What to do when other people’s emotions affect you
How other people’s emotions affect us
I first heard of the concept of emotional contagions in Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents by Lindsay C. Gibson. As you might have guessed, this phenomenon speaks to the contagious quality of emotions, which isn’t necessarily a novel concept. Unless you lack empathy, you’ll likely feel at least a pang of sadness if you see a loved one crying or crack a smile if they break down in uncontrollable laughter.
Humans are social creatures, and the ability to affect others with our own affect promotes bonding — once upon a time, this bonding meant the difference between life and death. But because the struggles of modern life tend to be vastly different than those of our neolithic predecessors, our responses to other people’s emotion aren’t always adaptive.
I’m sure you’ve had experiences where your day was ruined because some angry, asshole driver cut you off or a miserable boss berated you in front of your coworkers. It’s hard not to let these kinds of things affect you.
Why other people’s emotions affect us
In a recent article, I explored the idea that children of emotionally immature parents learn to become in-tune with their parents’ needs as a way to maintain their parent-child bond and better anticipate their parents’ behaviour.
Just as our hunter-gatherer ancestors learned to live in a state of hyperawareness in order to survive, these children become hyperaware of the emotional states of others. Impressive as it may be for a child to learn how to pick up on nonverbal cues like facial expressions and body language, this degree of hypersensitivity can lead to issues down the road.
The mechanism that once kept these children safe in childhood can lead to behaviours like people pleasing or issues like depression and anxiety in adulthood.
Growing up, I often felt like I had to walk on eggshells around my parents. My mom’s mood, for example, could switch in the blink of an eye, so I was always on the lookout for signs that she was becoming more tense. I didn’t necessarily realize I was doing this as a kid, but looking back now, I realize that it helped me avoid becoming the object of one complaint or another. It kept me safe.
My tendency to do this has even affected my relationship with my partner. Because she struggles with depression and anxiety, I would often check my language or behaviour to ensure I wasn’t upsetting her more. If I was having a good day or felt genuinely excited about something, I would suppress my urge to express joy out of fear that it would seem like I was rubbing it in. It was also easy for me to fall into my own depressive state—the negativity would find a way to seep in.
Behaving on your own terms
There are certainly environments and situations where it might not always be appropriate to act on an emotion. If you receive an email from your boss telling you that you’ve been promoted, you probably shouldn’t do your happy dance in the middle of grandpa’s funeral. Read the room, for Christ’s sake. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t feel happy or think happy thoughts—after all, you don’t control your thoughts and emotions.
What you can control, however, is your behaviour. Granted, that’s much easier said than done, especially when you’re faced with that asshole driver or a barista that’s a little bit too chipper on the Monday morning after you had to put your dog down. That being said, there are techniques and strategies you can use to avoid catching a negative emotional contagion.
Cut off toxic people
When it comes to building and maintaining a friendship or relationship, it’s nice to have similar interests, but the connection that comes from reciprocal emotional safety and openness is where it’s at. If you’re the only one spilling your guts to a friend, if they only talk about themselves, if they thrive on drama and gossip, or if they have a pattern of hurting you, consider if they’re worth keeping around. These people have a tendency to take more from you than they give—you’ll often end up feeling drained, exploited, unfulfilled, neglected, or heartbroken.
Ditch the healing fantasy
In Children of Emotionally Immature Parents, Gibson explores how adult children of emotionally immature parents often have difficulty setting boundaries with or completely cutting off their parents; this is largely because these children maintain hope that their parents will one day change. If you’re used to putting the needs of others ahead of your own, you might find yourself falling into this trap. Despite our best efforts, we can’t always change people, nor should we try. It’s also important to recognize the difference between supporting our loved ones and trying to fix them. As the age-old saying goes, you can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped.
Being unaware of your emotions can make you behave in unexpected or harmful ways. The simple act of identifying and naming emotions can take the edge off of an emotion that might have otherwise overwhelmed you. Thinking about your emotions in this way also serves to create space between you and your emotions — space that gives you the opportunity to reflect on how you’d like to react. This is particularly useful in situations where you might be interacting with a rude or aggressive person. Being mindful doesn’t mean ignoring or dismissing your anger — instead, it’s about being aware of it so you it doesn’t sneak up on you and control you.
Put the conversation on hold
Few of us are beacons of stoicism or serenity. There will be times when your emotions get the best of you, sometimes during an interaction with another individual. When this happens, practicing mindfulness becomes nearly impossible because you might become too angry, too sad, too hurt, too afraid, too disgusted, or too excited to have a constructive conversation. Removing yourself from that environment can help you calm down and give you a chance to collect your thoughts so you can revisit the conversation later. To do this, gently and respectfully excuse yourself from the conversation (take a breath or two if you need to), communicating that you’d like to finish it at a later time.
You should never assume that people know what you’re thinking, what you need, or what you want. You also can’t assume that people know when they’ve hurt you or crossed a line. Sure, your body language or facial expressions might indicate so, but neurodiversity, cultural differences, and people’s own emotions can alter perceptions. Unless you communicate things clearly, there will always be room for misinterpretation. People aren’t mind readers.
Let it go
You’re ultimately accountable for your own behaviours and reactions — even when provoked by others. However, you aren’t responsible for the behaviours and reactions of other people. The thought of being direct or assertive with others can be an anxiety-inducing thought. What better way to avoid conflict than by keeping your emotions and thoughts to yourself, right? But it can be helpful to remember that the way someone chooses to respond to you is on them. If you’ve expressed yourself clearly and respectfully and they still choose to respond in a rude or snarky way, that says something about their character, not yours.
Building (selective) immunity against emotional contagions
These strategies aren’t new or groundbreaking. For many of you, they might even seem like common sense, but it took me years to identify patterns in myself and unlearn certain behaviours. As a kid and teenager, I would do anything I could to avoid conflict—often resorting to lying, suppressing my feelings, avoiding people, or telling people what they wanted to hear. These behaviours sometimes helped me maintain copacetic relationships with my family and friends, but it was always at the expense of my own wants and needs.
Being an expecting father, I want to be able to erupt in laughter when my kid does something silly, but I also want to be able to pause and take a step back when he inevitably get under my skin. I want to teach my child that it’s healthy to express his wants and needs without worrying about how I might react—and I want him to learn that it’s okay to have thoughts and feelings.
When we take responsibility for our own behaviour and accept the things we can’t control (like the behaviour of others), we’ll build much healthier, fulfilling, and mature relationships.