Emotions are Contagious: From Child Alienation to Workplace Bullying to World Anxiety

©2022 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

In many ways, the world runs on emotions. We share happiness, sadness, anger and fear all day long. Emotions are the social glue that hold us together as human beings. But this gets problematic when we “catch” emotions that aren’t helpful to us. When there is too much anger or fear, it shuts down our ability to think clearly and solve problems. Instead, we go into fight, flight, or freeze mode, which doesn’t work well in our modern, complex world. This article addresses how contagious emotions can create problems for families, organizations, and sometimes our highly interconnected world, and some ways we can manage these emotions better.

Child Alienation

When a child resists or refuses contact with one of his or her parents during and after a separation or divorce, it can be devastating to that parent and often the grandparents and other relatives on that parent’s side of the family. This causes a lot of confusion and often anger between the parents and other family members. But when one looks deeply into what has occurred, such alienation seems to be primarily caused by an excess of emotions during the separation or divorce that have been shared with the child.

“I can’t believe that your mother is taking me back to court!!”

“Once again, your father is late with the child support!!”

“How was your weekend with your father, Johnny? Did you feel safe? If you’re worried, you know you can always call me and I’ll come get you. I can’t believe how he doesn’t really care about you. He only cares about himself!”

“No, Mr. Eddy! I would NEVER share my upset emotions with the children! NEVER! Do you understand!”

These are all examples of parents who lack normal emotional boundaries, so that their children are over-exposed to their feelings and thoughts about separation or divorce. Children can’t handle more than a certain level of emotional intensity before they shut down or act out in an effort to cope. This is how Allan Schore, a psychiatrist working with young children and parents describes it:

Unpredictable and intrusive [parenting] often leads to what is called ambivalent-anxious attachment. [They] can only cope with a certain intensity of emotional arousal before they move beyond their window of tolerance into a state of stressful emotional dysregulation…. Such children…express emotions in an excessive way and suffer intense negative moods. They are overly dependent on their attachment figure (presumably to make her feel more secure)…. (Schore, 2019, 231-32)

Hostility, in particular, can have a serious impact on a child. This is commonly seen in cases of child alienation, in which one parent is unable to shield the child from their hostility toward the other parent. One study of over 900 children in Norway (not specific to divorce, although separation was included) found that the emotions expressed by parents with just traits of a personality disorder could have a very negative influence:

The PDs that appear to be the most strongly associated with hostile behavior and that may affect children are Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD) and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). These disorders are characterized by features such as difficulty controlling anger (BPD, ASPD, NPD), impulsive and aggressive outbursts (BPD, ASPD), rage when being criticized (NPD), irritability (BPD), aggressiveness and physical assault (ASPD), being tough-minded, exploitive, and non-empathic (ASPD, NPD), lack of reciprocal interest and sensitivity to the wants and needs of others (ASPD, NPD), extreme sarcasm (BPD), being indifferent to having hurt another (ASPD), sudden and dramatic shifts in their view of others (BPD), emotional coldness (NPD, ASPD) and disdainful, arrogant behavior (NPD). (Berg-Nielsen and Wichstrom, 2012, 2)

When a parent doesn’t realize that their emotions can be contagious, they are more likely to expose their child to too much intensity. It’s not unusual for a child to try to calm their upset parent by becoming overly dependent on them and seeming to reject the other parent. Yet only about 10-15% of children in separation and divorce cases show concerning signs of resistance or refusal to spend time with the other parent. This means that most parents recognize the importance of protecting their children from their most upset emotions as they go through this difficult process. Yet the problem of alienation appears to continue to grow.

It’s not just parents who need to manage their emotions around their children. Alienation cases tend to arouse professionals too, who may become very heated in their communications with each other as they argue over who is to blame for the child’s resistance. When judges, evaluators, or mediators get angry at parents in separation and divorce cases, their emotions often spill over from the parents onto their children, which increases their resistance rather than reducing it. When lawyers and counselors become emotionally involved with their client in these cases, they can reinforce a parent’s hostility toward the other parent rather than reducing it. All parents and professionals involved in these cases need to manage their own emotions with more awareness of how contagious they are.

Workplace Bullying

Recently, there have been many cases in the news of sexual harassment by top officials in business and in government. Former Governor Andrew Cuomo resigned his office after several female staffers finally came forward about how he physically and verbally harassed them. Yet they remained silent out of fear for years in some cases.

Travis Kalanick was the driving force behind Uber, the ride-sharing business which aggressively replaced many taxi services starting in 2009. Yet he was eventually driven out of the company as CEO and a Board member, in order to change the emotional culture of the company.

The company has been exposed this year [2017] as having a workplace culture that included sexual harassment and discrimination, and it has pushed the envelope in dealing with law enforcement and even partners. That tone was set by Mr. Kalanick, who has aggressively turned the company into the world’s dominant ride-hailing service and upended the transportation industry around the globe. (Isaac, 2017)

While it would seem that he was a positive leader, the emotional culture of his company was set by him, such that aggressive behavior and fear rippled throughout the organization. Eventually, Uber ended up with several scandals and lawsuits related to sexual harassment and discrimination. Company emotions are contagious and set by the top. He left the Board of Directors of Uber in 2019. He had to leave completely for the company to go in a new direction.

Harvey Weinstein was a highly successful movie mogul for thirty years. However, he also was accused and eventually convicted of a long-term pattern of sexual harassment and assault. Here is what one of the actresses said about his emotional power:

Asia Argento, an Italian film actress and director, said that she did not speak out until [2017]… because she feared that Weinstein would “crush” her. “I know he has crushed a lot of people before,” Argento said. “That’s why this story—in my case, it’s twenty years old, some of them are older—has never come out.” ….  

Multiple sources said that Weinstein frequently bragged about planting items in media outlets about those who spoke against him; these sources fear similar retribution. ….

“The type of control he exerted—it was very real…. Even just his presence was intimidating.”  (Farrow, 2017, 42)

Once again, the emotion of fear has been used to coerce and silence people who are victims of workplace bullying. While force was involved in some of these cases, the emotions may have been the most powerful and negative part.

World Anxiety

It is no secret that our society—worldwide—has become more anxious over the past few years. Political polarization is a common theme, yet the form it takes today is different from in the past where there was a specific issue that people were fighting about, such as slavery or the Vietnam War or Civil Rights. Today much of the anxiety comes from watching the news on TV or Facebook or other social media.

Studies of social media show that false information travels farther and faster than true information. Yet the key factor seems to be that the false information is more emotional. It appears that contagious emotions are rippling around the world at warp speed, which escalates and escalates them. Yet when people talk one-to-one or in small groups face-to-face about their views on the issues, they tend to like each other and become less angry and polarized.

One study in 2019 showed this that brought together a diverse sample 526 people from across the United States. They came together to discuss political issues for four days at a hotel complex near Dallas, Texas, at no cost to themselves. This nonpartisan event was called America in One Room.

Put a diverse group of people in a room, the political scientists James Fishkin and Larry Diamond argue, and they’re likely to mute their harshest views and wrestle more deeply with rebuttals. They become more informed, even more empathetic. And in this setting, the political scientists say, pollsters can get a picture of what people believe when they’re not just relying on sound bites and tribal cues. (Badger & Quealy, 2021)(Emphasis added)

By the end of the weekend, most people had not changed their minds on the issues, but voters on both the left and the right had softened their positions and moved more toward the middle. They were surprised to find so much common ground with each other. They had empathy for each other.   

Conclusion

All of these leads to the conclusion that negative AND positive emotions can be contagious. While each of these three areas of modern life deserves a lot more attention that could be provided in one article, the key lesson is already clear. We need to be careful about the emotions we absorb from others and also the emotions that we send out to each other.

Child alienation is largely a problem of emotions being contagious, yet it is exacerbated by how upset both parents and professionals get about it. We need to watch the intensity of our discussions, and understand that emotional contagion is mostly hidden and not purposeful. Likewise, workplace bullying can be emotionally devastating to those experiencing it. We need to become more aware and understanding, with mechanisms for people to get support and protection, rather than fear and blame.

Lastly, the world is more interconnected now than ever and more emotions are flying around the globe than ever. It wouldn’t hurt to slow down and have more serious thought and less emotional reacting going on. Unplugging from high-emotion media from time to time can be very refreshing. Rather than fighting over who is to blame, we need to get serious about giving everyone Empathy, Attention and Respect (EAR Statements) and focusing on solutions, like educating people about the dynamics of abusive behavior, and teaching better skills for self-management and communication. We’re all in this together, so a little “compassion contagion” toward each other could help.

References

Badger, E. and Quealy, K. “These 526 Voters Represent All of America. And They Spent a Weekend Together.” The New York Times, October 2, 2019.

Berg-Nielsen, T.S. and Wichstrom, L. “The mental health of preschoolers in a Norwegian population-based study when their parents have symptoms of borderline, antisocial, and narcissistic personality disorders: at the mercy of unpredictability.” Child & Adolescent Psychiatry & Mental Health. 2012; 6:19. 

Farrow, Ronan, “Abuses of Power: Stories from the women harmed by Hollywood’s most influential producer,” The New Yorker, October 23, 2017, 42-43.

Isaac, Mike, “Uber Founder Travis Kalanick Resigns at C.E.O.,” The New York Times, June 21, 2017.

Schore, Allan, Right Brain Psychotherapy, New York: W. W. Norton & Co. (2019), 231-32.

BILL EDDY, LCSW, ESQ. is the co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer of the High Conflict Institute in San Diego, California. He pioneered the High Conflict Personality Theory (HCP) and is viewed globally as the leading expert on managing disputes involving people with high conflict personalities. He has written more than twenty books on the topic and has taught professionals in the U.S. and more than ten countries.

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