Friday, April 20, 2007

The Emotional Sponge and Clutter

I've recently discovered a great blog called Psychology of Clutter by Dr. Amie Ragan, a licensed clinical psychologist who often works with people who have difficulty dealing with clutter. I was particularly interested in her posts about "Emotional Sponges."

Dr. Ragan describes an Emotional Sponge as someone who engages in "the act of soaking up what other people throw at you (criticism, negativity, problems) without ever questioning whether or not you need, want or deserve it." (Words in italics are mine.) I'd like to add: whether or not there's anything you can do about it. We all want to be compassionate listeners and helpers to our friends and loved ones, even in situations where the best we can offer is a sympathetic ear. But some of us take on the responsibility for "fixing" a situation when we're not the ones who can fix it.

Unless you're under attack by one of Dr. Ragan's "Psychic Vampires" (a person who actually enjoys making you feel bad about yourself, in which case, please turn and run immediately or at least carry a psychological wooden stake!), chances are that you'll get caught in the unfortunate position of being an Emotional Sponge occasionally, primarily thanks to the folks I have unceremoniously labeled the Deadly Dumpers.

We've all encountered people who seem to specialize in unloading their personal problems on others. These are not people who are going through a rough patch in their lives; they are people who see life as one gigantic rough patch. You probably have noticed that these people have the remarkable ability to suck all the energy right out of a room. Your primal response is to try to avoid them just to save yourself. These Dumpers usually present themselves as ever-suffering victims of circumstances beyond their control. Sometimes there are what we all would agree are "valid" reasons for their unhappiness and depression, but I suspect that Dr. Ragan would want to help them rework their thinking about those circumstances, whatever they might be, so that they could function more effectively and more joyfully in their lives.

There are also people who seem to specialize in focusing on the "doomed" state of everything from office politics to the fate of the world, unloading their despair or cynicism on all who will listen. Again, these are not people pointing out specific problems in order to have a thoughtful discussion about them; these are people who will squash any notion that there is even hope for a satisfactory resolution and insist that all efforts are pointless. Obviously, they are equally capable of sapping the energy from anyone they encounter. Most often they also are seriously depressed and in need of psychological help. But, oddly, I've noticed that sometimes someone who falls into this category is not depressed or even particulary personally disturbed, but instead actually appears to enjoy the process of lamenting the state of things and "proving" that the situation is utterly hopeless. I wonder if this isn't some rationalization that allows them to remove themselves from any responsibility for taking action to facilitate change, or perhaps their cynicism is an effort to seem "sophisticated" in the way that a young teenager might affect discontent as a demonstration of "maturity." I'll leave the professional analysis of this phenomenon to Dr. Ragan and other trained specialists.

However, in each case, we innocent, unwitting souls, just trying to get on with our day, dealing with our own challenges, finding joy where we may, easily can fall prey to these Deadly Dumpers. If we have the unfortunate tendency to be Emotional Sponges, we will absorb all the negativity they unload and stand there feeling horrible. But they will walk away either trapped in their own, narrowly focused agony or, in the latter case, no worse for wear because dumping all that negativity doesn't bother them. Either way, it's not a good deal for the Sponge.

Dr. Ragan's clever solution to help you stop being an Emotional Sponge is to think of yourself as a bowl rather than a sponge. I love this imagery which allows you to hold on to whatever comes your way, then pour out whatever you don't want to keep, whenever you want to do so. Clearly there are some people you'll still want to avoid, but should a Deadly Dumper be thrust upon you in circumstances where you can't duck out a side door, extricate yourself as quickly as you can, then pour out the unpleasant and totally useless negative contents of your bowl. Ah! Relief!

And how does all this apply to clutter? Let's consider an Emotional Sponge as someone who retains possessions out of sentiment, feelings of obligation, perhaps even fear of loss or change, someone who must be uncomfortably "squeezed" to release stuff. A "bowl" (I think I'll use the term "Beautiful Bowl") understands that all possessions, no matter what they are, no matter what their value, are only temporary, most certainly in the larger sense. Therefore the Beautiful Bowl is able to use them up, enjoy them while it's appropriate, and release them - pour them right out - without great difficulty when the time is right. A Beautiful Bowl can pour out lovely things, too, to give away to others, again, when the time is right. Most importantly, a Beautiful Bowl remains beautiful by not being filled to the brim with unappealing contents.

And what does a Beautiful Bowl do with its most special contents, its favorite memories and the love of family and friends? Let's think of one more kitchen analogy. Great chefs know that you never, ever scrub a wok or a cast iron skillet after using it. You wipe and clean it gently, but you allow it to build up a coating, a patina referred to as "seasoning." I like to think of those special contents as the patina that's never washed away from our well-seasoned Beautiful Bowl; those memories and that love will stay with us forever.

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob


Amie said...

Nicely written. Thank you for taking the time to read my blog and offering your input.

Dr. Amie Ragan

Cynthia Friedlob said...

So glad to hear from you! Thanks for your comment. I look forward to reading more on your wonderful blog.


Anonymous said...

I was told my my cousin who is a social worker that I was an emotional sponge and should get help with that. I have been in therepy before for depression, anxiety and circumstances with my teenager. I had never heard this actual term used before and when my cousin described it to me "taking on everyone's else's problems etc..." I was blown away. If I know of a negative situation with someone else that has nothing to with me (and mind you no one approaches me for input, I just may hear about it or see it) it bothers, frustrastes, angers me for quite some time. Not just "oh that's awful" and I move on. I know I need help to learn how to not absorb so much but where to start? Right now I feel not only my soul but my mind is just fried and I can't even concentrate. Thank you for this blog and the information.

Cynthia Friedlob said...


I'm so glad that you found the information useful.

I urge you to consider returning to therapy with someone who can help you learn how to respond to negative situations in a way that works for you. A good therapist will be able to answer your question about where to start. I'm certain that your physician would provide a referral or perhaps your cousin could suggest someone for you to consult.

Thank you for your comment. I wish you the best.


Anonymous said...

I'm a bit of an emotional sponge and yes I have problems throwing things out. It's mostly books though I haven't got round to reading yet or I need as ongoing referance for my work, I like to think of my books as a "library"

I am quite an esoterically minded person so am working on better protecting myself from other people's negative energy with visualisation and I think the idea of the "bowl" rather than sponge is a great idea!

Cynthia Friedlob said...


Glad you found the "bowl" idea helpful. Visualization is a wonderful tool! I wish you the best in your efforts to unclutter.