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Save Your Sanity – Emotionally Toxic People

Save Your Sanity

Keep emotionally toxic people from ruining your mood by setting limits, speaking up for yourself, and standing your ground

by Susie Cushner (from Real Simple, March 2007)

Why Feelings Are Contagious

Emotions — both good ones, like excitement and enthusiasm, and lousy ones, like sadness, fear, and anger — spread primarily because of a monkey-see, monkey-do phenomenon that’s hardwired in human beings. During conversation, people tend to mirror other people’s facial expressions, postures, body language, and speech rhythms without being consciously aware of it. As you talk to your companion, “the neurons in your brain are activated as if you were making the expressions that you are observing,” says John T. Cacioppo, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and the director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago. “This response sets up a cascade of events in your body — you might actually make the same expression yourself — which creates empathy for your companion and makes you more susceptible to catching their emotions.”

All this happens “faster than Muhammad Ali could throw a punch,” says Hatfield, who is also a professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii. In a study conducted at the University of Tübingen, in Germany, researchers showed people photos of happy or sad faces on a computer, then asked them questions to gauge their emotional responses. Subjects reported feeling the emotions they had been exposed to even when the pictures lasted only fractions of a second.

Recent research conducted at Oregon State University, in Corvallis, found that during conversation people tend to match their companions’ word choices — using negatively charged words, such as hate and worthless, or positive words, such as love and happy — which, the researchers theorize, also causes moods to become contagious.

For the most part, this infectious phenomenon is useful, healthy, and adaptive. Catching other people’s moods lets you pick up the nuances of their feelings and behavior, figure out what makes them tick, and gain valuable information about your circumstances. “It’s fundamental to communication,” Cacioppo says. “It allows people to share knowledge and develop cohesiveness as a group.” It can help us accomplish more, too. Researchers at California State University in Long Beach found that when business leaders were in a good mood, members of their work groups experienced more positive moods and were more coordinated and productive than groups whose leaders were in a bad mood.

Are You a Transmitter or a Receiver?

Some people are more likely to be transmitters of emotions, while some are more likely to be receivers, readily becoming infected by other people’s moods. Transmitters are often highly expressive in both words and gestures. “It’s easy for others to see how they feel,” Cacioppo says. Those who have the upper hand in a relationship, such as a boss, may be more likely to transmit emotions, since people in subordinate positions pay more attention to those they perceive to be above them.

There is also a breed of people who, consciously or not, want to make you feel as they do, because they’re emotional bullies, and inflicting their moods on others makes them feel powerful. Then there are energy vampires — the drama queens and the chronic complainers of this world — who can suck the life out of you with their crises and negativity, often without realizing it. People who are primarily receivers, by contrast, often have strong internal reactions to emotional events. Their heartbeats may speed up or they may get butterflies in their stomachs when they’re nervous, Cacioppo says. You probably know if you’re one of them because your hands get clammy or your heart races before you give a presentation at work. People who are highly attuned to others’ emotions and adept at reading expressions are also more susceptible to catching emotions.

Women are especially sensitive to absorbing others’ moods, says Ross W. Buck, Ph.D., a professor of communication sciences and psychology at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. Socialization has something to do with it, since women are raised to tune in to others’ feelings, Buck says. Recently researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch, in Galveston, studied 553 couples to see how one spouse’s emotional state affected the other’s. Although a husband’s depression had a profound impact on his wife’s well-being, the converse wasn’t true.

How to Protect Your Boundaries

You can learn, however, to be more self-protective when you’re around those you find emotionally draining. It requires a little practice and a lot of fortitude. Here are some actions you can take (avoid one-on-one interactions, for example), helpful phrases you can say (“Why don’t we change the subject?”), and calming ideas to focus on (“I’m not going to let this get to me”) when you feel other people’s unpleasant moods dragging you down once again.

Actions You Can Take

Mind your body language. Make an effort to break eye contact and to display body language that’s different from your companion’s. If you’re in a meeting with an angry supervisor, adopt an open, neutral facial expression and a relaxed pose to counter the tension and hostility in your boss’s face and body. Take a few deep breaths, which will help release tension in your body.

Visualize a wall. When toxic emotions are heading your way and you can’t exit the scene or do anything to stop them, imagine that there’s a shield or a wall around you, advises Judith Orloff, a psychiatrist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of Positive Energy (Three Rivers, $14, You’ll still hear what the other person is saying, but the emotions behind the words won’t get under your skin.

Schedule social balance. Plan your day so you don’t meet a bunch of negative people in succession. If you have to give evaluations to a group of employees, intersperse difficult people with pleasant ones. After an intense afternoon of shopping with your anxious sister, try to be around nurturing, positive people that evening.

Seek safety in numbers. If you know that a certain friend tends to infect you with her negative moods, plan a group get-together instead of a twosome. Or arrange to do something — see a movie, go shopping, visit a museum — rather than just hanging out and talking, suggests Jane Adams, Ph.D., a social psychologist in Seattle and the author of Boundary Issues (Wiley, $25).

Phrases You Can Say

“Excuse me — I need to use the restroom.” No one questions the need for a bathroom break, so nobody is offended. Orloff suggests trying a mini meditation: Close your eyes and allow yourself time to shake off the unpleasant emotions.

“Let’s talk about what’s going on at the office for 15 minutes, then let’s talk about something else.” If your partner comes home venting about cutthroat office politics, his paranoid boss, and other poisonous subjects, give him a set amount of time to get it off his chest.

“Let’s talk about solutions.” If your best friend starts complaining yet again about the dearth of decent men, say that you want to help but that it makes you feel frustrated to constantly hear these complaints. Then offer to swing into problem-solving mode with her. If she clearly doesn’t want to do anything about her problems — except complain and moan about them — it’s best to say, “That’s too bad, but what are you going to do about it?” says Albert J. Bernstein, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Portland, Oregon, and the author of Emotional Vampires (McGraw-Hill, $13, “This sends the message that it’s their problem and you’re not going to take responsibility for it.”

“I’d really like to help, but this is starting to upset me.” Or try: “You know I really care about you, but I’m feeling overwhelmed right now, and I’d prefer to talk about something else.” Be honest yet kind. “Your tone is very important,” Orloff says. “You should keep it even and light. And be prepared to repeat yourself. They’re not likely to honor your request just because you’ve said it once.”

“Do you think that the late winter we’re having will hurt the cherry blossoms?” When you start to feel your companion’s pain or rage, change the subject and respond with a non sequitur, Adams suggests. “When you change the subject with something so out of left field,” she says, “it stops them right in their tracks.”

“Tell me why this is so important to you.” Bernstein says this question often silences boundary pushers on the spot (or at least causes them to stop and reflect on what they’re saying), helping you regain a sense of control.

Ideas to Focus On

It’s probably not you. When you get upset, it’s easy to think the fault is all yours, that you’re too sensitive. But if you feel uncomfortable with someone, you need to trust your intuition, Orloff says. He is probably doing something to push your buttons.

Don’t make someone else’s problems your own. Try to distance yourself mentally from a negative person. For instance, if both you and your friend are single but she is despairing about men, remind yourself that you’ve had plenty of relationships and will have another. This technique can help you stop identifying with her and her feelings, preventing her emotions from getting to you.

You can handle this. Take a deep breath, then silently repeat a mantra, such as “I’m not riding her emotional roller coaster.” You’ll remind yourself that you’re fully capable of protecting your boundaries without making your friend feel emotionally abandoned.

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