‘Mummy, it really hurts me in my tummy when other people are sad.’
Zoë’s wee eyes filled up out of the blue last night. Concerned, I asked her what had happened.
She described how she had seen someone in her class hurt her friend’s feelings.
‘But they didn’t hurt you, pet.’
‘I know, but I felt it.’
‘I know how you feel, honey.’
[And I really do.]
Soak it up
Looks like Zoë has inherited her sensitive nature from me. There’s a reason I don’t watch the news regularly or read too many traumatic stories on Facebook: I’m a super-sponge for emotions. Sometimes the intensity of feeling is so heavy it’s as though I’m staggering under the weight. When there’s tension in the room, I feel it in my head. When there’s sadness all around, I feel it in my gut.
Yes, it’s a gift to be able to empathise, but I’d love to be able to rein it in a little more often – especially when I’m trying to sing at a funeral or comfort someone without breaking down. I also feel intense stress when I see a need but don’t have the resources or energy to respond as I’d like.
So many of us are experiencing this at the moment with all the difficulties that COVID has precipitated, and in witnessing the suffering of so many in all kinds of ways.
Yet those in caring roles have always had to manage what psychologists call vicarious trauma.
Vicarious trauma is the emotional residue that is left when we become witnesses to the fear, hurt and wounds of others.
Over time, we can absorb this to such an extent that it just becomes too heavy; we lose our ability to carry any more and we start to feel the negative effects of it in our life.
💤 Disturbed sleep
👀 No concentration
😔 Low motivation
So if you’re like me and you’re a bit of an emotional sponge, here’s some things you can do to make sure you don’t experience the above symptoms too often.
Let it out (gently)
When you squeeze a sponge, it instantly feels lighter and it gets some of its bounce back. However hard it feels, talk to someone you trust about what you’re carrying. Don’t open up to people who won’t listen sensitively; you don’t want to expose yourself to more pain. But if you share with a gentle and tactful person, You’ll feel so much lighter and you might even get that spring in your step back.
Hang it up (temporarily)
Everyone needs a break, sometimes. A sponge is made to tend, to wash, and to cleanse. But sometimes it just needs to be hung up and dried out before it becomes useful again.
It’s the same with us. There are moments we need to feel the breath of the wind on our cheeks and get a bit of space around us to feel ready for the next step. Don’t feel bad about that. You’re not lazy or hard hearted, you’re just refuelling.
Rinse off (regularly)
If you don’t give your sponge a rinse now and again, you’ll get nasty mildew and mould going on.
What de-stresses you? A walk? A shower? A coffee with a friend? Time to blog or journal? It’s amazing how a little time to rinse off the grit of the day can refresh you and reduce the pressure of feeling intense feelings non stop.
Don’t get wrung out
… or should I say, wound up. When you waste your emotional energy on the wrong things, you won’t have anything left for the right things. I can be so guilty of this sometimes. Ask yourself, will this stressor matter in five years time? If not, limit the amount of emotional energy you invest in it.
Fit for purpose
So if you’re a sponge, celebrate it as a gift! You’ve been designed that way for a purpose. But remember, you gotta take care of yourself or you’ll become rough around the edges and of no use to anyone!