Why am I affected by other people's emotions?
Being able to feel others' feelings is a powerful thing. It allows us to have empathy, to imagine what it feels like to be in their situation. It also allows us to help others feel "better" by radiating our own calm, peace, and happiness. This mirroring of emotions is actually based in our brains, in something called "mirror neurons". Mirror neurons are little biological machines that activate when we observe an action. When mirror neurons "see" (through our senses) a smile, we automatically smile - without realizing it, subconsciously, even if it is a small response, we smile. In the same way, when we see someone who is angry, we automatically mirror that response. When we mirror the action or feeling, the chemicals that give us happy, sad, or mad feelings release. You can see this happen clearly in babies - infants will change their faces to match the face of the adult who is cooing, talking, or laughing with them.
All of this happens automatically, without our knowledge or consent.
So, how do I manage this invasion of emotion?
Most of us are not able to completely disconnect from the world. On a day-to-day basis, we encounter roommates, family, colleagues at work, peers at school, customer service providers, and many other people, all carrying their feelings around. We also experience emotional energy through social media, news, books we read, and other forms of input beyond our face-to-face human interaction.
First, calm down
Imagine a thermometer for your feelings. Scale it from 1 (at the bottom) to 10 (at the top). All feelings are okay - not only okay, but valuable. However, when any feelings become extremely intense (maybe a 5 or higher), they begin to take over. We move from functioning with the thinking part of our brain to reacting with the instinctual, emotional part of our brain. Physically, the body's blood flow, oxygen, and electrical energy rearranges itself to focus on the emotional brain, and we no longer have the physical resources to think logically. So, more simply put, big feelings can make us stupid. To turn our thinking brain back on, we have to calm the emotional part of our brain. Once it calms, the body's resources can flow back to the thinking brain and we can regain our control.
1. BREATHE! -- The most important way to calm your emotional brain is to breathe. Breathe in and out, either through your nose, or through pursed lips (like drinking out of a straw). Count to 5 as you breathe in, 5 as you exhale. The longer your exhale, the more calming this exercise will be. This helps get oxygen and blood flow back to your limbs and your thinking brain, relaxes your muscles, slows your heartbeat, and regulates your breath.
2. Inhale a calming scent -- There is a physical structure called the "Olfactory Bulb" that runs from the top of our nasal cavity directly to the limbic brain (our emotional, instinctual brain). In other words, our nose is a direct line to our feeling brain. When we inhale calming scents, the calming scent is communicated directly to our feeling brain. As it calms, the energy moves back into the thinking areas of our brain. Some calming scents are lavender, geranium, mandarin, bergamot, and palmarosa. Most essential oil manufacturers have a calming blend in their line of products. Oils can be inhaled from the bottle, rubbed on your hands and inhaled, mixed with water and sprayed around a room from a spray bottle, or distributed through a diffuser.
Once you have activated your thinking brain, you can engage in something called mindfulness. This just means you are aware of your thoughts and feelings, your body, your surroundings, your needs and wants in the present moment. Imagine that you are separate from yourself and you are hovering above, watching your thoughts and feelings pass through your mind and body. From this position, you can choose which ones to focus on, which ones are productive and helpful, and which ones to let go of. As you let go, imagine them floating away like ash from a fire.
Set Healthy Boundaries
Boundaries can be tricky. Sometimes our boundaries are too rigid, shutting out helpful and positive relationships, and causing us to be always on guard, always behind a "mask", never showing our true, authentic selves. Sometimes our boundaries are too loose, letting everything in that comes our way. This can leave us feeling over exposed, vulnerable, and often violated. The most healthy boundaries are somewhere in between, allowing in the relationships and conversations that help us to grow into our best self, and blocking out the harmful relationships and behaviors. Imagine that you are in a bubble. You can clearly see what is around you, but you are protected. As you look at the world around you, be attentive to the influences outside of your bubble. Make conscious choices about what to allow inside your bubble and what to block out.
What are some things that you love? Things that make you feel great, deep down in your heart and soul? Find those things and do them on a regular basis. Be around people that bring peace, happiness, love, joy, and calm into your life, and limit your time and exposure to negativity. You are important; you are valuable. Take time to make yourself a priority.
“The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.”