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 back. 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.

P.P.S. I wrote a book about personality! In Reading People: How Seeing the World through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything, I walk you through 7 different frameworks, explaining the basics in a way you can actually understand, sharing personal stories about how what I learned made a difference in my life, and showing you how it could make a difference in yours, as well.

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  1. Ana says:

    I’m a definite sponge. Thanks for this—having words to describe something I’ve always realized about myself is helpful! I have one child I suspect is highly sensitive but I haven’t thought about him absorbing emotions (ours, as parents, mostly) in this way—its the way he gets those emotions out that I’ve focused on, but maybe I need to step back and get to the source.

  2. Jennifer says:

    I am a sponge. I’ve never heard it put in those terms before, but it explains so much! Maybe it will help me explain to my husband why I am so stressed out knowing that we are going to be with outside people every day this week.

  3. Wow, so interesting. I am a duck for sure, but I’ll be sharing this post with my friend (a sponge) and my sister (a school counselor). Very insightful. I think they might like to read the book.

  4. Kate says:

    Thank you for this. I am a sponge and it can be a huge energy drain, especially with a family. I will definitely read this book – I would love to hear the boundary suggestions.

    • Anne says:

      I’m thinking about ordering Highly Intuitive People by Heidi Sawyer but haven’t yet. Honestly, I find books like The Highly Sensitive Child and The Highly Intuitive Child hugely helpful for me, as an adult, for my own sake, not my kids’.

  5. Allison says:

    I’m a sponge.
    This explains why I can’t go to a wake – no matter how distant the deceased is to me – without crying. I can feel the family members’ loss. I feel their pain.
    Thank you.

  6. Bekki says:

    What a great analogy…definitely using this with Lissy. I couldn’t help but think how much better I do when I’m taking time throughout the day to rinse my “sponge” in the water of God’s Word and wring out the nasties in prayer. I wonder if “sponginess” is the quality that creates both lovers of great books AND introverts.

    • Alison says:

      I don’t know. I am a definite sponge but am one of the most extroverted people I know. I am a HSP for sure but very extroverted and a lot of people don’t understand how those two things can coexist. But they do in me 🙂

      • Anne says:

        Approximately 30% of HSPs are extroverts, and high intuition is not a subset of high sensitivity. That being said, I feel confident there are a great many introverted HSP intuitives out there (including me).

  7. Debbie says:

    Sponge. Traits that served me well as a clinical social worker, worked against me personally. Thanks for putting words to it. Have grown kids but thinking about picking up the book.

    • Anne says:

      “Traits that served me well as a clinical social worker, worked against me personally.”

      That’s interesting. I think I see what you mean.

  8. Anne says:

    I have found your website so enlightening, I am definitely an HSP and a sponge. Would you be willing to share the name of your counselor? I would just reach out to see if she knows anyone in my area.

    • Anne says:

      I’d absolutely talk about it face to face but don’t want to share just a name without a lot of explanation and a few caveats. I hope you understand.

  9. Katia says:

    This resonates with me very clearly. I am most definitely a sponge, as is one of my children. The duck-or-sponge analogy is an excellent one that I will start using in discussions with my family, and I will most certainly pick up the book. Thank you.

  10. Christine says:

    I suspected I was like this (a sponge), but never thought of it in such a clear analogy.

    If you have any good tips on setting boundaries, please let us know! 🙂 As always, thanks for a great, thought-provoking post.

  11. ms g says:

    I’m a sponge, but I think I intuitively learned to set boundaries pretty young, because I realized pretty young my own sensitivity. Not that I don’t sometimes forget to set a boundary. My daughter is a massive sponge. I don’t know that I would describe my husband as a duck. He is so easy going, he often seems to not even pick up on other’s emotions or the “feel” of the room, as I say.

  12. Ciera S. says:

    Such a useful analogy. It’s amazing how simply finding the right phrase or metaphor can help you better understand yourself.

    I definitely fall on the “sponge” side of things, which I usually just labeled as “emotional” or “sensitive.” But it’s more than that. I am left wondering though where the cut off is between full on sponge and healthy empathy. Hmmm.

    • Anne says:

      “It’s amazing how simply finding the right phrase or metaphor can help you better understand yourself.”

      YES! This continues to amaze me.

  13. Dana says:

    I am an introverted sponge who is married to an extremely extroverted duck. That combination makes for some misunderstandings and frustrations on both our parts, especially when relating to family issues and faith matters. We both have strong opinions/habits in both areas that often collide. Over almost 29 years of marriage, we have learned to talk things over and come to a kind of detente on some issues.
    I have learned to be a bit more outgoing ( it’s a process) and he has learned to adjust a dial back a bit and give me more time. I have learned to not be quite so “absorbent” with other people’s emotions and he is trying to be a bit more compassionate. I think it is easier for a sponge to adjust than a duck.

    The main thing is we know that our values and passions are very much aligned , we just express them differently and that it will always be so.

    Thanks for the post! I had never heard the duck/sponge analogy but it fits perfectly.

  14. Cassie says:

    I am also definitely a sponge. I realized it several years ago during Christmas when I had a total meltdown that my husband had bought some of his nieces and nephews candy after I had spent HOURS baking cookies for everyone. It didn’t take long to realize HE was actually feeling upset because this was a tradition his Grandpa had that no one else was picking up, and he was missing his Grandpa. When he aired out his emotions, I realized I’d been feeding completely off of his. And I no longer was upset. I just try to remind myself that if I’m having a seemingly irrational or overly dramatic reaction to something, I might be amplifying someone’s else’s emotions rather than my own. Just acknowledging that seems to help.

  15. sarah says:

    I just burst into tears reading this. I thought there was something wrong with me that I would experience depression if the people around me were depressed, or that I would get angry and distrustful if those around me were angry and distrustful. I had *no* idea there was a word for it, and instead beat myself up for not having my own emotions and being so easily swayed by the emotions of those around me. Putting this book on hold right now…

  16. Tessa says:

    I just wanted to say thank you for talking about personality and personality differences with your children and making it an ongoing, open conversation in your home. My mother actually doesn’t believe in MBTI and still doesn’t like it when I say something like, “I’m and INFP so that situation was especially hard for me.” She also doubts the existence of HSP, saying I’m labeling myself to much. So thank you for not doing that to your children, and allowing them to be the individuals they are.

    • Anne says:

      I heard Susan Wise Bauer say a few years ago that it’s extremely beneficial for some kids to talk about personality explicitly, and to be enthusiastic about their self-discovery. (“Oh, look what type you are! Isn’t that great?) I’ve taken that to heart. 🙂

  17. Anne McD says:

    Right down to being an “Anne-with-an-E”, I’m surprised at just how much we have in common! Also a HSP/INFP, I have learned a tremendous amount about myself over the past year by reading your blog. In fact, just these past couple of months have lead me to re-taking the Myers Briggs test and actually remembering the results for the first time in years! Because of that, I’m not at all surprised to hear that I (and you!) are sponges, since we perceive so much around us, and are more sensitive to things like other people’s emotions. I have to constantly remind myself that my husband’s moods are not mine, and that if he’s not in a good place, outside of being supportive and helping as he might want me to, its not MY mood that needs to be changed, nor is it MY responsibility to do something about it.

    Thank you so much for sharing all of this information. It has brought a wealth of awareness to my life!

  18. Anika says:

    I am a sponge. I so wish I was a duck, like my husband. I’ve never heard these terms before but they work well to explain the difference.

  19. Stacey says:

    Wow! This is going to be a must-read in our house. My oldest and I are sponges for sure while my husband and my youngest are ducks. My oldest and I have real problems with this as I feel all her negative-middle-school-girl-stuff and she also feels my reactions to things in a way that’s not really healthy. Can’t wait to read!

    • Annie Beebe says:

      We have been astonished since she was about a year old at the level of intuitiveness, and (happy to have a word for it!) sponginess of our now fifteen year old. I’m pretty spongy but she is unbelievable. Been thinking of finding her a counselor to help her deal with this as she gets older, and learn to set healthy boundaries for herself in absorbing the angst of others.

  20. Esther says:

    I’m curious if your “sponginess” affects your reading? I find myself absorbing the emotions of characters in novels, and since my work requires me to read I can’t always abandon a book I find emotionally resonant. Have you (or your reader’s) experienced this?

    • Samantha D says:

      I definitely have! I am very selective about what I read, content-wise. At different point I will have different sensitivities (often aligned to what is most reported on in news outlets, etc. or current “hot topics”) and reading a book that touches on those topics can nearly send me over the edge in emotion sometimes. I know it, catch it, and stop it. I think it’s a sign of maturity to recognize when content impacts you and to walk away from it instead of trying to “force” it to not impact you (we know that doesn’t always work so well).

    • Anne says:

      I’m sure I do a bit, but then again, I have a much easier time compartmentalizing fiction as opposed to real, live, breathing people’s emotions.

  21. KR says:

    Yes, yes, yes! I’m an extroverted sponge. It explains why I love a cocktail party but am very selective about closer friendships. As to Esther’s question about reading, I’ve experienced this. I’m reading the Goldfinch right now and, frankly, am not in the right place at the moment to “bathe” in all that sadness and tragedy. My middle school daughter has also dealt with this.

  22. Samantha D says:

    I sent this to my husband yesterday and it spurred great conversation. I have moments where I feel like I am going crazy but I’ve realized that those are times when my lack of setting proper mental boundaries has led to me feeling overwhelmed by considering what must be going on in other people’s minds. That aha! moment of realizing I am a sponge and tend to consider other people’s feelings, thoughts, emotions, rationale, etc. a little too much was so freeing. I’ve repeatedly said, “If I could just figure out what thought pattern is wrong I am more than willing to fight against it and change it – I just don’t know what to change.” Now I do! Strange as it sounds to me, I just need to focus a little more on me and a little less than others – at least when it comes to this.

    • Anne says:

      “Strange as it sounds to me, I just need to focus a little more on me and a little less than others – at least when it comes to this.”

      I hear this.

  23. Emily says:

    My husband is a sponge. This explains a lot about our relationship… I don’t know if I’m a duck, but I’m definitely not a sponge. I’ll often ask my husband how he feels about something, and the only response he’ll give me is “Well, I understand why YOU feel this way…” In the past, it’s been incredibly frustrating for me because it seems as though he doesn’t trust me enough to share his emotions and opinions, and I wondered if I weren’t giving him a reason to hold back. Now I realize that he just takes on MY emotions as if they were his own. Wow.

    It’s really interesting to see my husband this way because in our culture of absurd masculinity (“real men don’t have feelings”), I’m not sure if anyone else on this earth would recognize my husband as a sponge. He’s extremely good at hiding it and even stuffing it away. He has learned how to obliterate painful emotions in many cases (partly due to his past). I wish that we as a society were better at allowing men to be who they are, be they sponges or ducks, sensitive or not.

    I can also say, as the wife of a sponge, that while there are many difficulties that come with it, it can also be a great blessing to others. “Sponginess” is not a curse. I love that my husband knows and understands my emotions without my having to say a single word. It’s a gift. (One that I certainly didn’t expect after being raised on the assumption that all men are insensitive and have to have feelings spelled out for them.) Although I certainly don’t wish my negative emotions on my husband, I love being married to a sponge.

  24. Ellie says:

    I am definitely a sponge and this post is incredibly insightful. I am excited to learn more. I appreciate all your posts about personalities, I have learned so much.

  25. Faith R says:

    I am definitely a sponge. I feel like I absorb the emotional energy of other people around me and it is REALLY hard sometimes, especially say – when we are at the grocery store and all of my kids decide to have a bad attitude and fight with each other – I get totally overwhelmed. I sometimes also mis-read people’s emotions and take on the stress of someone being upset when really they are just tired or distracted or hangry. It was so bad when I first got married that I gave myself ulcers.

  26. 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!

  27. 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!

  28. 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..

  29. 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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