Contagion of the Heart

Woke up with this phrase in my head this morning from my fuzzy dreams. After yesterday’s vivid lucid dreams, today’s were fairly tame, but in the last one I was enjoying an excellent dinner of steak and green beans with Tom and Jonathan and some wonderful beer. I have no idea what that means dreamwise but it was a great dinner… maybe I was just hungry.



The act or means of communicating any influence to the mind or heart; as, the contagion of enthusiasm.

Emotional Contagion

Emotional contagion is the tendency to express and feel emotions that are similar to and influenced by those of others. One view of the underlying mechanism is that it represents a tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize facial expressions, vocalizations, postures, and movements with those of another person and, consequently, to converge emotionally (Hatfield, Cacioppo, & Rapson, 1994). A broader definition of the phenomenon was suggested by Sigal G. Barsade- “a process in which a person or group influences the emotions or behavior of another person or group through the conscious or unconscious induction of emotion states and behavioral attitudes”.[1]

I’ve always been a bit immune to this kind of emotional contagion myself, although I’m almost hyper-aware of other people’s feelings (not that this stops me from stepping on them sometimes). I get suspicious if my mood seems to be changing for no apparent reason (a necessity in people who live successfully with bipolar), and end up doing a “heart check” to see if that is something I’m really feeling or just something someone else wants me to feel. So then I get called “distant” or “withdrawn” or “reserved” or whatever and people think I am not connecting with them. But I do see what they are feeling, and perhaps even deeper than they know. I’ve often known when someone’s latest love of their life was a passing fling, or when it could lead to bigger things for them. I’m the one who will be whispering, “careful” when another is about to tread on someone else’s sacred ground, or hook into a skeleton woman they really aren’t ready to handle. And I try to put in a “yes, THIS one!” whisper when a friend is with someone who really lights up their life. But when I attempt to dampen a flame, I end up losing friends, so I’ve stopped doing that. Sometimes you really just can’t tell people anything and you just have to let them find out for themselves what a mess they are making of their lives.

And it is one of my leading clues when I’m starting to slip into a “manic” state if I find myself more and more caught up in someone else’s emotions and problems, or worse, hyping my own mania by feeding off other’s emotions until it moves into the hypo-manic state. So I tend to require a lot of quiet time, time by myself and just to reflect, not only on my own emotional state but that of the people around me. I think it’s one of the reasons I surround myself with golden retrievers, because they are so sensitive and aware of other’s moods and emotions. Their reactions help me to judge and figure out my own emotions and those of other people. If they are shying away from someone, that certainly isn’t anyone I’m going to be getting near. On the other hand, my pest control service lady just stopped at the door and asked if she should do the back yard or not, since they are re-doing the drainage for the patio today, and she ended up petting Darwin for the ten minutes she would have spent on the yard and thanked us for the therapy time.
He was really cuddled up with her, so she must have needed it.

I’ve been reading about Skeleton Woman and how she draws flesh from the beating of the heart of the fisherman, and also reading Daniel Goleman’s “Social Intelligence” where he talks a bit about this way we directly connect through the amygdalya with the emotional expressions of other people. Apparently Goleman believes there is a direct link from our eyes to the amygdala and we can pick up on other people’s feelings even before we are actually aware of what we are looking at. Pretty fascinating idea.

It seems to have evolved into a bit of a pop psychology thing right now, sadly, where people are trying to force salespeople to be cheerful good-mood spreaders, or emotionally “handle” their clients, etc… Then there are those people who can’t stand to be around others that “bring them down” and want to remain in the perpetually cheerful state that eventually drives everyone around them crazy and leads to their own mental breakdown (after which they turn into wonderful truly joyful people)… as well as the “Eeyore” types that refuse to be happy no matter what and end up dragging everyone else down with them (but who are also full of great compassion and can be wonderful friends and lovers)… developing a healthy balance for one’s own heart and knowing yourself well enough to realize when you’re in danger of “catching” a wave of fear or panic or whatever is important.

And this time of year there’s the idea that we are all supposed to be happy and jolly when in fact it is a very difficult time of year for many people who have to deal with losses or unhappy holiday experiences of the past. For me, this time of year invokes more quiet reflection and watching the emotional “snow” settle in on my heart as I think of all the people I miss at this time of year, family who are gone and the friends who decided I wasn’t going to be allowed to be part of their lives anymore. We tend to have a small party to celebrate with those friends we hold dear, and that is always a bright spot in the dark nights for me, along with the beauty of Christmas trees and lights and the thoughtful, gorgeous Christmas music. I can rarely hear or sing “Silent Night” without a few tears. But really, the inflatable Santas and lighted reindeer and Jingle Bell Rock I can just do without, please.

So please make your holidays whatever you need them to be, and don’t give in to those who try to force you to make it into that happy jolly fun time you’re not wanting to celebrate, or the drudge through all the family history with drunken relatives again if you’re not up for that. But don’t be the Grinch either. Open your heart to the things that really matter and are important to you, and connect with the deep spirit of this season in the ways that will mean the most to you.