What Kind of Emotional Contagion Are You Spreading?

When I was about 8 years old, I went to summer camp for the first time. I wanted to bring a friend, so I invited a girl from school, and she came with me. I thought it would be great to have a buddy around, and I just knew we would have a great time enjoying this camp together.

Boy, was I wrong.

It really wasn’t anyone’s fault. It was just that my friend was desperately homesick and couldn’t get past it. Despite the best efforts of counselors and friends to comfort her, she cried herself to sleep at night, and she suddenly burst into tears at various points throughout the day. She sat off to the side during some of the activities, too miserable to participate. And because I was her friend and had invited her, I felt I needed to sit by her side and try to comfort her. She tried to enjoy herself, and she gamely stuck it out for the whole week. But she very obviously didn’t want to be there. So after a while, I didn’t really want to be there anymore either.

A few other circumstances conspired to make it a difficult week–most notably, rain was pouring down when we arrived, and it rained for at least part of every day we were there. But my friend’s misery was the main factor that ruined the week for me. Later, my memories of the week were painted with sadness, and I stayed home from camp the next year. It was two years later before I had any desire to try the experience again. I’m glad I did–I loved it and kept going almost all the way through high school, and now I have wonderful memories of camp. But that first year was almost enough to keep me from experiencing any of it.

I might sound a little bitter or melodramatic. But believe me, I got over it decades ago. And I’m definitely not blaming my poor 8-year-old friend for being homesick or for expressing her sadness while were there. She couldn’t help it. Neither could I help my shortcomings as comforter. I wasn’t capable of taking away her sadness, and part of what spoiled the experience for me was my futile sense of responsibility to somehow ease her distress.

So here’s my point: our emotional experiences and expressions affect the people around us. This is as true for adults as it is for children. In fact, our influence as grown-ups is generally far greater, so our emotional expressions have more power and make a greater impact on more people. Plus, as adults we have far more capability to choose the ways we express our emotions and to change the thought patterns that produce our emotional responses. Although we often think of emotions as outside our control, we are capable of making choices and managing our emotions and the behavior they produce. And the choices we make are never about us alone. They always affect other people, even when no one else happens to be in the same room.

“Emotions are contagious,” says psychologist Sherrie Bourg Carter. We pass our emotions along to others without even trying. And, she points out, we’re often unaware that we’re spreading emotions or picking them up from the people around us. Like other forms of contagion, the process is often passive and unconscious. But it doesn’t have to be either. We can become more aware of what we’re spreading, and we can take responsibility for our own agency.

So what are you passing along? And how much do you think about the ways your emotions influence others? the ways they influence your own behavior?

If I went to camp with a friend at this point in my life, I wouldn’t blame a homesick adult for her feelings either. But I would expect her to express her emotions with maturity and to consider how choosing a different perspective on the situation might shift her emotions themselves. I encourage all of us to consider that we often have more choices available than we recognize, even when it comes to our emotions, which can wield a lot of power in our lives. And the choices we make have a powerful impact on the people around us.

What if you were to choose to more often believe what’s true, think productive thoughts, and express your emotions in healthy and beneficial ways? You’d see the effect on the people around you. And I’ll bet they’d pass it on.

2 Comments
  1. Robyn says:

    Great post, Amy! I know my family passes around emotional crud every once in a while…just like colds and flu. All of us are old enough to make better choices and deal with our emotions in better ways. I’m going to remember this next time I want to wallow in whatever emotion I’m dealing with. Thanks! ~Robyn

© 2018 Amy Simpson.