Sponge People
Photo: Holly Lindem
Virginia is a medical researcher who came to see me in a last-ditch attempt to deal with overwhelming negative emotions that tended to beset her at work. She liked her job, but when she interacted with certain colleagues, she was flooded with anxiety, sadness, indignation and other inexplicable feelings. Virginia was sure those reactions came from her own neuroses, but therapy hadn't fixed the problem. After talking to her for half an hour, I thought I knew why.

"I don't think you're neurotic," I told her. "I think you're spongy." I explained that some people put out a lot of emotional energy—her noxious coworkers, for example—and others pick up a lot of it, like Virginia.

She stared at me as though she'd just noticed crunchy granola spilling from my ears. In her orthodox science worldview, my Theory of Emotional Sponginess was definitely not kosher. But I've seen so many people struggling with the effects of this mysterious phenomenon that I now take it for granted. Not everyone is spongy like Virginia, but those who are can learn to protect themselves from inadvertently taking in other people's stress.

Ever since Emile Durkheim's landmark work Suicide appeared in 1897, sociologists have accepted the possibility that self-slaughter can be communicable. So can panic, laughter, hope, violence, financial strategies, and the urge to solve Rubik's Cubes. Behaviors, moods, and fads seem to infect people just like germs, spreading through populations in epidemic waves.

A few researchers have tried to pinpoint the mechanism of contagious psychological phenomena. For example, biologist Rupert Sheldrake, PhD, studies the experience of "telephone telepathy"—knowing who's calling on the phone before you answer it. When subjects were asked to guess which friend or relative was calling them, they were far more accurate than would be expected by chance. When the callers were strangers, though, their guesses were statistically random. Sheldrake concluded that we can sense when people we care about are thinking about us, even at great distances.

We all know this is irrational. How embarrassing, then, that so many of us have had the experience of knowing who's calling the second the phone rings, or even a few seconds before. How unbelievable that my son, who has Down syndrome, regularly talks to me about things I'm thinking, even when I haven't said a word out loud. How ridiculous that so many of my clients, like Virginia, walk away from interpersonal interactions flooded with whatever emotions happen to ride in on the coattails of their associates.
"Humor me," I tell Virginia. "Let's try something. Hold out your arm, parallel to the floor. I'm going to push down on your hand. You resist me. Keep your arm stuck out straight."

Virginia plays along, and I give several experimental pushes. Sometimes as I push, I think, You're a terrible person! Sometimes I think, You're fabulous! I try to keep the pressure consistent and my face expressionless. Just as I expect, Virginia's arm feels much stronger when I'm thinking positive thoughts about her. When my thoughts are negative, she's as weak as a kitten.

Virginia doesn't like this. She frowns and demands many repeats, just as I did when I learned this homespun experiment from two social-scientist friends. I was stunned at how noodle-like my arm became when my friends thought negative things about me. Since then I've repeated this process with dozens of clients. When speaking to groups, I often choose two volunteers (one pusher, one pushee), who test their strength as everyone else in the room thinks critical or supportive thoughts about the person being pushed. I give the crowd random hand signals—thumbs up for nice vibes, thumbs down for mean ones—that can't be seen by the volunteers. The group's thoughts should not affect the subject's strength. But they almost always do.

Grab some friends and try this experiment yourself. If your group is anything like the ones I've worked with, you or your compadres will find your arm strength varying in response to one another's thoughts. Perhaps one of you will insist that this shift happens because you were communicating subtle cues through facial expression, body language, or some other physical action. Could be true, but whatever the mechanism—telephone telepathy or imperceptible physical signs—the fact is that many people are sitting ducks for social contagion.

If this experiment doesn't affect you—if your arm strength doesn't vary depending on what other people are thinking—feel free to become a repossession officer or divorce lawyer. What the heck, run for president. You'll continually interact with people who dislike you, but it won't bother you a bit.

Shielding yourself from a coworker's or family member's stress or high-pitch negativity requires constructing a suit of psychological armor. Most of my clients, Virginia included, can do this simply by visualizing a situation in which they feel deeply calm. Picturing the best day you spent with your funniest friend or remembering a day at the beach with your dog might be enough protection for you.

Extremely spongy people may have to try a number of visualizations before finding the right defense. Check for effectiveness with the arm test: Ask your friends to come back over; keep holding different positive images in your mind's eye until you find that your arm is able to retain its muscle strength no matter what ugly thoughts others are sending your way. The delightful thing about this kind of safeguard is that it allows nourishing energy to reach you but deflects the stuff that's poisonous.
I wrote a checklist on the back of a business card so that Virginia could read over it in emergency situations and learn to "armor up."

A is for Acknowledge
Spongy people who start to feel uneasy in company will often dismiss or tamp down their feelings, but a better idea is to let those emotions loose. Like a spiking fever in an ill patient, the wave of emotion is the beginning of the healing process.

R is for Recognize
What, exactly, does the emotion feel like? You may realize that the feeling fits the person next to you better than it does you (you're angry when they've been wronged, anxious when they're stressed out). The mismatch is evidence that a feeling is contagion based.

M is for Monitor
Sometimes the difference between your feelings and the other's is hard to describe—a bit like the difference between nutmeg and cinnamon—but you might be able to discern which is which if you track what happens in your psyche before, during, and especially after you've been around specific people. You'll begin to notice patterns—that you're always angry after dinner with one friend or nervous after a day with your high-strung aunt.

O is for Observe
The most powerful tool for emotional detachment is observation. As a highly contagious person gets closer to you, watch the interaction and resulting emotions as if you were a third party—something like "Huh, there's that surge of envy I always get around jealous Marcella." Active observation can help the spongiest person detach.

R is for Relax
If simply noticing the extra sensations rattling around your consciousness isn't enough of a remedy, take a deep breath and exhale completely while relaxing all your muscles. Negative energy will lessen.

Space is for Space
The gap between the words armor and up is a reminder to get real physical distance from emotionally contagious people. Walk into the next room. Take a potty break. If only for a minute, find a little private turf to continue watching your mind, breathing deeply, and relaxing physically.

U is for Understand
Few contagious people are deliberately trying to upset others; most are unaware that their anger or frustration or post-work venting can affect more yielding friends and family. Understanding that this is simply the way they're built frees you to tap into your compassion for them. If a stressed-out person wants to inflict her anxiety on you—and she's successful at it—simply realizing that you have methods to block social contagion can help you feel far less susceptible to it.

P is for Protect
The last step in the "armor up" process is to return to the mental image (or images) that connects you to the peaceful balance of your core self. Maintain your psychological shield by spending a few minutes a day visualizing this image, say, while you're driving or washing dishes. The idea is to make the image easily accessible, a way of keeping your armor at the ready.

If you're a bit spongy, vulnerable to the unsettling energy of others, count yourself lucky. You've been given an incentive to armor up, to consciously screen out the ubiquitous stresses that afflict humanity. Create your shining suit, keep your checklist on hand, and head out into battle, knowing that the power to keep yourself safe from social contagion is one thing you'll always find within.

More Martha Beck Advice On Coping With Stress


Next Story