Are You Catching Other People’s Feelings?

I am extremely susceptible to the feelings of those around me. The mood of my cashier can color my whole grocery shopping experience—sometimes for the better, and sometimes not.

Catching feelings, or emotional contagion, as it’s more formally known, is just as likely to happen in a roomful of strangers as in an intimate relationship. But the degree of closeness to the person or people whose feelings you’ve become enmeshed with does influence how intensely you’ll feel their feelings, said psychotherapist Imi Lo, author of the Amazon #1 best-selling book “Emotional Intensity and Sensitivity.”

Illustration of African-American man holding a scale with his heart and his brain on each side. People's Feelings pbs rewire
To avoid being overwhelmed by other people’s feelings, you need to build strong, functional boundaries.

Not only do some people feel other’s feelings, “we may even feel it’s our responsibility to somehow ‘solve’ negative feelings our partners, family members or close friends are experiencing,” Lo said.

Can’t stop the feelings

Neuroscience and social psychology research—including this infamous study on how feelings can spread through Facebook feeds—increasingly shows that we can take on other people’s emotions via online interactions, too.

Emotional contagion can also run rampant in work settings. Sigal Barsade, a professor at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, is an expert on the subject. When it comes to creating an emotional culture in a workplace, “leaders will likely have an oversized influence because people look to them more,” she said.

But even the lowliest interns can, by clearly telegraphing emotions to co-workers, influence how people feel.

“If you are enthusiastic and smiling, and people are paying any attention to you, you will influence everyone automatically—regardless of rank,” Barsade said.

Negativity can rub off just as well. Have you’ve ever felt feelings descend on you, seemingly out of the blue without an identifiable cause? Or, responded to a situation in a way that’s out of character for you? It’s possible you might have been on the receiving end of emotional contagion, Lo said.

Staying true to you

To avoid being overwhelmed by other people’s feelings, you need to build strong, functional boundaries, said Mark Borg Jr., a psychoanalyst and co-author of “Relationship Sanity: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Relationships.” Boundaries will help you differentiate another person’s feelings from your own, and will help you stay emotionally separate from their moods and reactions. They revoke the power another person has to make or break your day.

Easier said than done. For a lot of people, strong boundaries are not instinctive. If you’re someone who is an emotional sponge, you’ve probably also struggled with your personal boundaries at some point.

“Clearly, we don’t want to be so boundaried that we are cut off from empathizing with others,” said Borg. “Nor so boundary-less that empathizing with others deleteriously impacts our functioning.”

The continuum of boundaries

Boundaries, Borg explained, exist along a continuum of connectedness and separateness, thin and thick.

“Thin boundaries are associated with creativity, vulnerability, open-mindedness and sensitivity,” said Borg. They can also sometimes blur “the distinction between fantasy and reality and having a fluid sense of identity.”

People with thick boundaries can consistently differentiate between fantasy and reality as well as between self and other. Neither end of the spectrum is better. And, ideally, we’re able to form and maintain both depending on what the situation calls for. 

Given that both kinds of boundaries can, and should, co-exist, Grant Brenner, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst and one of Borg’s co-authors, prefers to use the term “smart boundaries.”

Having smart boundaries, as he defines it, means making decisions about what to let in and what to exclude.

To gauge your need for boundaries, notice how you operate in relation to others.

“Noticing the correlation with how (you) feel, and (use) that information to inform how (you) interpret new experiences,” Brenner said.

Building this self-awareness gives you a baseline against which to measure your emotional responses.

“So, if I’m feeling especially negative, I might wonder if it were a residual effect from an interpersonal interaction,” he said.

How to stay rooted in your own feelings

There’s no simple fix for those of us who are prone to taking on others’ emotions. As with just about everything in life, you have to do the work. By building conscious, adaptable boundaries, you can choose when—and to what degree—you resonate with other people’s feelings.

“The more we can explore our emotional tender spots, coming to terms with the unhealed places in us and learning where we are likely going to be triggered, the more resilient and grounded we feel,” she said.

When you head into a potentially overwhelming situation, Lo recommended thinking of yourself as an observer.

“That can allow us to take in what we see and feel as information, rather than as potential threats,” she said.

If you do find yourself in the grips of a strong emotion you can’t make sense of, check in with yourself. Lo offers this advice: “Notice if you’re holding your breath, and consciously give some room to the tight places within you. Breathing and grounding exercises can be helpful when we feel wobbly.”

A Portriat of Ouellette Howitz. PBS Rewire. Sophie Ouellette-Howitz

Sophie Ouellette-Howitz is a freelance writer and former rugby player living in Portland, Oregon, whose passions include black coffee, impractical shoes and petting as many cats as possible before she dies. She teaches writing for Elephant Rock and is a nonfiction reader for Orison Books. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in SELF, Pigeon Pages, Past Ten, the Portland Mercury and other publications. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @ohphiesay.