Written by Amy Beecham
Do you feel like it’s your job to keep the moods of people around you balanced? You might be an “emotional sponge”.
Have you ever come back from meeting a friend and found yourself absolutely drained? Or gone to a family member’s house in a good mood and left in a bad one? If this sounds familiar, you may be someone’s “emotional sponge” without even realising it.
According to psychologist Dr Lisa Turner, ‘emotional sponging’ is a social phenomenon where one person in a relationship absorbs and internalises the negative emotions of someone close to them. It could be a friend who’s bad day rubs off on you, or the complaints of a colleague which end up playing on your mind too.
We’re not just talking about feeling a little sad because someone you love is going through a hard time. Of course, being a caring and empathetic person is by no means a red flag. In fact, high sensitivity and understanding can be extremely useful when maintaining close relationships or even at work.
However, when you are not only aware of another’s emotions, but you take them on for yourself, that’s where problems may begin to arise. “This is where it has shifted from knowing what the other is feeling, to feeling what they are feeling, then even further to believing you are responsible for ensuring the other person is in a positive state,” explains Dr Turner.
Signs you’re acting as an emotional sponge for someone else
While every situation is nuanced and of course depends on context, Dr Turner says that some classic indicators of emotional sponging include:
- Feeling emotionally drained or exhausted after spending time with your partner or friend
- Constantly making yourself available to the other person, even when it’s not convenient for you
- Neglecting your own needs and well-being in order to take care of the other person’s emotional needs
- Feeling afraid, or deeply uncomfortable when your friend or partner is in a negative state. You feel an irresistible compulsion to do or say something to change their mood
- Having trouble setting boundaries and saying no to the other person’s requests or demands
- Constantly trying to fix or solve the other person’s problems, instead of allowing them to take responsibility for their own emotions and actions
- Having difficulty distinguishing between your own feelings and the other person’s feelings
While it’s true that the deeper a relationship is, the more emotional labour is required to upkeep it. However, Dr Turner says there’s a clear difference between emotional sponging and simply being a ‘good’ friend.
“Being a good friend or partner often involves being supportive and understanding of the other person’s feelings, but it also involves setting healthy boundaries and taking care of one’s own emotional wellbeing,” she says. On the other hand, emotional sponging occurs when one person in a relationship takes on the majority of the emotional burden.
“A healthy relationship involves a balance of giving and receiving support, and both partners should feel heard and understood. It’s important for both partners to take responsibility for their own emotions and to work through them together, rather than one person shouldering the majority of the emotional burden,” she adds.
According to Dr Turner, one way to identify if you are emotionally sponging is to notice how you feel after an emotionally charged conversation with your partner. If you feel drained, resentful, unsupported and not heard, then there’s a good chance you are emotionally sponging.
How to deal with being someone’s emotional sponge
Analysing an unfair relationship can be an emotionally taxing task, so it’s important to start slowly and build from there. If you feel strong enough, you begin by simply noticing it when it happens. “Avoid judgement or self-blame,” says Dr Turner. “Just say to yourself how interesting when you become aware of it.”
Next, build towards open communication with the other person. “Explain how you feel and let them know that you are not able to be their sole support system,” she continues. “ Establish clear boundaries with the other person regarding what you are and are not willing to do for them emotionally. This might include setting limits on how much time you are willing to spend listening to them or saying no to certain requests or demands.”
But more than anything, make sure to take care of your own emotional wellbeing. Set aside time for yourself, engaging in activities that you enjoy to replenish your emotional batteries.
“Try not to get caught up in worrying about what might happen in the future. Instead, focus on the present and what you can do right now to take care of yourself,” Dr Turner adds.
And if you realise someone else is your emotional sponge?
“It’s important to take responsibility and address your behaviour,” stresses Dr Turner. “If necessary, apologise.Acknowledge your behaviour to the person you have been using as an emotional sponge and apologise for any harm that you may have caused.”
Butin order to really commit to changing, the key is learning to manage your own emotions in a healthy way.This may include seeking therapy or coaching, as well as practising self-care and self-compassion. Learn to set boundaries and respect the boundaries of others, including recognising when you are crossing someone else’s boundaries.
However, as Dr Turner reminds: “Remember that emotional sponging is a learned behaviour and it takes time and effort to change it. It’s important to be kind and compassionate with yourself as you work through the process, and to seek professional help if needed.”
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