July 15, 2024
Highly Sensitive People and Emotional Contagion

Whenever we enter a human space we consciously and unconsciously tune into and are influenced by the emotions of others around us both positively and negatively. This inborn tendency to be emotionally “in synch” with the other humans around us is what psychological researchers call emotional contagion.

We respond instinctively to the emotional tone of those around us and all normal human beings are susceptible to emotional contagion to some degree.

Emotional contagion and Empathy
Emotional contagion in its most positive form is the basis of the human virtue of empathy. We need to be emotionally in tune with others in order to understand them, get along with them and to function effectively in the human social world.

Highly sensitive people’s finely detailed observational abilities make them more responsive than most to the nuances of other people’s feelings. This sometimes leads them to shy away from crowds since the mass of emotional messages is just too confusing. But even one-on-one relating can be emotionally challenging to a person who reads and responds strongly other’s subtle emotional cues.

Since HSP’s own emotional responses are intense, quick to arise and hard to shake off, they often find themselves getting caught up uncomfortably in other people’s feelings. Being attuned to the rawness of other people’s emotions and even taking them on through emotional contagion can be an unpleasant and aversive experience.

Danger of Co-dependency
Since vicariously experiencing other’s unhappiness, rage or despair are so painful for a highly sensitive individual, it is easy to understand why it would be tempting for them to collude or manage social situations so as to keep others on an emotionally even keel. When the need to ensure that those around them are never angry or upset becomes a preoccupation there is a danger of developing co-dependent relationships.

Psychologist Fatima Nabi describes co-dependent behavior:
“Co-dependents feel responsible for others. They feel anxious when they hear of others experiencing difficulty, and will do whatever it takes to alleviate their burdens. Co-dependents’ obsession with worrying about others affects their personal lives.. It is easy for co-dependents to allow others to take advantage of them; however, this leads to feelings of resentment.”

Staying ahead of the other’s emotional curve.
Because a sensitive person is so able to empathically intuit what others are feeling, and because they are often quite skilled at recognizing and naming feelings, they sometimes find themselves in the peculiar position of having a better idea of what their family member or partner is feeling than that person may themselves.

This foresight often leads to a temptation to manage situations pre-emptively.

Sometimes this is simple kindness and tact.

  • A sensitive conversational partner will gently turn the conversation away when the subject begins to approach an area that the other might find painful, for example, one might not talk about babies with a woman who has just had a miscarriage.

Unfortunately, reluctance to deal with a painful subject may not always be in the sensitive person’s best interest.
A highly sensitive person’s unwillingness to risk arousing strong emotions in others may mean that they collude with their partners or loved ones, or remain silent when potentially emotionally arousing subjects need to be discussed.

  • It might be that the woman who had a miscarriage needs to speak about it to feel better, even at the risk of bursting into tears or raging against fate.
  • A partner who feels shame about a drinking problem may be easily provoked to anger when it is mentioned but needs help to stop their self-destructive behavior.
  • An adult child who does not look for work and continues to live at home may need to be confronted with their irresponsible and immature behavior in order to grow up.

In a co-dependent scenario a highly sensitive person may tolerate bad or destructive behavior from partners, family members or friends just to avoid
“a scene”. The sensitive person’s normal and reasonable personal needs or projects may be eternally sidelined to avoid conflict in a relationship.

“Forewarned is fore-armed”…. or “This is going to hurt me as much as it hurts you…(really)!”
Willingness to engage in direct and candid discussion of painful subjects is an important interpersonal skill and worth cultivating as a value and discipline.

  • Understanding that some of the anxiety that you feel may be emotional contagion and originating in the other rather than in yourself makes it easier to tolerate.
  • Expecting the arousal and providing yourself with strategies to calm yourself after the difficult encounter such as listening to favorite music or taking a brisk walk, may help to reduce the overall impact of the arousing encounter

Even though exposure to another person’s raw emotions is difficult and even literally painful for a sensitive person, this pain can be faced with courage and determination when the gain is recognized as being worth the effort.