbies that you enjoy.
Taking care of your physical and emotional needs can help you build a stronger sense of self and feel more equipped to handle challenging emotions.
4. Seek support: It's important to have a support system in place for times when you do feel overwhelmed by emotions. This can involve talking to friends or family members, seeking out a therapist, or joining a support group.
Having someone to talk to and process emotions with can help you feel less alone and more supported.
5. Practice empathy without taking on others' emotions: Empathy involves being able to understand and relate to others' emotions without feeling the need to take them on as your own.
You can practice empathy by actively listening to others, asking open-ended questions, and trying to put yourself in their shoes. However, it's important to remember that you are not responsible for fixing others' emotions or taking them on as your own.
6. Limit exposure to emotionally intense situations: If you know that certain situations or people are likely to be emotionally intense, it's important to set limits on your exposure to them. This might involve limiting the amount of time you spend with certain people or avoiding certain situations altogether.
For example, if you know that spending time with a certain family member is emotionally taxing, you might limit your visits to shorter periods of time or choose to spend time with them in a more neutral setting.
By practicing these strategies, you can learn to protect yourself from emotional overload and establish healthier boundaries with others.
Some real-life scenarios to help you avoid sponging up
Neha is a highly empathetic person who works in a busy office. She often finds herself feeling drained and overwhelmed by the emotions of her colleagues. To avoid sponging up these emotions, she starts practicing mindfulness meditation during her lunch breaks.
This helps her become more aware of her own emotions and better able to detach from the emotions of others.
Aarav is a caring friend who often spends hours on the phone with his best friend, listening to her problems and trying to help her solve them. However, he realizes that this is starting to take a toll on his own emotional wellbeing.
To avoid sponging up his friend's emotions, he sets boundaries by letting her know that he can only talk for a certain amount of time each day, and by suggesting that she speak to a therapist for additional support.
Maria is a sensitive person who often feels overwhelmed by the intensity of her own emotions. To avoid sponging up the emotions of others, she practices self-care by engaging in regular exercise and making time for activities that bring her joy, such as painting and hiking.
By taking care of her own emotional needs, she feels more resilient and better able to handle challenging emotions.
David is a therapist who specializes in working with clients who have experienced trauma. To avoid sponging up the intense emotions of his clients, he seeks support from his own therapist and engages in regular self-care activities, such as practicing yoga and journaling.
He also sets clear boundaries with his clients by letting them know that he can only see them for a certain number of sessions per week and by taking breaks between sessions to recharge.
In each of these examples, the individuals are taking proactive steps to protect themselves from emotional overload and establish healthier boundaries with others. These examples give you an idea how of how you can protect your own emotional wellbeing while still being empathetic and supportive of others.
Still if it feels overwhelming, seek support from the experts
So, are you sponging up or taking care of your emotional health? Share your thoughts in the comments below.