It’s no secret that emotions have a powerful impact on our lives. But what about the effect of those feelings beyond ourselves? How does our inner world influence the people and environment around us?
The truth is that our emotions can have far-reaching implications, like a stone thrown into a still pond causing ripples across its surface. This phenomenon is known as the Ripple Effect of Emotions, and it’s a vital concept to understand in order to gain control over our inner lives and help improve not only our experience of the world but the experience of those around us too.
Emotional contagion is a phenomenon whereby one person’s emotions (positive or negative) are unconsciously reflected in another individual, often without the latter even realizing it.
There is a three-stage process to emotional contagion and it can happen without people’s conscious awareness of it and can affect individuals and spread through groups.
This is driven by our mirror neurons – “smart” cells in our brains that allow us to understand others’ actions, intentions, and feelings. For example, when we see someone is sad, our mirror neurons fire, and that allows us to experience the same sadness. We don’t need to think about the person being sad, we actually experience it first-hand. Generally, mimicry occurs through body language.
By mimicking an emotion, you begin to experience it. For example, a friend’s relaxed facial expression may help you feel calmer. Sometimes a complementary emotion is generated. For instance, a person who expresses anger may lead another person witnessing the anger to feel fear or a person who expresses gratitude may evoke feelings of pride in the receiver of the gratitude.
Once that emotion has been evoked, it becomes part of your own experience. You begin to express it or relate it to others in the same or a complementary way, and the process of contagion is complete.
No one is immune to the effects of emotional contagion, but by increasing our understanding of how our emotions can affect those around us, we can make wiser decisions when expressing ourselves. We should be mindful not only of the immediate consequences on others, but also consider any potential long-term ramifications that may arise from displaying certain emotions.
Consider what happens when you drop a stone into still water.
After the stone hits the water, ripples are sent in all directions.
Expressing an emotion is like dropping a stone into water, sending ripples through the people in your life. The way you express your emotions has a short-term and long-term effect on others.
Imagine you are a team manager. During a meeting with your team members, you are frustrated and lash out at one of your colleagues. You may think that you are the only one who is affected by the frustration, but the ripple effect from your emotional explosion affects all the team members present at the meeting.
When the team members go back to their desks after the meeting, they feel your wrath too. They go back to work with a pit in their stomachs, perhaps wondering when they will become the target of your frustration.
Perhaps you think that your emotional explosion was good for productivity because you showed your team member the urgency of the matter. Perhaps, however, the fear you induced soon translates to caution.
To perform at their best, your team members need to take risks, move beyond their comfort zone, and make mistakes along the way. Because the team members are afraid to become your next target of frustration, they play it safe and do only as you tell them.
After a year or so, you may notice that your team is not functioning well; they are severely lacking initiative and autonomy. You wonder what is wrong with them.
As this example illustrates, the way we express our emotions can have a direct impact on others. Expressing emotions can have both positive and negative effects on other people both short-term and long-term. When you are aware of these effects, you can use your emotions wisely.
It’s important to note that the goal is not to stop expressing your emotions – informing others how you feel can be very helpful and important to forming high-quality connections and relationships.
What matters is the way in which you do this. We can express our anger by shouting and hitting out at another person, or by calmly informing him or her that we are angry because we feel that they behaved in a certain way. The ripple effect that is created by our emotions is the direct consequence of how we express our emotions, not of the emotions themselves.