You Can Be a Sponge, But Be Less Absorbent

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(Why Does Everything Affect Me So Deeply And What Can I Do?)

A few years back a mom in class shared her personal practice which helped her handle her baby’s crying. She had felt as if her baby’s cries were going straight to her heart where they weighed heavily on her. So she came up with a new image: that as her baby cried, the cries came right to her heart and then floated straight out her back. It was a beautiful image — she could perceive the cries but she didn’t hold on to them. 

Twenty years ago, while in my Feldenkrais training, I felt hyper sensitive to everyone else around me. I felt as if I absorbed everyone else’s challenging emotions: anxiety, sadness, anger. I remember feeling very uncomfortable as I noticed it happening while with other people, and then often I’d feel ill later on. I shared this with one of the assistants in my training, calling myself, “a sponge,” and she said to me, “You can be a sponge, but you can learn to be less absorbent.” 

Easier said than done, but I’m here to confirm it’s possible! 

This week, I worked as an assistant in the Philadelphia SE (Somatic Experiencing) training. As they practiced with each other, the students had to be keenly aware of body language, tuning right into anxiety, anger, and more, as they tried out various techniques of SE. As I watched and coached them in their practice sessions, the thought occurred to me, that so much of what I do now (and that they were learning) requires my being present and sensitive to my clients’ nervous system state and staying present with my own system simultaneously so that I can be with them without being pulled into the activation myself. 

Not being pulled into the activation is no longer for self-protection from overwhelm, as I thought of it twenty years ago. Now, it’s a skill to help others — I can be most helpful guide when I’m not also feeling so activated that I’m lost in the swirl of strong emotions. My clients, when they learn some of this skill for themselves, find it shifts their ability to feel present to their experience, and more connected to those around them.

There’s a video of Peter Levine, creator of SE, working with a student in a training. As the student is getting extremely emotional and wound up, he pauses and takes a bite of his snack, and says something neutral or even slightly excited for what they’re going through, like, “there’s the activation.” It’s with the same everyday lack of concern with which one might say, “Oh here comes our waiter.”  I LOVED that video so much. It might sound a bit callous when I write it here, but it’s done so lovingly and so matter-of-factly at the same time. It’s like a super-power of his, to be so tuned in, to accept those states of mind and emotions as simply part of the human condition, and yet not swept up with them in it. 

Twenty years ago, I didn’t think I could do anything like that. But my work has actually evolved to the point that a central skill I use each day, all day is the one that felt unattainable 20 years ago: to be a sponge, sensitive and empathetic, but just not so absorbent.

​​​“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”~ Pema Chodron