I soak up feelings like a sponge. Sometime around college I decided that this formidable empathy is more blessing than curse, but it’s an exhausting superpower to have either way. Over the years I’ve gotten better at deflecting the smaller, unhelpful feelings—like not taking everything so personally—but some things are too massive and messy to avoid. The greater the heartbreak and melancholy, the more I absorb, the more I sink.
Like a war in Ukraine, perhaps.
CHAPTER 1: THE FIRST HALF OF MARCH
I sank a lot in March. Because as a Feelings Sponge, it didn’t (and doesn’t) matter that the war is happening over there (not here) to them (not me) because it didn’t (and doesn’t) feel like that at all. I had the means to donate funds, so I did, but I couldn’t reconcile how easy it was. I clicked a few buttons and that was it. Regardless of how I feel, the reality is I am not a refugee or a soldier. Here I am Seattle: wondering when I’ll go skiing next, making little cups of tea, and running the dishwasher. The world seemed so wicked, unfair, and for several days I didn’t see how it was anything beyond that.
I call this fun phase: despair without borders.
Despair without borders is what happens when empathy becomes more than internalizing and more than inhabiting. Whatever sorrows I’ve soaked up multiply into something cancerous. My shoulders get TENSE. Then the sorrow spreads and settles into my heart, brain, bones, all of it.
The nice thing about a sponge is you can wring it out. It’s a pretty straightforward solution and yet I’m 34 years in and I forget all the time. It’s as if there’s a despair-o-meter built into my brain and when the gauge gets too high it triggers a grief induced amnesia and paralysis. Not only do I forget to release the tension, but I also start misplacing important resources like inner peace, grace, and hope. Without them paralysis sets in. Everything gets heavy. I sag, literally and metaphorically, too tender and hopeless to do much of anything. Which isn’t helpful for anyone—not me, not the local food bank, the refugees, or the melting icebergs.
And if despair without borders isn’t enough for one soul to bear, when I’m depressed I tend to beat myself up for being depressed in the first place, and this month was no different. I became convinced that despite the headlines, everyone else was thriving—being productive and staying the course—and seemingly not falling apart like me. No one else is turning into a teary pile of goo. What is wrong with me? Why am I so sensitive?
Furthermore, HOW is everyone else thriving and seemingly not falling apart like me? I was so fixated on it that I actually asked. The majority of responses I got were rooted in apathy, which didn’t sit well with me. Compassion isn’t a switch I can turn off at will. That’s my whole Feelings Sponge ‘problem’. So back to square one; amnesia and paralysis. And still I powered through because I didn’t want to lose the momentum I had worked so hard to cultivate in February.
The thing is: as a Feelings Sponge it’s pretty impossible to muscle through when you’re carrying 800lbs. of despair. As you can imagine, I didn’t make it very far.
CHAPTER 2: THE SECOND HALF OF MARCH
The path of life is loopy, twisty, and wild. It’s certainly not linear, I know this, and yet I behave a bit like Chidi from the TV show The Good Place. In other words, part of me believes that with the right combination of tools—i.e. books, habits, podcasts, philosophies—we can maintain the mess. Control it, tame it, keep it tidy. When in fact, life is inherently messy. We can cope by trying to clean it up the best we can with the tools we’ve got. Ideally we move forward from there. But again, I’m like Chidi; determined to find ‘thee’ formula, ‘thee’ blueprint, ‘thee’ strategy that will uncover all the answers. Instead of trusting the process, I tell myself to keep scrubbing, digging, searching, learning. …occasionally to my own detriment, aka totally burnt out.
Towards the third week of March it occured to me that these Chidi-like tendencies were getting me nowhere. My problem wasn’t that I am a sensitive Feelings Sponge, it’s that I raged against that part of me (and again, it’s a big part) when it began to threaten my ‘productivity’.
I was so preoccupied with powering through at all costs that I hadn’t stopped to ask what I had to gain from doing so in the first place. When I finally came up for air I couldn’t believe how off balance I had become. Because there’s a time for Big Growth—for bullet journaling, for micro habits, and overnight oats—but there’s also a time for sleeping in on a weekday, and ordering takeout, and buying the lettuce that comes in a plastic clamshell container. Not because I don’t care about our planet, or I’m apathetic, or lazy, or unmotivated, but because it’s grace. Flexible and generous grace.
So I stopped trying to force a muzzle on my feelings and decided to hear them out instead. I instantly understood that they were thrashing around for good reason: people are hurting. REALLY HURTING. War is a valid time to come apart at the seams. To be disheartened, exhausted, terrified, and heartbroken. To scream, shake, weep, collapse.
I give myself gobs of grace when it comes to feeling a certain way, but I have less practice in giving myself grace for being a certain way. I am a Feelings Sponge, and that’s okay. The second I owned that, a lightbulb went off. This whole time I thought that being a Feelings Sponge was my superpower, but I might be wrong. Maybe there’s nothing particularly unique about being a Feelings Sponge. Maybe everyone is. So if being a sponge isn’t it, then perhaps my superpower is what I’ve been raging against this entire time—my stubborn refusal to never ever ever let mine dry up.
(…and that’s okay.)
CHAPTER 3 (OF 4, HANG IN THERE!)
A few weeks ago I was journaling these exact thoughts that I’m sharing now. I wrote: I’m utterly exhausted. I don’t want a soul made of teflon or a heart of coal. I don’t want to make a habit of being jaded, or apathetic in exchange for ‘snapping out of it’ so I can get back to work and carry on. But when I give my feelings total freedom, they drown me. Amnesia and paralysis set in. Peace eludes me.
Then, the clouds cleared. A sunbeam shone down on me like a spotlight and grew until it illuminated everything. Or at least that’s what it felt like.
Aha. Total freedom. That’s my problem. Why am I giving these wild and feisty feelings total freedom? For God’s sake give them a little supervision ya dumb dumb. Then an image came to mind: what if I put them on a leash? Take my feelings for a walk, so to speak. Take them to the ‘dog’ park—let them roam, bark, get muddy, and sniff some butts. Let them burn off some energy. Follow them around for an afternoon and see where they take me.
And that’s exactly what I did. I took a few days off and promised not to put any pressure on myself to do anything. I didn’t let my feelings call the shots, per se, but I gave them that illusion. I listened attentively to their suggestions, and spent quality time with them. Surprisingly, they didn’t ask for anything particularly lavish, or radical.
My neglected Inner Chef took Depression to the grocery store and splurged on a bunch of fresh deli salads, and high quality pre-made meals. No one had to cook but we still got to enjoy the colorful and flavorful things we like. We—my feelings and I—Facetimed with friends. We took long baths. We read books. We listened to Rage against the Machine and raged accordingly. We painted for fun. We napped. We flossed our teeth. We went for short walks. We exclusively wore sweatpants and comfy clothes.
We did what we felt like. Period. We didn’t do what we felt like we had to do, or what anyone expected us to do. We listened to each other and no one else. I gave my feelings space, a sense of purpose, and a voice. I let them wear themselves out and that was all they needed.
To my surprise, that’s when the peace showed up.
Peace was the final squeeze in wringing out the excess heaviness. It’s what gets us through the despair, and over to the other side of it where things are lighter. I spent so much time and energy trying to “Chidi” my way there. I wanted a clear cut step-by-step instruction manual, and in a way I got it, but I thought (hoped?) it would be something the size of a phone book. Something I could sink my teeth into. Instead the instructions I got were ridiculously ambiguous and succinct (but kinder, and more gentle):
Do nothing. Just be.
CHAPTER 4: THE END
Growing up I never understood why the airlines instructed you to put your own oxygen mask on first. My 12 year old brain thought it seemed awfully selfish and wrong. But as an adult, it makes sense. The blind can’t lead the blind. The exhausted and depressed aren’t much help to the exhausted and depressed. On the other hand, the self-care wellness stuff is no good if all I do is hoard the benefits. We get our mask on first, then we help other people with theirs.
2 days off is all it took to get my mask on, so to speak. Since then I’ve been able to read the news without falling into despair, which is a big win. I’m not immune from the heartache and shock, but grace and peace re-interpret the headlines and do the thing where they flip the heartache on its ear. “This is awful…how can I help?”
That’s the cool thing about being a sponge, or more specifically: a healthy, well balanced sponge. Something redemptive happens when grace and peace intercede with heartbreak and anger. Not only do they wring out the excess heaviness, but they know exactly how to take that excess and distill it into fuel.
And that fuel is everything. It motivates us to dig in and get our hands dirty. It generates action, and usefulness. It convicts, equips, and empowers us to right wrongs, and fight injustices. To be “the helpers.” We can’t do any of that if we’re stuck in despair without borders. But we can’t do that if we’re apathetic, or jaded either.
I’ve learned these exact lessons 4 billion times. I know the in’s and out’s of them, intellectually and emotionally. So well in fact, that Clay and I once flew all the way to Portugal to “take our feelings for a walk” for a full month. After all that, it’s a bit infuriating to have to re-experience the same “aha’s” over and over again, but I think this is one of those Classic Katie patterns/loops that I’ll never graduate out of, at least not fully.
I can only hope to get a tiny bit better with each cycle. And keep dropping myself a trail of breadcrumbs in hopes that I can save myself some grief the next time around.
Absorb. Wring out. Distill.
Grace and peace.
What the path of life is like in my head :)
(Thought it’d be fun to illustrate the Feelings Sponge concept. Here’s what I’ve got so far!)