Do others influence your mood? There’s a scientific aspect of this that reveals how and why this happens and why it’s more you than them. And, what you can do about it.
Have you ever given your full attention to someone who was speaking about something unpleasant, something that caused their brows to furrow, their mouth to turn down? As this went on, did you notice your own brows furrowed, your own mouth turned down? Did you notice how you felt or began to feel? More than likely your mood altered, even though it’s their story not yours. What might this really be about?
I recall sitting with and listening to someone stream one unpleasant story after another, and noticing my facial features felt as though they might collapse inward. The muscles of my face were mirroring the person’s face that was set in a scowl that grew even more “scowl-y” with each negative story. After a while I said (nicely), “You might want to find and tell stories that don’t make your face go like this (I demonstrated the face) quite so often.” My comment made the person pause, but some habits (or addictions) die hard. Just as there are times we don’t recognize that we’re being more negative than is good for us or for those we’re with, it’s the same for others. On the flip side, if the person who’s speaking is smiling, you likely smile as well. You likely feel good in their company.
Feelings follow the face (and posture), which is why smiling and straightening posture are recommended as immediate mood elevators. Imitating facial expressions is something every infant does naturally. We just don’t realize this is carried forward into adulthood, or know the cause of why this is natural to all of us, starting from birth. We also are influenced by the tone and volume of others’ voices. We may find ourselves identifying with some of their word choices, as well, whether at the conscious or subconscious level.
What caused my facial expression to mimic the person’s—as well as everyone’s tendency to have this experience—is a result of what neuroscientists call mirror neurons “that subconsciously prompt us to mimic the body language and vocal patterns of our companion. And when we ape the behavior of others, we begin to take on their emotional state, a phenomenon dubbed ‘emotional contagion’.” This is according to an article in the September 2, 2013, issue of First for Women.
Now before we get into a muddle about this, these mirror neurons can also assist us to feel greater compassion, empathy, love, and any of the more positive or supportive emotions. However, since we can’t control what others say or do, we can do a few simple things to ease the negative mirroring that starts up in us, when we find ourselves in such situations.
Years back, I recall reading that if you wanted anyone uncomfortable with communicating to feel more secure about doing so, it helped if you either were busy doing something that didn’t require full attention (any simple task you can do by rote) or if you sat side-by-side rather than sat across from or looked directly at them, which can and does cause such hesitant communicators to feel challenged, insecure, or unsafe. Something similar to this the article suggested is called “reverse mirroring,” not for the purpose of making the other person comfortable about speaking, but to avoid letting your mirror neurons lock you into an undesired altered mood.
This reverse mirroring helps you to not catch the negativity “virus” from them, or at least to lessen its impact on you. This side-by-side positioning lets you be there for the person, without getting a frontal onslaught of their negativity via your own neurons. You might still feel their negativity waves, but not to the same magnitude as if you mirror them. The reverse works as well: if you feel low, sit across from someone who’s in a good mood, or watch a video online of someone happy, and allow your mirror neurons to work in your favor.
Here’s something else the article suggested: Cut the invisible bonds. The technique is to imagine a string or cord running between you, and imagine snipping that string or cord with scissors. According to Dr. Judith Orloff, this allows you to reduce the impact of mirror neurons. What I’ve done and do that’s similar, whenever I’m with someone whose energy is beginning to affect me in a way that’s uncomfortable or unpleasant, is do something while I still listen, like fiddle inside my purse as though looking for something. This type of buffer for your energy is something that isn’t considered rude or insensitive by the other person, say, like texting or checking e-mail on your phone would definitely be. You’re still listening and responding, but not mirroring and therefore not taking on as much of their negativity as you might.
A University of Oklahoma study recommends an emotional-regulation technique called “attentional deployment.” You can use this whenever someone is e-mailing or talking in a way that, even if unintentional, is a downer for you. Say the person put their negativity in an e-mail or text message. You can pick something to pay attention to, like how many words they misspelled. If they drone on and on in a negative way, you might count how many times they use a particular word. Again, it’s not that you don’t hear what they’re saying and respond appropriately, just that these techniques can quell your mirroring their written or spoken emotions and energy to the degree you otherwise might. In kind, notice if someone’s facial expression or mood is mirroring your own and decide if that’s really what you intend, or if you prefer to raise the energy by relaxing your face, or smiling, if appropriate.
People we call empaths have to, first, realize they are empaths and, second, learn how to manage and protect themselves from their sensitivity to others’ emotions that they can mistake as their own, which is another form of mirroring—an energy-based form. Introverts* also have a different energy experience when around others than extroverts do. And all of us are subject to our own mirror neurons. This also explains why watching TV programs or movies can influence your mood. These occurrences beg the question: How much of what we experience at the inner level is ours alone and how much is a mirrored experience? It’s something to consider.
*Check out the article online “23 Signs You’re Secretly An Introvert”.
Being sensitive to others’ feelings is worthy—and necessary, but not at the expense of your own well-being and at the expense of what you attract more of into your life by virtue of your own vibrations matched by Law of Attraction. You can be appropriately compassionate and empathetic and loving, but not be overrun by another person’s emotions, which can sometimes (or often) happen when we don’t know how to self-protect in such instances. Their emotions transmit one level of energy; our mirroring their emotions amplifies this in a way that doesn’t have to happen, if we know what to do about this. Pay attention to when you begin to mirror another. Be deliberate about what you choose to mirror, whether as the receiver or the sender. It’s a good practice, one you’ll appreciate.[Note: As complementary information to my comment about empaths, introverts, and mirror neurons begging the question of how much of what we experience is ours, you can read best-selling author Barbara Berger’s State of Appreciation Guest Expert article about the No. 4 cause of suffering and unhappiness (“Investigate Your Stories) in this week’s issue, available online through Aug. 29, 2013. Barbara’s article is excerpted from her book, Are You Happy Now? 10 Ways to Live a Happy Life.]
Practice makes progress.
© Joyce Shafer
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Joyce Shafer is a Life Empowerment Coach dedicated to helping people feel, be, and live their true inner power. She’s author of “I Don’t Want to be Your Guru, But I Have Something to Say” and other books/ebooks, and publishes a free weekly online newsletter that offers empowering articles and free downloads. See all that’s offered by Joyce and on her site at http://stateofappreciation.weebly.com