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.
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.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.