Feelings are catching

The emotional health of our parents, siblings, friends and teachers has a huge effect on us. Usually we are hardly conscious of it, but we notice and respond to other people’s feelings all the time. This is a good thing as humans are social animals and we are wired from birth (or even before) to react to and relate to our parents so that we feel safe, close and emotionally bonded. When mum and dad are happy, we pick up that happiness. Wellbeing is contagious.

Of course, we pick up difficult feelings, too. For example, a parent might be depressed or sad and we feel these things as if they are our own feelings and with some apprehension. It’s frightening to feel that our care-giver might not be focusing on our needs, and if they go on being unable to relate to us we begin to get anxious. Not being related to means we don’t feel connected and we don’t feel we are important enough to bother with. Ongoing unhappiness, anger or depression in our care-givers means we pick it up and take it in and can end up traumatised. (Trauma – a deeply distressing or disturbing experience.)

Sometimes people unconsciously push their own negative feelings about themselves out of their minds and into us, and we then feel we are bad and at fault. This is something called ‘projection’ and it’s possible for children to carry their parent’s projected feelings, sometimes to such a debilitating extent that it amounts to abuse. It’s like heaping so much baggage onto a beast of burden that it can’t cope under the load. No-one ever deserves abuse of any kind.

We can also be projected upon by other people close to us, and we can unconsciously do it to others. This is one of the mental mechanisms our inventive minds use to try to disown our deepest feelings like shame or guilt. For example, a friend feels guilty about something they said that was hurtful, but can’t ‘own it’ (in other words, they can’t take responsibility for saying the hurtful thing), so via the hidden mental mechanism of projection, they might see it as the other person’s fault and blame them for being ‘over-sensitive and always making people feel guilty’. This is a case of unconsciously turning the tables so that the other person gets the blame for the very feelings we want to disown. It’s not done on purpose, and we might not really want to hurt the other person, but when a feeling seems unbearable we unconsciously unload it onto another person and then genuinely see them as having the problem. It’s then as if we don’t have the problem anymore. Another example could be that a parent can be worried about their work ability and then be unreasonably annoyed at their children for not doing their homework properly.

We always know deep down whether an accusation is fairly our issue or whether it is unfair but often it is hard to think about this consciously, especially if we are afraid to defend ourselves from the accuser. It is common for many of us to go along with this sort of unfair pressure in order to keep the peace. The only solution is to stop the merry-go-round of pushing feelings away and bring them into the light of understanding, then we have a chance of being balanced and healthy.

Remember – whilst it is up to us how we act towards others, the feelings of our loved ones are not our responsibility – we didn’t create their feelings. Each of us has our own responses to life and it’s up to us how we react. Instead of carrying someone else’s emotional load, we can begin to see that being projected onto doesn’t mean we have to accept it: it is up to us how we respond. We feel stronger, and lighter, when we realise that our feelings are down to us, we’re not victims of other people’s minds. Using our own feelings wisely means we can all create a more responsible world.”