Ducks and sponges.

Ducks and sponges.

I’m reading an interesting book right now: Catherine Crawford’s The Highly Intuitive Child: A Guide to Understanding and Parenting Unusually Sensitive and Empathic Children. Its scope is broader than you’d expect from the title: the author addresses very small children through late teens, and the final chapter is devoted to adult intuitives.

The book is full of helpful insights, but one nugget was so eye-opening I have to share it here, especially because if you don’t have a highly intuitive or highly sensitive child, you probably won’t feel compelled to pick this up.

The book discusses boundaries a lot, because they are crucial for the care and keeping of intuitive types: the same inner radar that lets them “know” things about people and places can also work against them, adeptly taking in negative energy.

I’m all too familiar with this phenomenon. When I first went back to counseling 5 years ago and explained the reason I was there, I was surprised to hear my counselor succinctly characterize my situation as a “boundary issue.” It took me years to understand why the label applied: my issue wasn’t with physical boundaries, nor with empathic boundaries (although those are a struggle sometimes), but with intuitive boundaries: I had unknowingly let something penetrate my core that I shouldn’t have let in at all.

I’ve devoted much time and energy here in my thirties to strengthening my own boundaries. Boundary-setting is naturally easier for some people, but much harder for others. Crawford calls these two types of people ducks and sponges, and her analogy helps me understand why creating savvy boundaries hasn’t been easy for me.

For ducks, other people’s emotions roll right off them, like water off a duck’s bath. These people may be warm, caring, and sensitive, but they still have no trouble distinguishing other people’s emotions from their own.

Not so for sponges. Highly intuitive types often soak up other people’s feelings, experiencing them as their own, and physically registering those emotions. This isn’t a choice; it happens automatically.

I’m a sponge, and my boundaries are especially permeable in times of physical or emotional stress. I didn’t realize this—or recognize it as unusual or unhealthy—until I was postpartum with my third child.

My neighbor’s father died in a freak accident about the same time I gave birth. While I was logging hours on the sofa nursing my new baby, my neighbor was actively, physically grieving—pacing in his driveway, slumped in his front porch chair, greeting friends bearing casseroles and flowers—and I could see him every time I looked out the window. I couldn’t stop myself from grieving right along with him—not out of empathy or healthy compassion, but a place way beyond that.

That was the first time I realized I was a sponge—though I didn’t call it that at the time—and could recognize how unhealthy it was.

In The Highly Intuitive Child, Crawford recommends strategies for channeling the sponge tendency for good, instead of towards self-destruction.

Back then, I didn’t become an expert overnight. It took me years to learn to set healthy intuitive boundaries. (Some days, I feel like I’m still learning.)

But like so many personality-related insights, realizing what I was dealing with back then helped me immediately. I’d never before been able to articulate the problem, or recognize it as one.

I hope my kids will be better off than I was. We talk openly and often about personality traits in my house, and this weekend we added ducks and sponges to the repertoire. We have both in my family, and I’m hopeful they will learn to understand each other. I’m especially hopeful that the delicate sponges will learn about setting healthy intuitive boundaries as children, instead of waiting till their late twenties like their mama.

 Boundary-setting is naturally easier for some people, but much harder for others. How do you process feelings? Are you a duck or a sponge?

Do you recognize yourself in these descriptions? Are you a duck or a sponge? I’d love to hear your tips and coping strategies in comments. 

P.S. Sometimes you need to go to counseling, and sometimes you just need permission to relax.

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60 comments

  1. marcella says:

    Thank-you so much for sharing this! I am a sponge I think with my oldest kid very much one as well. I have on my own worked on building better mental boundaries. It’s hard though!

  2. Ginger says:

    I’ve never heard it described this way either. I think it’s interesting to see so many “sponges” wish they were ducks. I’m a duck, and I’ve spent a good part of my life feeling a little guilty that I’m not more sponge-like.
    Many in my family are sponges, and they seem to be so much more sympathetic and in tune with emotions than I am. Now it makes so much sense. We all have to play to our own strengths, and watch our own weak spots.
    A great term to have in our vocabulary, as you mentioned. Many thanks to you! My husband and I have lots of conversations about HSPs and MBTI now, thanks to MMD!

  3. Miriam says:

    I’m wondering. .is it possible to be both? I have had incidents where I was a sponge..still remember those incidents and they were after I had given birth as well..but many times I am a duck..

  4. Kel says:

    I used to have a teacher in high school who would say, “be a duck! Be a duck!” In reference to letting some of the high school drama roll off one’s back. Funny to hear this playing out in a more formal way.

    I learned I have sponge tendencies years ago when I realized that going into a group of people who don’t know each other (mommy meetups anyone?) made me so terribly uncomfortable for the OTHER people that it was almost unbearable. I’d spend the whole time working like crazy to make them feel more comfortable and included and It was totally to my own detriment bc I, myself, wasn’t yet comfortable. Once I saw that, I was able to shift and immediately started making friends. Bizarre.

    Most of the “techniques” for coping with this aspect of personality, for myself, are totally based on awareness of how it manifests in me personally. Generalizations don’t get me far. I have to really sit down and consider what is making me so uncomfortable in social situations and dissect it to have an “aha” moment. But doing that has worked wonders in helping me grow! Great post!!!

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