When a chameleon hangs on the brown bark of a tree, it turns brown. When it crouches amidst green leaves, it turns green. A nifty camouflage trick, and not unlike what we do with emotions. People tend to take on the emotional coloration of their environment. When we go to a play or a sporting event, we feel the emotions of the crowd around us. The emotional experience of the event is intensified by our proximity to other people expressing emotion. If we spend time around happy people we are likely to feel happier. If we hang out with unhappy, negative people, we will likely feel less happy.
Humans are social creatures. We are built for group living. Struggling to survive in the natural world, our ancestors depended on each other to work toward common goals and protect against common dangers. We developed the capacity to share emotional experiences in groups. Mob emotions had survival value.
Humans have a remarkable sensitivity to emotional cues. If someone at a party begins to cry, the party is probably over. Group joy turns to concern. We may begin to share the sadness even before we know the cause. We read each others’ body language and facial expression. We are able to express and interpret a rich vocabulary in voice pitch and tone, so even without knowing a person’s story we may know a great deal about their emotional state. Our natural empathy draws us into emotions that may have very little to do with our own circumstances. This is mostly a good thing. It allows us to be emotionally close with one another. It helps us build trust for one another. It creates intimacy and group cohesion.
On the other hand, we can become vulnerable to the toxic emotions of people around us. Life can become miserable if you have to spend many hours in close proximity to chronically sour tempered people. Many an otherwise good job has been spoiled by the disposition of nearby co-workers. People in helping professions, too, need to take extra care of themselves when they are constantly exposed to the physical and emotional pain of the people they care for. The stress of managing troublesome emotions can lead one to inappropriate coping mechanisms such as emotional coldness, cynicism, anger, or substance abuse.
Instead of developing unhealthy defense mechanisms to protect us from the effects of unpleasant emotions, we can develop habits to keep our compassion enabled and our emotional stability intact. Here are some ideas:
Practice awareness of your emotions. By tuning in to your emotional condition you can guide your responses. Check in with yourself frequently, and notice what you are feeling. See if you can name the emotion.
Learn the skill of compassionate neutrality. One can be caring without being swept away by another person’s emotional storms. This is an important skill when dealing with people who are chronically emotionally unstable. You don’t have to feel bad when someone is angry at you, and you don’t have to become inflated when they think you are the greatest. Neutrality doesn’t mean coldness or stiffness. It has more to do with steadiness, solidity, and groundedness.
Release emotions that are not your own. When you have been exposed to emotions that you don’t want to own, try these techniques:
- Take several deep breaths and let the air out with a rush. Blow the emotions away through your mouth.
- Move your body. Stretch. Shake your arms and legs, hands and feet, and imagine you are throwing off the excess emotions like you would shake off excess water. Shake your head too, and roll your shoulders. Move any part of your body where you might have tension.
- Get grounded. Stamp your feet or just stand firmly on the earth and feel your connection to it. Visualize energy coming to you from the center of the earth. Imagine it as a two way flow. Energy comes to you and it goes out of you. Send the negative emotions far away.
- Touch something big and solid, such as a wooden doorframe or desk, and visualize the bad vibes flowing out of you and being absorbed and neutralized by the object.
- Put the bad stuff in your magic ditty bag. When you have a troubling thought or feeling, imagine that you can stuff it into a black velvet bag. The magic of the bag is that anything put in there shrinks down to nothing. Your troubles vanish into the darkness. They are weightless. You don’t have to carry them around with you.
- Imagine that as you breathe out, all negativity flows out of you. Imagine your dark and cloudy thoughts and feelings being sent to the far reaches of the universe where they dissipate harmlessly. At the same time, imagine you are drawing the loving energy of the universe toward you. It fills you and warms your heart.
Wrap negative emotions in love. When you are feeling bad, check to see if the emotional discomfort is your own or if you are picking up someone else’s turmoil. When you sense that person’s pain, activate your compassion. Consciously send them thoughts of love. Pray that their pain will be healed.