Monkey see, monkey feel
How other people’s emotions affect us
I first heard of the concept of emotional contagions in Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents by Lindsay C. Gibson. As you might have guessed, this phenomenon speaks to the contagious quality of emotions, which isn’t necessarily a novel concept. Unless you lack empathy, you’ll likely feel at least a pang of sadness if you see a loved one crying or crack a smile if they break down in uncontrollable laughter.
Humans are social creatures, and the ability to affect others with our own affect promotes bonding — once upon a time, this bonding meant the difference between life and death. But because the struggles of modern life tend to be vastly different than those of our neolithic predecessors, our responses to other people’s emotion aren’t always adaptive.
I’m sure you’ve had experiences where your day was ruined because some angry, asshole driver cut you off or a miserable boss berated you in front of your coworkers. It’s hard not to let these kinds of things affect you.
Why other people’s emotions affect us
In a recent article, I explored the idea that children of emotionally immature parents learn to become in-tune with their parents’ needs as a way to maintain their parent-child bond and better anticipate their parents’ behaviour.
Just as our hunter-gatherer ancestors learned to live in a state of hyperawareness in order to survive, these children become hyperaware of the emotional states of others. Impressive as it may be for a child to learn how to pick up on nonverbal cues like facial expressions and body language, this degree of hypersensitivity can lead to issues down the road.
The mechanism that once kept these children safe in childhood can lead to behaviours like people pleasing or issues like depression and anxiety in adulthood.
Growing up, I often felt like I had to walk on eggshells around my parents. My mom’s mood, for example, could switch in the blink of an eye, so I was always on the lookout for signs that she was becoming more tense. I didn’t…