Can we really build up our feeling immunity and be ok even around someone who is in a bad mood? The depressed friend. The mid-tantrum toddler. The always irritable co-worker. Is it possible to maintain our emotional composure and not get sucked into the emotional vortex of another? The truth is that while no one can make you feel something, there are a couple of powerful factors that make it difficult to remain unaffected. Understanding these factors is essential to discovering and maintaining your emotional center.
We are Wired to Catch Feelings
Being affected by the emotions of others is all in our heads—our brains that is. We are wired to feel with others. This is wonderful news! It means that we have a built-in capacity to engage on an emotional level with other people. Thanks to mirror neurons in our brains that reflect what we observe, we can mirror another person’s emotions and share what they’re feeling.
This type of sharing can potentially enhance compassion, but it can also be one of the most challenging factors when it comes to maintaining our emotional center. If we’re not aware of it, we can literally catch other people’s feelings. This is often referred to as emotional contagion and although it is powerful, it’s also manageable.
For example, if you’re around someone who is anxious, without realizing it, you might start to feel fearful yourself. If you’re aware of emotional contagion, however, you might say to yourself, Wait a minute, is this emotion even mine? This gives you the opportunity for a reset (more on that later). Emotional contagion is one of the reasons that psychologists often recommend a simple suggestion for separation anxiety during school drop off. Have the less anxious parent drop the child off. The emotions of other people can most certainly affect us, but others are equally subject to our feelings.
Another critical element to how we respond to someone who is in a bad mood involves our individual emotional triggers. There are some emotions that might be easy for you to accept and others that set off internal alarms you didn’t even know you had. This usually happens when we risk activating unhealed wounds. For example, you might be fine around someone who is very anxious, but find it extremely difficult to sit with someone who is depressed. It’s different for everyone. The more you know your triggers and work on healing internal wounds, the easier it is to not overreact to emotions in others.
Are You an Empath?
Being an empath is another factor that can influence our emotional response to others. The term empath refers to someone who has a high sensitivity to the emotions around them. According to psychiatrist Dr. Judith Orloff, author of The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People, empaths can have hyperresponsive mirror neurons. She states that while being able to resonate deeply with the emotions around you can be a gift, being an empath can also leave you exhausted if you don’t find ways to ground yourself and avoid taking on the emotional stress of other people.
So, whether you’re highly sensitive to catching emotions or you just catch them once in a while along with colds and other minor ailments, your feeling immunity starts here. You’ll quickly find that once you start practicing some of these skills, you won’t have to avoid others or carry their emotional baggage anymore. You’ll not only be more resilient, but more compassionate as well.
Here are 10 things you can do to start feeling good around people who are in bad moods:
1. Label your feelings
There’s an apt expression coined by psychiatrist Dr. Dan Siegel when it comes to teaching emotional skills and it may be the most important one you learn: you have to name them to tame them. Research by Mathew Lieberman from UCLA on affect labeling shows that when you put a label on the feeling you’re experiencing, it reduces activity in amygdala, or the fear center of your brain. It also activates parts of the prefrontal cortex that help you analyze data. So, the next time you’re with someone who is in a bad mood, label the emotion that it triggers in you. For example, you can say to yourself, “I feel sad as I listen to my friend complain.” Labeling can help you put the feeling into context and give you a better understanding of where it’s coming from. Once you know what the feeling is and have a sense of its origin, you’re well on your way to regulating it.
2. Become a mood meteorologist
Start noticing your feelings throughout the day the way a meteorologist might take notice of the weather. This is especially important first thing in the morning. Become aware of any changes and notice if these changes occurred during or after any social interactions. Ask yourself, “Is this mine?” If it isn’t, don’t blame the person. Instead, take a few deep breaths to clear the feeling from your body and try to recall how you felt before the interaction. Can you return to that baseline or choose a new one?
3. Observe the feeling with curiosity
Once you’ve labeled a feeling, it’s easier to apply a little mindfulness and start observing it. Mindfulness is one of the best strategies for developing the capacity to be calm in challenging situations. After all, mindfulness helps you cultivate equanimity —which can roughly be described as the ability to be emotionally calm, stable, and composed even in difficult situations. To start, see if you can just get curious about the feeling. Where do you sense it in your body? In your arms? Chest? Back? Remind yourself that feelings are natural and temporary. Like clouds, they come and go. Observe it without judging it as good or bad. Try to be compassionate towards yourself for experiencing the feeling. To enhance self-compassion, put your hand firmly on your heart as you breathe deeply and slowly. Most importantly, remember that just because you feel something, it doesn’t mean that you have to do something. Pause and respond as needed once you feel a little more centered.
4. Set feeling intentions before interacting
Prevention is often the best medicine. Before you interact with someone, set an intention to focus on a feeling. For instance, before meeting with a friend, you can make the decision to focus on the feeling of peace. Then, even if she starts talking about something that she’s worried about, you’ll be less likely to feel anxious yourself. Instead, you’ll be more likely to have compassion for her while remaining peaceful. In this way, you’re setting yourself up to succeed by anchoring yourself to a desired (but reasonably attainable) feeling. Just be sure to not be hard on yourself (or others) if you stray from the anchor feeling. If it’s unsustainable, it can always be adjusted or you can try one of the other strategies.
5. Practice emotional resets
This strategy is inspired by one of my favorite parenting approaches called the Nurtured Heart Approach by Howard Glasser. Once you recognize that you’re probably starting to catch someone else’s bad mood, pause. Give yourself a neutral cue such as the word “reset” as a reminder and unplug your emotional energy from the other person. This means that, in a neutral and matter-of-fact way, you don’t give any more emotional energy to the situation. Just unplug. Try to relax your body and take a few deep breaths if it helps. Once you have a little emotional distance, see if you can reconnect to the person from a more compassionate but neutral perspective. From that space, you can respond more appropriately to the situation.
6. Spend time with good emotion regulators
While you can work on boundaries, you probably won’t be able to sever ties with everyone who tends to drain you. You can, however, try to add people who are good at managing their moods to your life. The more you interact with people who are good at regulating their emotions, the more you wire your brain to regulate itself. This is referred to as co-regulation or dyadic regulation. Our nervous systems love to hang out with well-regulated nervous systems! This is not to say that you should seek out people who suppress emotions and aggressively pursue happiness and positivity. Comfort with a diverse range of emotions and the ability to self-soothe are key features of good emotion regulators. If you can’t find people who are good at accepting emotions and calming themselves, perhaps start with a good therapist.
7. Take breaks
If you find yourself being affected by the negative moods of others—whether it’s your child’s tantrum or your spouse’s irritability—try to take a physical break before you react and escalate the situation. If it’s appropriate, let the person know that you’re upset and need a few minutes to calm yourself. If possible, go for a walk outside. If you’re in a meeting or at a party, give yourself a few minutes alone in the bathroom. Take time to regulate your own physiology—which is directly tied to mood—by being in nature, moving, or recharging alone. Always remember that honoring your needs and emotions isn’t an act of radical self-care, it’s usually much-needed regular self-care.
8. Shift from fearing and judging others to loving them
The more loving you are, the less likely you are to catch someone’s negative mood. This may seem like an advanced skill, but you don’t need years of meditation to start focusing on the good in others. Just begin by noticing something small that you like about them or something they’ve done. Rather than catching their feelings, catch them being good. Before you know it, instead of soaking up the feelings of everyone around you, you’ll start radiating feelings that elevate others. It might sound like a tall order, but even one moment of focusing on radiating rather than soaking in feelings can be a memory that you can return to and recreate.
9. Differentiate between empathy and compassion
While empathy is feeling with someone, compassion is slightly different. From a place of compassion, you can understand and support someone’s emotions without taking them on. It’s important to give people the dignity of their feelings and to trust that they can walk with them. You don’t need to carry them and you certainly will not be doing them (or yourself) a favor by trying.
10. Don’t fear negative feelings
As you practice these strategies, you’ll become much more comfortable with feelings in general. Comfort with feelings is the goal. As you expand your ability to recognize and navigate feelings in yourself and others, you will still feel feelings—including the ones we tend to call negative or bad. However, you’ll be less immersed in and affected by them. You will quickly start to notice that once you understand and fear feelings less, they become what they are meant to be—natural, fleeting messages.
Practice Means Progress
As you practice these skills, be kind and patient with yourself. Practice means that you’ll make mistakes, but it also means that you’ll get better. By using these strategies, you’ll tap into the naturally centered co-regulator within. Before you know it, others will seek you out because they want to catch your moods!
So now that you know that you can build up your feeling immunity, the real question is whether you should. Before we go any further, let’s address—by which I mean expose—the fallacy of the compassionate person stereotype. While being compassionate to other people’s feelings is valuable, being overly tolerant can be harmful.
Self-Compassion is a Must
True compassion requires an equal amount of self-compassion. There are some situations that call for less tolerance and more assertiveness. There are others that require temporarily withdrawing your attention while someone else resets. Some interactions are healthy, but only in small doses. Meanwhile, there are some relationships that are toxic and abusive and in need of professional assistance. Don’t let compassion skew your ability to discern what is healthy for you.
Are you a compassionate person who focuses too much on forgiveness and not enough on self-protection? If so, remember that all relationships require boundaries to be healthy.
The truth is that nothing good comes from using your emotional awareness to allow others to mistreat you. This can be a difficult perspective to fully embrace for people who are empaths, spiritually-oriented, or psychologically-minded. Just because you understand how someone feels or why they’re behaving a certain way, it doesn’t mean that you should give them a free pass.
You can be around someone who is having a difficult emotional experience, but you also need to protect yourself if necessary.
If you don’t protect yourself, you risk giving rise to internal conflicts as the vulnerable parts of you wonder why you’re not supporting them. You jeopardize your internal relationships—which are arguably the most important ones you have.
By keeping your own needs in mind, you leverage your emotional awareness to increase the quality of both your internal and external relationships. So, the next time you’re around someone who is in a bad mood, I hope you’ll remember this: Yes, being emotionally balanced around others is important, but not if it’s at your own expense. Take care of yourself and then attend to others as needed from a truly compassionate place—one that includes you.
I’d love to hear from you. Did any of the strategies surprise you? Which one is your favorite?
Update: If you’re still struggling with self-protection, you might have a fawn trauma response pattern. Check out my recent article on the 7 Signs You Have a Fawn Trauma Response to learn more.