I knew early on I was a sponge.
I absorbed the emotional states of others until I felt the heaviness of their emotions in my own heart. I soaked in the pain and suffering of other people as if it was my own. Taking in peoples’ emotional energy was my way of trying to understand, relate, and help. This was how I empathized. I believed this was how people connected deeply with one another. And, I desperately wanted to connect.
This instinct was observed by my family and echoed back to me as a compliment. I was praised for being selfless. I was called “empathetic” and “sensitive”. And, when children are praised for instincts, those instincts become ingrained as virtues. I wore the virtues of empathy and sensitivity proudly. They were badges of honor that eventually grew into an identity and led me to pursue a career in counseling. Those virtues are a part of me. I don’t deny them or judge them. I recognize their humanity and beauty, both in myself and in others.
But, sponginess has its downside, a slippery slope that if not checked can take a toll on one’s sense of self. Here’s why: If you’re always the sponge, always absorbing, eventually you will have trouble deciphering your feelings from the feelings of others. You’ll never learn that you’re actually in control of your emotional energy, resulting in feelings of being overwhelmed, and helpless. You will allow yourself to be controlled by unpredictable, external forces.
But not if you’re a rock! The shift to becoming a rock is all about protecting your emotional energy.
Nowadays, despite a few spongy moments every now and then, I try to be a rock. This practice has been one of the most rewarding mindset shifts of my adult life. Ironically, I still connect deeply with others. The profound difference, however, is that I also stay connected to myself regardless of how others are doing.
Ways you may be reacting as a sponge and how to respond as a rock instead.
- You take the emotional states of your loved ones personally.
Someone you love is struggling. Their emotional energy is heavy around them. You see it, hear it, and feel it. You assume it must be because of something you’re doing or not doing. You create a story in your mind where you’re the cause of the pain. You now feel heavy and uncomfortable as well. You have put yourself center stage of their emotional state. You may become defensive, angry or hurt. You’ve lost control of your emotional energy based on feelings that didn’t originally belong to you.
Or, you can be a rock:
Someone you love is emotionally struggling. Their emotional energy is heavy around them. You recognize that their emotions belong to them, not you. You surrender responsibility for their
feelings. You imagine how it would feel to be them, seek to understand, then offer support. You give them space to feel their feelings, knowing their feelings are separate from your feelings. You acknowledge to yourself that seeing them in pain is difficult, but you do not make it about you. You understand it’s about them. A rock doesn’t fall apart when others are suffering. A rock shows others there is hope.
2. You mirror the rude/cruel behavior of others
You have an interaction with a colleague, acquaintance, or a stranger who acts in a disrespectful or rude way toward you. It catches you off guard, you feel confused because you are not deserving of the attack. Confusion is a void, so you fill it with the same negative energy they projected onto you. It’s as if they threw you a ball of fire but instead of letting it hit the ground in front of them, you catch it and absorb it. Maybe you throw it back. Maybe even harder and faster. You did the very thing to them that was done to you. You lost your vibe. You traded it for theirs.
Or, you can be a rock:
You have an interaction with a colleague, acquaintance, or a stranger who acts in a disrespectful or rude way toward you. You fill the void of confusion with the knowledge that you didn’t deserve the attack. It stings but it doesn’t wound. Because you choose not to accept it. You don’t accept it by doing one of two things: One, move on and don’t look back. Your vibe intact. Or, two, stand up for yourself with your vibe intact, move on and don’t look back.
A rock doesn’t go up in flames just because others are throwing fire. A rock has better things to do.
3. You allow critics to hurt you
Someone criticizes you, your beliefs or your choices. You’re unsure of yourself in certain areas, so you start to wonder if they’re right. That wondering creates feelings of uncertainty, vulnerability, and embarrassment. You change what you’re doing, or worse, who you are. All because of a critic. The insecure, emotional energy of the critic washes over you and doubles your insecure, emotional energy, leaving you feeling static and small. You drank the poison that was handed to you and let it change you.
Or, you can be a rock:
Someone criticizes you, your beliefs or your choices. You’re unsure of yourself in certain areas, but you know who you are and you’re aware of your strengths and limitations. You recognize that critics are often operating out of their own insecurity. You choose to trust yourself over the critic. You choose to give the validation you desperately crave to yourself. You believe in yourself, so you remain yourself. A rock doesn’t change shape or shrink when someone pours judgement all over it. A rock stays a rock.
For me, the most powerful part of the transformation from sponge to rock has been the redefining of my practice of empathy. Back in my spongy days, I empathized by thinking about what others were going through, then imagining what that must feel like and sitting with that. Soaking in all the heavy emotion and sitting. I know now, that’s not enough. It’s not even close to being enough. Empathy without action is just …sympathy. And sympathy is just…comfort.
As a rock, empathy looks similar at first but plays out dramatically different.
As rocks we don’t just sit with feelings. We think, imagine, feel and act. Rocks recognize they don’t have to become someone else to help. We don’t have to be overtaken with pain. We can stay ourselves, preserve our strength, preserve our boundaries so strength can become action. People need rocks not sponges. A rock is less changeable with the tides. A rock is there for others and for itself, even in high winds. A rock is a better fighter and healer.
Let’s be rocks. Loving, compassionate, empathetic rocks.
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