“No man is an island”, wrote John Donne and his poetic insight is borne out by research. In the West, we think the self is somehow enclosed with the body, separate from other selves. This sense of independence is sometimes idealised, but also carries a seed of despair. As Orson Welles said, “We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone”. It’s not hard to expose this as a Western fantasy.
Emotions are contagious. Most of us have had the experience of catching a friends laughter. You’re with some mates and one of them finds something hilariously funny. Before you know it, you’re all laughing, even though you might have no idea what’s so funny! Something similar happens when we smile or a frown. Try smiling more today and I bet you’ll find other people mirroring you. Some of this is probably due to mirror neurons, which are brain cells that fire in sympathy when we see someone behaving in a certain way (Ferrari and Rizzolatti). That’s part of the process but we’re far from fully understanding emotional contagion. What we do know is that it’s widespread.
Emotional contagion is vital to my work as a therapist as it allows me to get a deep empathic sense of how it is for my client in that moment. It’s a three stage process. First, I’m being sensitive to my clients emotional state. Second, my bodymind is responding to that state via emotional contagion: I’m picking up their emotional state and unconsciously reproducing it myself. Third, I’m sensing into how that feels. It’s as if my bodymind becomes an embodied mirror for my client. The danger here is that I might get too caught up in my client’s emotional world: I need to manage my emotional state so that I can be both fully empathetic and centred. Mirroring my client’s emotional state and staying centred can be deeply therapeutic. By embodying that centred state I reflect to them how that might feel and emotional contagion will help them feel centred too.
Therapists Elaine Hatfield and Richard Rapson note that anyone can usefully apply this same skill in their everyday relationships:
“By attending to this stream of tiny moment-to-moment reactions, people can and do ‘feel themselves into’ the emotional landscapes inhabited by their partners” (1993).
I’d flag up a couple of take-always from this research. First, it challenges the myth that that we are all self-contained individuals. Second, once we recognise that emotional contagion exits, we can use it to make our everyday interactions more empathic.