Empaths who are highly sensitive to other people’s emotions are often exhausted by the so-called “psychic sponge” effect.
When you’re a very sympathetic person that’s acutely aware of other people’s emotions and “vibes”, moreover, they call that being a “psychic sponge.”
For people who identify with this level of heightened emotional awareness, navigating life can be a hairy maze of unnecessary stressors and mood modulations. If you’re constantly trying to manage not only your own emotions, but the feelings and moods of people around you, then you’re setting yourself up for mental exhaustion.
^ That, my friends, is a huge burden to carry. Even for super resilient people, it’s a lot to take on!
Fortunately, highly sensitive people can employ a few basic therapeutic strategies to stop taking on other people’s mental baggage. The goal is to build boundaries that help you keep other people’s energy from spoiling your own.
Below, we explore a couple of time-honored strategies to ease the burden of being a psychic sponge. Nobody is capable of absorbing everyone else’s stress in a sustainable way. These strategies can make all the difference for long-term wellbeing.
For people who are highly sensitive to other people’s emotions– for example, a tightly-wound boss, a neurotic spouse, or a very attached child– it’s easy to become anxious or frazzled when these people are anxious or frazzled.
Usually, this stems from the other party’s inability or unwillingness to articulate themselves, which causes stress for the highly sensitive person, who naturally wants to help “fix” or “smooth over” the problem at hand. (Even casual empaths are human, after all!)
Unfortunately, however, you can only control your emotions, not other peoples’, which is why trying to fix other peoples’ emotional problems is always a losing game. Even for the most skilled listeners and emotionally intelligent folks!
Hack 1: Visualize Yourself Surrounded By a Protective Shield
Accordingly, intuitive counselors recommend that people who take on other people’s energy and “soak it up like a sponge” should practice visualizing themselves surrounded by a protective shield. Do this exercise at least once daily.
^ It’s best to practice this before or after a relaxing meditation. Picture yourself sitting or standing in a serene, calm space of your choosing. It could be your “happy place”, soaking in your bathtub, or a beautiful forest grove of your imagination.
Visualize an orb-like bubble enveloping your body. Make it whatever soothing color you like– ocean blue, forest green, neutral pink. Just make sure the bubble surrounds your entire body, covering your head and curving around under your feet. You are completely enclosed by the bubble.
This is your protective shield. Only you can see it, and it lets in light, pleasant smells, sounds, and fresh air– but it doesn’t let other people’s energy in. Other people’s emotions cannot penetrate the bubble, so they cannot get to you. You are safe inside your soft bubble shield.
Whenever you feel yourself starting to get swallowed up by other people’s moods and emotions (or your child’s), remember that your shield is protecting you. Remind yourself: “My shield doesn’t let this energy in. This energy cannot get to me inside my shield.”
This inner monologue may feel a little silly at first, but it works even better the more often you do it. Make visualizing your shield a daily practice for best results.
Hack 2: The Proximity Practice
Another strategy for counteracting your own psychic sponge tendencies is to do what we might call the “proximity practice.”
Visualize yourself standing inside the center of several concentric circles. Only the people you love and trust the most are allowed to come into the rings closest to you. (These can be friends, family, or anyone who makes you feel good, etc.)
Someone like a boss, frustrated colleague, disgruntled stranger, or ex-partner is not allowed in your immediate proximity. They can only come as close as ring 10, for example. They need special permission to get close to your core, where all your feelings exist. Otherwise, they are permanently stuck in the outer circles.
Thus, the things they say and do cannot reach you or influence you, because they are too far away. You can’t hear or see them! Any toxic things they say simply sound like distant murmurs to your soul. (In real life, you can hear them, of course. But the words cannot penetrate your inner circle. Only the people you let in can do that.)
Repeat this concept to yourself almost like a mantra whenever you feel yourself absorbing feelings like a psychic sponge. Consciously say or think to yourself: “This is not allowed in my inner circle.” Or, try something like, “These feelings are theirs, not mine.”
It may take some time to figure out what language works best for you, but you’ll know it when you feel any relief. Then, poof! Bad feelings, be gone!
Hack 3: Remember That Psychic Sponge Energy is Contagious
If someone is angry or frazzled and you respond to them in an equally angry or frazzled tone, their mood will not change.
However, if you approach a frantic person calmly and speak to them in a chill, controlled, and careful manner, they will slowly simmer down to your level. This is a natural, biological mirroring effect. People tend to match the tone and energy you speak to them in. It’s an unconscious but universal tendency.
In this way, being detached and seemingly calm (even if you don’t feel that way inside!) can help diffuse a tense situation just like water can put out a fire.
The opposite is also true. If your partner is freaking out about something and you start freaking out as well, it’s like pouring gasoline on a fire. Make sense?
There are lots of examples of this kind of logic at work in child psychology, as well.
When a child gets hurt, for example, it’s common for parents to “put on a strong face” because if a child sees them freaking out, then they will stay distraught. But when a parent soothes a child by saying “you’re okay” and presenting a calm, soothing presence, the child is bolstered by their confidence and mirrors it.
It may sound slightly patronizing, but you can practice this same technique on your colleagues or partners, as well. (People don’t need to know what you’re thinking, after all. Just focus on diffusing the emotional firestorm.)
By faking it until you make it, moreover, you actually help yourself feel better in the end.
Remember: highly sensitive people can influence others just as much as others influence them. So, don’t be shy about “wringing out the sponge.”
Use your intuition as a tool to mold tense situations into what you want them to be. You are just as capable as anyone else of setting the tone!
Hack 4: Make Cleansing Juxtapositions
Highly sensitive people need to work consciously to get better at avoiding the psychic sponge effect. Therapy can help, of course– but so can using a simple thought exercise borrowed from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
Whenever you notice yourself getting swept away in other people’s energy, consciously look for something positive to juxtapose with it. For example, if someone yells at you on the job (an unpleasant thing), go listen to your favorite song (a happy thing).
If your child gets hurt, remind yourself of how many children fall, break bones, and get hurt every day. This happens all the time all over the world, and these kids always end up fine. You get the idea.
Basically, for every bad feeling, you should consciously conjure a productive or soothing thought. Consider this a momentary emotional “cleanse.”
Even if it doesn’t feel true at the moment, exposure to positive thoughts will penetrate. This will help take the edge off any negative emotions you feel creeping in. And like all the other strategies on this list, practice makes perfect. Do this often and it will become second nature.
Ultimately, this hack is all about remembering that you are in control. You might be a highly sensitive person or a psychic sponge, but you are always in the driver’s seat of your own mind. You get to control how you feel– and no one can ever take that away from you.