Can You Catch Emotions?

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Are emotions like a cold? Can you be caught by others’ emotions? I think so. Just like we have some immunity to colds, and we won’t get one every time we are exposed, we can develop some immunity to others’ emotions.

There is no cure. Yet, we can learn to be less impacted by others’ emotions. When we become more aware of how emotions are spread, we free ourselves up to find choices. To let others solve their own problems. Does that sound liberating?

How Do Emotions Spread?

Remember Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis? Well, he proposed that emotions are unconscious, and one of the ways we deal with our emotions is projection. Who has projected their feelings onto someone else?

A classic example is when you are mad at your boss, and you “take it out” on your spouse or your dog. The projection is supposed to help you get rid of those unwanted feelings. While this may be automatic, I imagine we can become aware of our part in the spreading of emotions.

To do this, let’s turn to how families work. What happens when we repeatedly project our feelings into one relationship or onto one person? I think the emotions can get stuck in relationships. And, when others join in, this forms predictable relationship patterns.

Murray Bowen, founder of family systems theory, studied family relationships. He found relationship patterns that exist in all families, especially when they are stressed. Bowen observed families projecting their emotions into their marriage, onto a spouse, or into future generations.

Let me tell a story to illustrate how projection can spread emotion to others.

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A woman, whom I’ll call Ariel, grew up in a family where one of her siblings died at a young age. Ariel describes her family as never fully recovering from this loss. Ariel herself is afraid of getting close to others for fear that she will lose them too.

Yet, in her mid-20s, she falls in love with Jacob and they marry a year later. Jacob grew up in a family where his father drank a lot, and his mother avoided their Dad to keep peace in the house. Both Ariel and Jacob get uptight and worried when the other is quiet on dates or around the house. How will they manage their worry?

While there is more than one way to manage and project worry, Ariel and Jacob typically project their worry into their relationship. They both blame, question, and criticize their spouse when worried. It is well-intentioned, and it is an attempt to bring closeness and resolution. Yet, the focus on the marriage as the problem backfires. Now, Ariel and Jacob are left with heated conflict.

Each time Ariel or Jacob spreads their worry into the marriage, the other gets defensive or critical in return. How do they find a way out of this mess? Identify what helps them stay calm when the other is angry or quiet. This can lead the way to helping Ariel and Jacob stay in contact with each other without catching the emotion or problem. Once they are more immune to catching the other’s emotion, then they are better able to listen or let their spouse solve it on their own.

Are You Caught?

Emotions are more than feelings — just like a cold is more than a runny nose and sneezing. There is physiology behind a cold and behind emotions.

We all have emotions. Yet, we don’t need to be allergic or fearful of them. I think we will continue spreading and catching some of our emotions. Yet, when we become more aware of how they are spread, we find we have more choices.

It’s your turn. I’d like to hear your perspective. When do you let others stew in their own emotions? Share how you stay near intense emotions without catching them.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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