Projective Identification — Have You Been Used as an Emotional Sponge?
Were You a Highly Sensitive and Empathic Child?
Some children are born with a neurological make up that can make them more emotionally or intellectually intense, sensitive, and more open to external stimuli than the general population.
As a highly sensitive person, you are empathic and perceptive. When you enter a room, nothing escapes your radar, i.e., the subtle odor, the fine details of the furniture. More importantly, you pick up on the emotional nuances and interpersonal signals people send but are not verbalizing. When the energy in the room is tense, you feel it in your body. When someone is upset, you notice it. With your exceptional intuition, your ability can sometimes come across as psychic. As a child, however, you did not have the language to express what you felt, nor did you have the emotional regulation skills. You ended up getting overwhelmed by the constant waves of social nuances and others’ psychic energies.
Your hyper-empathic tendencies make you more vulnerable to toxic family dynamics. Since you think more and feel more, you are more easily affected by your surroundings and those around you. Any passive aggression, hidden lies and hypocrisies are picked up by you, though it usually does not happen on a conscious level. Before you know it, you might have become the family’s emotional caretaker, or worse, the emotional sponge, scapegoat or punching bag.
Childhood wounding does not always take physical forms. As a society, we must begin to recognize the toxic and insidious nature of chronic complex trauma. Dynamics such as scapegoating, gaslighting, chronic neglect and indirect violence leave deep wounds in our collective psyche, yet historically they have been mainly ignored due to their invisible nature.
Emotionally gifted children are more likely to fall into the role of emotional caretakers, they have to grow up too early, too soon, forgoing their innocent childhood to make up for their parents’ limitations and dysfunctions. Their emotional trauma may not be a result of conscious or malicious acts but remain unnoticed for years.
The Empathic Child as the Emotional Caretaker
It is natural for human beings to be influenced by and influence one another’s emotional experience; when we see someone is down, we want to provide comfort and support (Niven, Totterdell, & Holman, 2009; Rime, 2009). We regulate one another’s emotions in most interactions, and it happens more so with those who are intimate to us. Mothers, for example, naturally do this with their babies by mirroring their expressions, joining them in their laughter and helping them calm down when they are distressed (Bowlby, 2008; Field, 1994).
When we attempt to help another person regulate their emotions — either by cheering them up or calming them down, we are engaged in what psychologists call “extrinsic interpersonal emotional regulation” (Nozaki & Mikolajczak, 2020)
When you are highly empathic, you sense and feel emotional nuance more than others, and often you are compelled to make things better even when you are not consciously aware of it. You might have inadvertently and unconsciously, been sensing, monitoring, and balancing the emotional dynamics at home.