Can You See Emotional Contagion and Still Define Your Self?
February 12, 2019
As with love so with fear, with indignation, jealousy, ambition, worship, if they are there, life changes. – William James
Is it possible that our lives are predetermined by our emotional reactivity to others? If so what can we learn from considering that to some extent we are all living on Shakespeare’s stage?
Think about King Lear who tells us about the down side of pressuring others to follow and flatter the “boss”. If you are in a family business or just happen to see how the “boss” wants the children, the workers, the board to agree with him, then you have seen the beginning of King Lear’s problems.
One person begins to pressure another to agree in some way. Please flatter the “boss” and pretend to give the “boss” what they want. Can anyone see the problem? Can anyone speak up and tell the truth, as Cordelia did? Although face it, truth did not prevent her downfall. Cordelia, Lear’s youngest daughter, genuinely loves her father, but her refusal to flatter him leads to her banishment and tragic death.1
Are there other ways to tell the truth, to give information to the family or the business about the state of things without getting killed for doing so?
I have seen this dynamic unfold in my family and in so many family businesses. My uncle was a merchandising genius, but he wanted his children to conform, to do things his way. Over time there was a predictable backlash, an emotional contagion that spread throughout the family. It is with us still, although my Uncle Jimmy died in 2005. People took sides. Who could maintain neutrality? Who could speak truth to power and if they did what good did it do?2
The emotional atmosphere controls others. People automatically react and often shut down or fly away from emotional intensity automatically. Only a few can figure out a way around the emotional contagion in the family to speak the truth.
Looking back, I can see how the play was already embedded in the family system. A growing awareness was too light a tool to wake up the system. Each of us were playing our inherited parts. The script had been written. Few words were spoken. The reactivity to others eventually split the family into distant camps. The business suffered, the family suffered. It was predictable, once the play had begun.
How is it that people cannot see the part they are playing? It is not just because powerful people have no reason to care about the thoughts of those lower in the pecking order.
In family business, there should be more investment in the well-being of those in the next generation that will inherit the business. Yet, people are often blind to their own reactivity or under the spell of emotions from the past. Even a successful man can desire the love and approval of his dead mother or his wife or his children.
Over the generations, we are tuned as to what is right and how to act. We are vulnerable to emotional contagion and taking sides. We play our parts, wittingly or unwittingly because we are sensitive to our positions in the relationship field. In general, people are more vulnerable to those we identify with than the value we place on our independence and uniqueness.3 In my case I was blindsided to the fact that my uncle was more important to me than my independence.
Once aware of the plays we are participating in, then the knowledge of the power of emotional contagion might give us a more realistic perception about how much we can expect to influence social situations.
The hope is that once people can see emotional pressure, they will have the ability to resist the wish to be loved and approved of and to maintain one’s self. Giving up self for the group is how the reactivity wins. By focusing on responsibility for self, one is less vulnerable to emotional contagion.
The list of ways in which we are easily influenced to feel for or against our fellow humans is long. But the ways in which we can resist emotional contagion is short.
Can we be objective observers? Or do we lose objectivity as the emotional field around us highlights being in tune with others? Can you see the play when you are in it? To do so requires increasing our ability to see patterns, to bring the entire multigenerational family into perspective.
Over time we can see the togetherness forces at work. People can clarify the forces that pressure people to say: “We must do this, ” or “You’re wrong to do that.” As anxiety goes up, the family focuses on the weaker members either too negatively or too positively and those that are focused on absorb more anxiety. They are controlled, they feel it, they act out, it is their fault. In this way, the stronger ones do better at the expense of the weak.
Observing allows you to see these family patterns. How many in your family blame others? Is there an intellectual awareness and an emotional awareness in the family of the innocent way people pressure one another? If you see people playing their part in the family play can you talk about it? What happens if you do? Can you step off Shakespeare’s stage and rearrange the chairs on the stage? If so, then you might just step back on the stage to play a slightly different more self-defined role.
2. “Leaders, Cooperation, and Anxiety” The Emotional Side of Organizations, Georgetown Family Center, 1996.
3. Emotional Contagion: Studies in Emotional and Social Interactions, Elaine Hatfield, John T. Cacioppo, & Richard L. Rapson, Cambridge University Press, 1994 page 148