Wednesday, December 06, 2006

emotional osmosis

osmosis - noun - a gradual, often unconscious process of assimilation or absorption

i am a sponge. not the kind that takes from people and never gives, but the kind that soaks things around me up without discretion... i have known this about myself for a few years now, but i've not really known what to do with or about it.

this week i saw it in my daughter so clearly that i learned something, actually a lot of things about myself.

one of those things is that i need to learn what to do about it quickly. seeing those things we hate about ourselves in our children is great motivation to begin to find tools for making better choices.

the metaphor of a sponge doesn't describe exactly what happens though. maybe a mirror is a good additional metaphor.

i thought writing about it might be a good place to start to untangle this knot, to try to explain the process so that i (and anyone else who shares this tendency) can understand it and put a stop to it.

i know i've been this way all of my life. i take on others emotions, especially negative ones without thinking. i guess it was my role as first born in the family to watch the winds and carry much of what was not mine to carry. seeing pink mirror my emotions back to me the other day showed me in technicolor the dynamic that existed decades ago with my own mother and me.

i snapped at pink because we were running late (and that is one of the 10 commandments of our family growing up - never be late, only lazy, disorganized people are late - not us... sigh) and all of my shame kicked in and i vented it at her.

immediately she went from carefree, young, willow-girl to fire-eyed, stiff backed pre-teen. i became livid. 'oh no you don't,' i thought as i stormed out of her room. 'you will not take that tone with me young lady'... upon entering the living room i realized what had transpired there. it was like i was outside of myself watching what had just happened.

she internalized all of my negative emotions and was so overwhelmed by them that they spilled back at me through her own eyes and demeanor. she wasn't feeling that way before i entered her room. i was so excessive in my own emotions that i poisoned her and she mirrored that poison back to me. i did not like this, not one little bit.

you know those places in the movie when the back story is being played out and no time is elapsing in the present - that is what happened as i stood in my living room. i remembered all of the times my own mother would overwhelm me with the depth of her emotion and i would mirror it back to her. i would get in trouble and she'd be scott free. she was not responsible for one minute for poisoning me, overwhelming me and like a sponge i soaked it all in and assumed it was me.

everyone assumed that i was the over-emotional one. the one out of control. the rebellious teenager. no one could understand why i was so angry, so upset, so confused, so very confused. i realize today that it was because they weren't my emotions in the first place.

this all took place in a split second. it was like the penny dropped and so much made sense. in my childhood, in my marriage, and in my parenting. it was why buck and i have such a calm relationship, and why pink and i were beginning to have a tumultuous one. why my mother and i struggled violently to find a bridge to each other and my sister and she were so able to have calm interactions.

i was/am an emotional sponge.

my mother was an emotional sponge.

pink is an emotional sponge.

somehow we absorb the negative emotions for our family and mirror it back to them. it is some kind of sick, twisted osmosis and bad boundaries that cause us to feel responsible, overwhelmed and so very confused when we are in the middle of the storm.

i do this with liam too.

it's why no one in our home growing up was allowed to be angry except my mother. the only way she knew to put up boundaries was by manipulating all of us into not having any negative emotions around her - instead of figuring this out for herself we all had to walk on eggshells... yuck.

bigger yuck... i think i'm doing this to my family too.

god forgive me and help me figure out a way through this. give me better tools.

i think this is a big key to understanding my overblown need for control. i feel so powerless in the face of others grand, expansive negative emotions. it's so scary to inherit some one else's pain and not understand why i am feeling so crushed myself.

i tried to explain it a bit to liam like being an empath. that diana character on star trek who could feel others emotions. she got to use it as a tool - i just get to be bashed around by it.

i'm sitting here weeping as i look back at my past and all of the counseling and depression and wondering if some of it that seemed so unexplainable was really because there was no explanation - it wasn't my emotion to begin with. had i inherited the negative emotion of a boyfriend, my mother, my husband or the other people i was co-dependent with? what if much of that had nothing to do with me at all?


where does one learn boundaries for something like this? i have never heard this talked about before. i'm sure i didn't invent it, or discover it - so why hasn't this been covered in my past 25 years of counseling? does anyone have experience with this, know what it's called or have tools or books to suggest that i could read?

is this something every woman or eldest child inherits? or is it just as sporadic as being left handed?

i'm also wondering if this is why liam doesn't seem to be able to work through the negative emotions that have him stalled? is it because i haven't allowed him to feel them because i don't want to have to share the trauma too? shit. this feels big. like a big, fat key to unlock a big, fat door. damn. i feel like i've opened pandora's box somehow. i know it's not bad, it's actually good - but the ah-ha's keep growing exponentially and i'm not sure i can get my head around it all.

any feedback here would be really appreciated. i know this is where i'll be heading in my counseling now it makes so much sense, but i have so very many questions. thanks for listening, i think i really needed to get this out.


Patchouli said...

You and Pink--me and Miriam

I've had to learn (on my own) about filters vs boundaries and to recognize the signs of absorbing stuff that isn't my own.

It's a gift--it's a paradox. When I say "I feel your pain--" I REALLY feel your pain!

You have nailed it--and taught me about myself/my kids/my heart.

Can you feel my hope? Feel free to make it your own--there's plenty to go around.

Kristin said...

Hi Bobbie,

This really does sound huge. Thank you so much for putting it into words here; it really helps me clarify things in my own mind about me, too. In my own therapy some time ago I had similar things come up. Dreams were what helped my therapist and me see some of the ways I had merged with my mom's issues, taking them on as my own. She suggested that I create some kind of ritual to signify giving those issues back to her, communicating to my mom (even if not directly) and to my psyche that I'm ready to give those issues back now, and to let each of us bear only the issues that are truly ours to bear. Your focus here is more on emotions than on actual issues, but I wonder whether a ritual of some sort might be helpful to do in relation to all these dear ones in your life--pink, buck, liam, your mom (I don't think her being alive is any prerequisite). I found this tremendously helpful. Returning in my memory to my ritual whenever I needed a reminder to re-release stuff was a nice tangible help, too.

Much clarity and insight to you as you process all this stuff. It really does sound terribly significant.

Trudging said...

I know what you are talking about. Its hard. Hang in there.

bobbie said...

ooooh - hope, encouragement and ritual - yay! thank you all, it does help.

much love!

Anonymous said...

hi bobbie, my husband found your blog and suggested i read it. now you're going into my 'favorites' list! i struggle with mom issues, even at the old age of 57. but several years of counseling and believing what God says about me has helped a lot.

will be very interested to keep up with your journey.


Erin said...

This thought just occurred to me, and perhaps it is really off-base, but...

...a sponge can only absorb more when it is not already full.

I'm wondering if in practicing being fully present, one can be more "full", not have the same capacity to absorb from other sources?

bobbie said...

brilliant erin - i've unpacked this a bit in my recent post. love you!

Sarah Louise said...

Oh, completely familiar with this phenom.

My metaphor is not the sponge but the bucket. I am trying to let only Christ fill it instead of filling it with self or letting other folks fill it.

Keep working on this--writing is healing!