How Not to Catch Someoneʼs Bad Mood

By Kerry Weiss
September 13, 2023

If you’ve ever spent time with a friend or loved one who complains nonstop and prefers to fixate on the gray cloud instead of the silver lining, you know that one person’s negative mood can bring down the vibe of the whole room.

“Emotions can be contagious and can seemingly spread from one person to another through facial expressions, tone of voice, or other nonverbal cues,” says Shelley Bonanno, M.A., L.L.P., a psychotherapist in Macomb, Michigan. When one person’s emotions—whether positive or negative—affect the people around them, it’s known as emotional contagion.

Why Emotions Are So Infectious

Emotional contagion is fairly common. At its best, this can help you recognize emotions and empathize with your loved ones. At its worst, it can also have a negative effect on your mental health.

How so? Although we can “catch” both positive and negative emotions, the latter can seem more easily transmitted. This is especially true if you spend a lot of time with someone. “You can probably pick up on the fact that they’re not happy quicker than if you don’t spend a lot of time with them … so you’re going to be more sensitive to it,” adds Julie Shafer, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and relationship coach based in Portland, Oregon.

But when you spend a lot of time with someone who is constantly throwing negative vibes, it can be really draining on you.

How to Avoid Catching Negative Emotions

There are strategies you can use to help you be supportive of a friend or loved one while also protecting your own emotional well‑being and preserving your relationship.

Notice When You’re Affected by Someone’s Mood

The first step in blocking someone else’s bad mood from souring your own is to recognize when it’s happening. “If you feel depleted or exhausted after spending time with a particular person, it could be that their mood is negatively affecting you,” Bonanno says.

This can be trickier than you might expect, since the signs are often subtle. You may be taking on someone else’s energy if “you find yourself being upset about something you normally wouldn’t be upset about,” Shafer says. Once you’re able to pick up on these types of things, you can take steps to react accordingly.

Remind Yourself That Their Mood Is Not Your Responsibility

Yes, there are times when you might trace a friend’s moodiness to something you said or did. If that’s the case, says Shafer, the right thing to do is apologize for your actions. But if you have nothing to do with their current emotional state, resist the temptation to make it all about you.

“We’ve got this thing in our language that says, ‘You made me mad,’ and that really gives the other person agency over our moods,” Shafer says. “On the flip side, we tend to feel like we affect other people’s moods more and take responsibility for them more than we should.”

At the end of the day, we each have a responsibility to manage our own emotional state and behave appropriately. “In fact, taking responsibility for someone else’s emotions can quickly lead to emotional exhaustion and even resentment,” Bonanno says.

The bottom line: Someone else’s negative mood should not be treated as a reflection of your own self-worth.

Offer Support the Way They Want It

If the person who’s feeling down wants space, give them space. If they want to talk, simply listen. “You can offer a listening ear, express empathy, and provide comfort without internalizing their emotions,” Bonanno says.

“Offer validation for how they feel, even if you don’t agree,” adds Shafer. “If you can validate their position, that can often really help them relax a little bit and feel better.”

And try not to take anything they say personally—which can be easier said than done.

Set Boundaries As Needed

“If you find yourself affected by someone else’s negative mood, consider setting boundaries,” suggests Bonanno. That may look like taking some time apart from your loved one to:

  • Reset and reconnect with your emotions
  • Practice self-care
  • Seek support from friends, family, or a therapist

“It’s okay to prioritize your own emotional health and well‑being,” she says. “In fact, setting healthy boundaries can be beneficial for both you and the other person involved.”

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