As I discussed in my previous post, Emotions Are Contagious: Choose Your Company Wisely, humans are highly susceptible to "catching" the emotions of others. In some cases, this is good; in some cases, this is bad. Fortunately, with a little knowledge and insight, you can improve your chances of catching a good case of emotions while at the same time innoculate yourself from catching a bad case.
The first step is to pay closer attention to your feelings in different settings and when you're with different individuals and groups. Identify the people or groups of people who regularly bring you down, drain you, or make you feel angry, frustrated, or stressed. The best way to do this is to tune in to changes in your mood. I'm not talking about occasional bad moods or bad moods brought on by unfortunate circumstances from time to time. We all have those; no one necessarily is the culprit in those circumstances. What I am talking about is tuning in to consistent mood change patterns. This is key to helping you identify hot spots of contagion.
For example, if you find that you get to work in a good mood, but that mood quickly dissolves into sadness, frustration, or anger, that's a pretty good clue that someone or a group of people in your work environment may be contagious. Similarly, if you find yourself tensing up every time Aunt Sara visits, that's a clue as well. However, this awareness is only the beginning of a solution because these scenarios and many others are examples of circumstances that you can't easily remove from your life. You have to learn how to either work around them or change them.
Here are some suggestions:
1) Distance yourself when possible from those who infect you with their negativity. If you can't completely remove yourself from the situation, make sure that you take "happy breaks" where you do something that makes you happy, or spend time with positive people who make you feel up instead of down.
2) Try to reverse the negative emotional spiral being created by the negative person or group. Smile often. Be happy and positive even when others around you are complaining or sad or angry. Over time, your tenacity may lead to a reverse infection of positivity, causing the pattern to break. Negative emotions are not the only ones that are contagious. Positive ones are, too. It may take time to turn things around, but it's time well spent because even if you're not successful, you will directly benefit from not allowing the negativity to drag you down.
3) Speak to the person or people who are causing you to feel down or stressed or angry. Sometimes by simply pointing out to negative people what they're doing or how they're making you feel can motivate them to change. However, when you do this, try to avoid blame ("You're such a Debbie Downer;" "You make me so angry;" "You constantly complain"). Instead, use your feelings and "I" statements to make your points ("When I'm around you, I find myself feeling really tense, and I sometimes wonder if it's not because maybe you're feeling a lot of stress and I'm picking up on that stress").
4) Try to infuse as many positive comments into conversations and meetings as possible. I lead a group that meets monthly. Often, because of the nature of our work, our group members hear more complaints and criticisms than compliments, so I make a habit of starting every meeting with "kudos." We all go around the table and share positive comments we have heard about the group, or compliments we've received about our work or the group's work, or successes we've had achieving group goals. In order to grow and improve, we have to address the negatives we hear, but I find that by starting off every meeting with positives, we're in a much better state of mind when we get to the negatives and don't take them as personally as we might if we had started off with them.
5) Take care of yourself. Much like a common cold or any other illness, if you're tired, weak, or hungry, you'll be even more vulnerable to catching someone's negative emotions. Make sure you get enough sleep. Eat well, exercise, and make sure you get some sunshine. Exercise and sunshine stimulate the release of endorphins, our body's own natural mood elevator.
At the end of the day, you can't control how someone else feels or reacts to situations, but you have complete control over how you respond to their emotions. Although we may be innately predisposed to automatic mimicry of emotions and affective behaviors (i.e., facial expressions, body posture, voice tone, rate of speech) in others, by being aware of this tendency, we can train ourselves to override the negative emotions that often follow when we interact with negative, unhappy people. (If you'd like to see how susceptible you are to catching a bad (or a good) case of emotions, check out my post, The Emotional Contagion Scale, which contains a 15-item questionnaire to help you gauge how vulnerable you are to EC.)
In the words of Nietzsche,
Whoever battles with monsters had better see that it does not turn him into a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.
© 2012 Sherrie Bourg Carter, All Rights Reserved
Sherrie Bourg Carter is the author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout (Prometheus Books, 2011).