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Are You Too Porous?

While listening to a friend and retired psychologist, share her experiences about a trip to India many decades before, she mentioned how disturbed she was to see dead babies floating in the Ganges River. This led to discussing how some people are what she calls more “porous” than others. I find myself returning to this concept often in my practice, especially working with dysregulated eaters who generally are highly porous.

Porosity, also called permeability, like most things, exists on a continuum. There are people who nothing seems to affect as if they have an emotional wall around them that prevents them from taking in the pain or suffering of others. No matter what’s happening to people, they appear to remain untouched by it. At the other end of the spectrum are people who are extremely sensitive to the feelings of others. They intensely experience the suffering of people, friends or strangers. If someone else is hurting, they are too.

For a therapist, being on the relatively high-porosity end of the continuum is a must. How can we empathize and do our jobs if we can’t feel or approximate the suffering of others? How can we “be with” clients, as we’re taught to do if we can’t take in “where” they are? Of course, too much porosity and we end up over-identifying with clients, which undermines our neutrality and objectivity. But too little porosity affords us no way to know what they’re feeling which is the bridge between client and clinician.

Dysregulated eaters, as a whole, tend to be highly porous to their own detriment. When, say, an abusive spouse expresses remorse, they feel terrible for the pain he or she is going through and lose the ability to set limits. The abuser’s pain looms larger than their own. When someone mistreats others and ends up alone, highly porous people feel the person’s loneliness or abandonment so strongly that they end up visiting or calling more often then get mistreated by them. Porous people get sucked into caring for perpetual victims rather than view them as using their suffering to manipulate others.

We want to have compassion for suffering. If your daughter doesn’t get picked for the school softball team, you hurt for her. But you don’t want to be so porous that you can’t stand feeling her pain and march into the school principal’s office insisting that she be put on the team. You don’t want to overidentify with the suffering of a boss who’s going through a rough divorce and humiliates and shames you until you finally up and quit your job— then return because he’s overwhelmed and swearing he’ll treat you better. It’s okay to turn off a gruesome scene on TV or cover your ears to screams in a movie (both of which I do), but it’s important to realize that these are actors, not people in real pain.

Consider your porosity. Is it a help or hindrance? If it’s the latter, how does it affect your eating and what can you do to improve your ability to fend over-identification?



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