How to Deal With Negative Emotional Contagion

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Have you ever noticed that there is a lot of negativity in the world? We are constantly exposed to negative emotional contagion in the media but other potential sources of negativity include your workplace, your friendships and even your family.

Many of us have family members in our lives whom we love but who are also toxic. Parents, perhaps, or siblings. For me, it’s my mother. Although I recognize that she had a very difficult life, she is still—at 87—needy, negative, and depressed. Being around her is very trying, but she is my mother, not a host of random strangers on social media. How do I still talk to her while appreciating all she’s done for me and recognizing that her life is not mine? And how do you control your exposure to this kind of negative energy without walking away and forgetting people who actually want you around but have a funny way of showing it?

France, Buddhism, and Conversations

Last summer I spent three glorious weeks in France, including one at a Buddhist monastery. There, I could fully immerse myself in the ways of Thich Nhat Hanh. The sisters lived a simple life, as you can well imagine. But what struck me was the foundation of their life: finding the good in themselves and others.

One sister wanted to practice her English, so we fell into a deep discussion and spoke about so many things—things that can be learned from Buddhist philosophy.

Things that I still had to learn.

We eventually touched on my mother, a topic that always raises my blood pressure and sadness and brings me a little despair. The sister taught me a very valuable lesson.

Plum Village – Bordeaux, France

My Aha Moment

The Buddhist nun taught me that I cannot control the moods or words of my mother; I can only control my response to her.

But that was not all she told me.

She also told me that it is not my mother’s problem that I react the way I do to her phone calls; it is my problem to solve.

It was hard to hear that. I think somewhere deep down, I was still hoping that my mother would change. But this sister helped me realize that I can’t change my mother. I can only change me.

Emotions are contagious in humans: our moods can easily change depending on the mood of the person we’re talking to. I was allowing my mother’s moods to affect me.

How Emotional Contagion Works

Our brains are hardwired to mimic the people around us—their body language, tone of voice, even their breathing patterns. In fact, body language and tone of voice have a much stronger effect on our personal emotions than emotional cues, which are much subtler and harder to read.

The natural human tendency towards mimicry causes you to begin to experience the emotion that you have picked up on through the body language or words of the other person. Your brain responds by adopting that emotion and you begin to feel their feelings.

In effect, you become contaminated by their emotions, especially the strong ones like fear, anger and joy.

Understanding Negativity

Negativity can take the form of pessimism, anxiety, depression and distrust of people and the world in general. Causes can include fear of being unloved, of being disrespected or of “bad things” in the world. That fear in turn creates neediness and controlling behaviour.

We can have empathy with the causes of someone’s negativity, but that doesn’t mean we have to allow their negativity to affect our lives.

Controlling Negative Emotional Contagion

So, how do you control your reaction to negative emotional contagion coming from people in your life?

First, be aware that emotional contagion is real. Knowing that someone else’s negativity can affect you and breed negativity in you is helpful. Learn to recognise when this is happening (you feel frustrated, angry or drained of energy) and then try some of these techniques:

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  • Remind yourself that you alone have control over your positive mindset and you alone can control how much of their negativity you wish to absorb.
  • Touch base with the person more frequently but in shorter intervals. Frequent, shorter interactions are much easier to manage than infrequent long conversations that can really go down the rabbit hole of depression and negativity.
  • Make a conscious effort to control your breath and clear your mind of any negative feelings you may have about their neediness and depression before the interaction even starts. As the Buddhist nuns in France did, try and see the good in the person.
  • Match your breathing to theirs, which is likely rapid. Once you’ve achieved this, slow your own breathing. This will help the other person’s breathing slow down. (natural human mimicry)
  • Go into the conversations when your energy levels are high enough that they can be drained a bit without harming your own mental stability.
  • Approach them with a compassionate, empathic heart and mind. What causes them to be this way? But please remember: Compassion does not equal advice about changing their negative behaviour or lecturing them about their negativity.
  • Remember this, too: you are not helping yourself or them if you feed into their pain.
  • Offer a compassionate ear for as long as you can and then try to change the subject to something totally unrelated.
  • Remind them of things that make them happy before they can throw their negative energy your way. You are more apt to want to boost them up if you haven’t allowed them to bring you down.
  • Use humour to lighten the mood and distract from the negative energy.
  • Smile, because emotional contagion can be positive and happy, too.
  • End the interaction gently as soon as you start feeling your own positive energy draining. Lovingly disconnect and remember you can’t help them at all if you don’t maintain your own positive mindset.

Negativity in Your Circles

These techniques are useful within your family, at work and with friends or anyone with whom you interact frequently.

If you feel a lot of negativity in your workplace, try some of the techniques but also surround yourself with things that bring you joy: photos of your family and friends can help, for example. Mementos can help too: Maybe you have a rock that carries meaning for you, or your children made an adorable painting. Whatever it is, make your desk and workspace your happy place where you can escape.

If your friend is always doing the Debbie Downer Dance, remember some of the techniques discussed above but also, ask yourself what you are getting out of the relationship. Do they fulfil a need in you to be a caretaker? Does it boost your ego by allowing you to feel like you are better than them? These can be hard questions to answer, but answering them honestly will help you decide if you need to perhaps part ways.  You need to decide if allowing the constant negativity is worth the friendship or not.  Look for positive reasons to remain in the friendship or take a break from the negative contagion associated with the friendship.  Remember – you are unlikely to change them but you can support them without wallowing in their negativity if you practice some of the techniques listed above. 

Other constant sources of negative contagion are easier to control.  If you spend too much time watching the 24 hours news feed or scrolling through social media you are exposing yourself to a lot of unnecessary negativity.  You can control this by taking breaks from the constant barrage of bad news.  Limit your time spent in these activities.  Replace those activities with self care acts that boost your positivity.

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Keep Your Mindset Positive

Go into any interaction with someone who is prone to negativity with a positive mindset. Expect the best in them and model the behaviour you wish they had access to. This isn’t always easy, but it’s better than feeling drained and having to re-energize yourself after each interaction.

In addition, don’t take it personally. Of course, easier said than done, but remember that people have their own issues that have nothing to do with you. However, if you consciously decide not to mimic their fearful, angry behaviour, you’ll feel more in control, and a cool analytical response shields us from other people’s emotions.

Remember these points:

  • You aren’t responsible for their feelings.
  • You may not be able to help them.
  • They are sharing their experience the only way they know how.

Being a Vessel for Change

So how did I change the dynamic between me and my mother? It came down to controlling my mindset and energy levels. I recognized that I can’t change her. Instead, I have to be the vessel for change. Here’s what I have been doing since my return from France:

  • I go into conversations when my energy levels are high enough that I can permit them to be drained a bit without harming my own mental stability.
  • I make a conscious effort to control my breath and clear my mind of the negative feelings I have about my mom’s neediness and depression.
  • I control my judgmental thoughts.
  • I try to touch base with her more frequently so that I can keep the interactions brief.

Keep Your Eyes Open

Repeated exposure to negative emotions from other people can cause us to become blind to the contagion or its cause. We may sense we are in an unhealthy situation, but we may find ourselves at a loss of how to handle it. My conversations with the Buddhist nun showed me how I could take care of my mother and myself at the same time, but I only learned that last year. The old dynamic between me and my mother had been developing over decades.

If you take away only one thing from this article, it should be this: Positivity can control negativity and it comes from within you.

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