How do you prevent yourself from getting sucked into someone else’s bad mood? When people hear I’m a psychotherapist they often ask, “How can you stand listening to people’s sorrows all day without getting depressed?”
It’s easier for me to have defensive walls when I’m working than when I’m not. All therapists have to create defenses. First, I need to feel compassion for other people. If I don’t, I can’t be effective (and I wouldn’t be much of a human being). But then I must step back and look at the problem presented to me as a puzzle to be solved.
The question becomes not, “How can I stand to listen to this sorrow?” but “What questions can I ask this person that will get them to think differently about their current struggle? What can I do to inspire new, useful behavior?”
That’s what I do when I’m working. What happens when I’m not?
Here’s one strategy I use in my personal life and I teach to my clients:
When someone is deeply unhappy or distressed (friend, relative, or client), and I find myself getting tense thinking about their pain, I create my Golden Dome.
- I take a deep, slow breath. (If I’m with someone, I make sure this breath isn’t noticeable. Once, a client asked me why I was sighing. I didn’t make that mistake again.)
- I imagine that the sun is shining above me, beaming golden rays that swirl around me and create an invisible force field — my Golden Dome. Nothing can get through this dome to hurt me.
- With each exhalation of my breath, I imagine this force field getting stronger.
- Now I can look through my dome and see that the person in distress is separate from me. Their pain is not mine. I can think more clearly. If they ask for my help, I can offer something useful.
Another strategy is the Airplane Banner.
- When I’m feeling down because of someone else’s misery, I imagine myself lying on the warm sand of Jones Beach, on Long Island, gazing up into a brilliant blue sky.
- An airplane flies by with an advertising banner, the way they often do on crowded weekends.
- My bad thoughts, worries, and frustrations are printed on that banner.
- The airplane banner sails by and the words fly out of sight.
- I’m back on the beach again, staring at the azure sky.
Another strategy is to have a conversation with myself.
“Will feeling as badly as the other person help them?”
“No. It will just make me feel badly.”
“You are not responsible for someone else’s bad mood. Respect their right to figure out how to help themselves. Give them credit for knowing what is best for them.”
What are some of your protective spells for contagious moods?