Because the Holidays Are Risky for a “Mood Sponge”

2011 Christmas Tree in a BoxWhat do I mean by a mood sponge? I doubt you’ll find the term in any psychology textbook per se, though you may recognize it for reasons of your own. It’s a description I base on personal observations and life experience.

Mood sponges are people who tend to take their emotional cues from others, whether as a defensive tactic or a learned behavior. They measure their responses and reactions by those around them and sadly, absorb way more than their share of the negative.

I think there are reasons someone becomes a mood sponge and it’s not because they are lazy or uninspired.  Maybe they’re trying to keep the peace. Or protect themselves. Or just make their lives work.

Here are some examples (names changed):

A family member comes into the kitchen disheveled and grumpy, roughly opening drawers and slamming them closed. Matt, contentedly sipping coffee and checking email at the kitchen table, is instantly on-guard and a little worried that he might be in trouble. He goes through a mental checklist of what he might have done wrong.

Jill’s mom was emotionally unpredictable. Even as a young child, when Jill heard an outburst in the other room, she froze until she could figure out whether what she heard was laughter or hysterical crying. If it was laughter, Jill was euphoric. Crying? She would feel a creeping dread. To this day, Jill’s first response is to tense up when she hears any kind of emotional expression she can’t immediately identify.

Cindy walks on eggshells every day, carefully scrutinizing facial expressions and tone of voice to decide how to respond to even innocuous topics so as not to set Steven off. Cindy rarely expresses herself to Steven and at some point in the relationship, she begins to wonder if she even has feelings or opinions of her own anymore.

You could probably add some examples of your own to this list.

Now introduce a holiday that is loaded with memories (not all good), traditions (not all shared), and expectations (not all realistic). Add a few challenging personalities, throw in an “adult beverage” or two, and mood sponges – like Jill, Matt, and Cindy – are spent before the so-called celebration even begins.

Why do I bring this up? Well, I find I can be one of those mood sponges, at least to some extent.  I watch the people close to me and try to gauge my interactions with them so everyone is happy. If they’re not, I immediately worry that it’s somehow my fault.

I’m sure years of therapy and soul-searching would help me get to the bottom of this tendency but someone once snapped me out of it rather quickly by saying, “It’s not a Diane-centric universe, you know. Everything is not always about you.” Kind of mean, but I got the point.

Holidays are powder kegs in so many ways and for the mood sponge, everyone around them is potentially a lit match. What can we do about it?

  • Think about the family members and close friends you’ll be interacting with in the next few days. Are any of them “mood sponges”? Knowing that there are sensitive souls out there who trend this way, be extra mindful of how you’re coming across; you don’t know what they may be going through. It’s true, their mental health is not your responsibility, but kindness and an extra dose of patience wouldn’t be too much to muster, would it? (Suggestion: Don’t try that snapping thing above; it might backfire.)
  • If you’re a mood sponge like me, for whatever reason, consciously remind yourself that you’re not the focus or the reason for every negative thing that happens and it’s not up to you to manage other people’s emotions and reactions. Don’t mirror the crankiness or anger around you and try not to take any of it personally. If you have to, leave the room for awhile to get your bearings.
  • If you live with verbal abuse, you are already in a particularly volatile place. Don’t try to reason with the abuser. That’s one argument you’ll never win because it isn’t rational. But know that you are not at fault here and the insults are not true of you. You are loved and valued by Christ Himself. He would have died for you if you were the only person on the face of the planet. And consider talking to a wise friend, pastor or other professional about your particular situation.

How will you handle the challenging personalities in your immediate circle this holiday season? Any counselors out there who could offer additional insight? Please share in the comments.

About Diane Rivers

Diane is a native Floridian whose career as an FBI Agent got her transferred to the North. She's retired from that gig now and "repurposed" as a freelance writer, author, and sometimes poet who blogs about the bumpy, bone-jostling ride of her “workaround” life. She loves Jesus, her family, black coffee, kayaking, biking, and hiking, and she looks forward to eternity with the One who will make all things beautiful. (Ecclesiastes 3:11).

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