Have you ever heard of the term “Highly Sensitive Person”? Do you know what it’s actually like, being an HSP? First studied by psychologist Dr. Elaine Aron in 1996, Highly Sensitive People have an inherent, biological predisposition to process and perceive information on a much deeper level.
But just because someone is sensitive and empathetic doesn’t automatically make them an HSP. Admittedly, there are a lot of similarities that can sometimes make it difficult to tell an HSP apart from someone who’s an emotional sponge. For example, both have a greater capacity for empathy and altruism, as well as a heightened sensitivity to their environments and those around them.
With that said, here are 6 tell-tale signs that you might actually be an emotional sponge and not an HSP:
1. You’re the emotional caretaker.
According to psychotherapist Imi Lo, although both HSPs and emotional sponges are naturally sensitive and caring, the latter tends to have poorer boundaries because of how those around them constantly unload all of their problems and feelings on them. Burntout and overwhelmed, they often feel like they have no choice but to be everybody’s emotional caretaker.
2. But you have difficulty handling your own emotions.
Always being bombarded by the emotions of others, however, can make it difficult for these people to attend to their own. Oftentimes, emotional sponges feel lost without anyone else around to take their cues from and tell them what they ought to think and feel. Their pent-up emotions can also make them volatile because of how used to bottling everything up they are, according to an article published by certified counselor Becky Stone.
3. You feel drained by others but lost by yourself.
Similar to our earlier point, you may feel drained by others but lost by yourself when you’re an emotional sponge. Because according to a 2021 article for Psych Central, written by health and wellness journalist Hilary Lebow and licensed psychologist Dr. Kendra Kubala, absorbing other people’s emotions can be so psychologically draining that it leaves us with little to no mental energy left to spend on ourselves. It’s kind of like being overstimulated all the time but feeling uncomfortable when we’re not just because it’s unfamiliar to us.
4. Negative news severely affects you.
Psychiatrist and psychology writer Dr. Judith Orloff explains that, “If empaths are around peace and love, their bodies assimilate these and flourish. Negativity, though, often feels assaultive and exhausting.” This is why negative news can affect emotional sponges so much more than HSPs, even if the news doesn’t have anything to do with them. In fact, even the slightest hint of conflict, confrontation, or rejection can be enough to trigger anxiety in an emotional sponge.
5. You have unexplained symptoms.
Finally, according to psychologist Valeria Sabeter, internalizing a lot of heavy emotions like tension, worry, sadness, and frustration can sometimes lead us to having unexplained symptoms caused by severe psychological exhaustion such as fatigue, insomnia, unexplained aches and pains, headaches, an upset stomach, and trouble breathing.
“The most empathetic and hypersensitive people process stimuli in their environment more intensely. Emotional sponges intensely absorb the negativity in their environment and somatize it. Furthermore, at some point, you’re likely to end up suffering from compassion fatigue and even burnout.”
So, do you relate to any of the things we’ve mentioned here? Do you think you might actually be an emotional sponge and not an HSP? While it’s certainly admirable to want to be there for others, it’s also important that we take good care not to soak up other people’s feelings all the time and end up neglecting our own. Taking on everyone else’s emotional baggage can be terribly draining. So don’t ever feel guilty for wanting to prioritize your own mental well-being when you need it.
- Aron, E. (1996). The Highly Sensitive Person. NY Publishing.
- Sabater, V. (2021). “Are You an Emotional Sponge?” Exploring Your Mind. Retrieved from https://exploringyourmind.com/are-you-an-emotional-sponge/
- Lo, I. (2020). “Have You Been Used as an Emotional Sponge?” Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/living-emotional-intensity/202003/have-you-been-used-emotional-sponge
- Orloff, J. (2017). “Are You an Empath? How to Stop Being an Emotional Sponge.” HuffPost. Retrieved from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/are-you-an-emotional-empa_b_697483
- Lebow, H., & Kubala, K. (2021). “Are You Absorbing Other People’s Emotions?” PsychCentral. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/blog/stop-absorbing-other-peoples-emotions
- Myall, K. (2021). “5 signs you might be an emotional sponge.” Counselor Who Cares. Retrieved from https://www.counsellorwhocares.co.uk/5-signs-you-might-be-an-emotional-sponge/