I have banished sponges from my kitchen.
You may think this has nothing to do with the workplace, but stay with me for a moment.
According to WebMD, sponges are the No. 1 source of germs in the whole house because "moist, micro-crevices that make a sponge such an effective cleaning device also make it a cozy home for germs and more difficult to disinfect. Wiping your counters or dishes with a dirty sponge will only transfer the bacteria from one item to another."
Bleh. Now you know why I don't use sponges in my kitchen.
As for the workplace connection? Toxic sponges also hang out there. Not in the break room kitchen, but possibly at your desk.
I've been writing about being a toxic sponge for a long time. I first heard the term decades ago, and have found that toxic sponges still thrive.
What is a toxic sponge? A toxic sponge is someone who absorbs the negativity in the workplace. He or she listens to the woes and whinings of of co-workers and the complaints of the boss. This person is often seen as calm and capable, someone who is a good listener and seems to make others feel better after having a conversation.
But the problem with being a toxic sponge is that, well, you're absorbing a lot of crap. It's a lot of negative energy that can be transferred into other parts of your life. Before long, you may find yourself unable to sleep, anxious, depressed or even contemplating finding another job.
You may not at first recognize that you're a toxic sponge, but others do. They know you're the one they run to when they want to flush their system and dump their bad mood on someone else.
It's OK that you want to help others, that you want to solve problems for your colleagues or your boss. Just keep in mind that there needs to be limits on what you can take on or all that toxicity will make your life unhealthy.
Here are some things to think about:
- Know when to step aside. Don’t try to be an armchair psychiatrist. Learn to back off from the person who needs professional assistance. As long as you continue to absorb the problem, things won’t get better.
- Set limits. When you’re a toxic sponge, others may not recognize that you’re overloaded because you seem to so calmly accept whatever they say and want to help. But you’ve got to learn to set your own parameters of how and when you will deal with such issues. Find ways to firmly end a conversation with a constant whiner by saying, “I’m expecting a call any minute and I’ve got to prepare for it,” or “I’ve got to be somewhere in a few minutes, so I’m going to have to cut this short.”
- Turn the problem around. If someone comes to you to complain about a process, for example, try to make them be more proactive instead of letting them just harp about problems. “Let’s talk about ways you can make the process more efficient” or “What specifically makes you think it won’t work?” are ways to get the person focused on finding solutions instead of just dumping problems on you to solve. Or, if someone comes to you and starts a tale of woe about how her best friend just got fired, say something like, “That’s tough. I’m sorry. Thankfully, we still have jobs.”
- Give yourself recovery time. If you find yourself being dumped on, end it as soon as possible and then find ways to wring out your toxic sponge. Talk to an upbeat family member or friend, go for a walk, play with your dog or treat yourself to a massage.
Finally, don’t make excuses for the people who continually dump their problems on you. While we can all provide a sympathetic ear now and again, that doesn’t mean others should take advantage of you and expect you to drop everything to listen to them and even solve their problems. That’s a form of manipulation that does them – and you – no good.