Seeing someone cry has the ability to make our own eyes well up with tears. When someone starts to get cross with us, we feel our own anger begin to rise within ourselves. When some is especially wound up in our presense, we can begin to feel the flutter of anxiety in our chest. This process is known as emotion contagion and it comes to us because of mirror neurons in our brain. Our ability to read another’s emotional state is an important way for us to improve our communication with others as we can:
- use our own feelings to understand what our loved one is feeling. Being able to sense their sadness, grief, anxiety, surprise, joy, etc., allows us to reinforce our skill for empathy and therefore, compassion.
- have shared experiences. Emotion contagion is what makes everyone at a comedy show start to belly laugh; feel edge-of-our-seat excitement on a roller coaster, or the awe of experiencing something new while travelling or exploring. It can also be a profound shared experience when grief becomes palpable (everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news of 9/11.)
- create space for tough emotions. We have all experienced getting angry at our littles when temper tantrums abound or their behaviours appear unreasonable. Knowing that we will naturally match their emotions can actually help us contain our reaction – instead, we can choose to meet their chaos with calm.
Being aware of emotion contagion can help us to not only understand our own feelings, but it can give us permission to either ride along, or create the space for our loved one to find their own calm and sense of grounding. When we can be steady, we set the course for others to right their sails.