Don't get caught up in their emotional wake.
At a bar recently, a friend and I ran into a woman I've known for years. I respect her; I think she's talented and smart. And yet, whenever we interact, I depart under an anxiety cloud, thinking, Why do I feel crummy now? Does she not like me? As we talked, she gossiped about someone I didn't know and seemed to vibrate with negative energy. I got confirmation that it wasn't just me who felt that way. After we left her, my friend turned to me and said, "Why do I suddenly feel lousy?"
Every human interaction imparts some residual feelings for either side to process. While it's obvious that you'll walk away stung if someone insults or belittles you, conversations often pack more subtle undercurrents. It could be a matter of disconcerting words, an odd look, even an eyebrow-raising text—or just a mood that descends like a fog when a person exits a room. This aftereffect is called an emotional wake—the feelings churning behind a conversation like the waves behind a roaring speedboat.
Sometimes the wake is an uplifting one, but walking away from a negatively loaded exchange can leave us feeling somewhere between vaguely anxious and downright destroyed. And often people aren't even aware of the effect they're having, says leadership expert Susan Scott, who believes it's key for all of us to examine the wake we leave with others. "Somebody may still be angry about something that you don't even remember saying seven years ago. Or they might be grateful to you to this very day because it's what they needed to hear at the time," she says.
Although the term emotional wake was coined in 2002 by Scott in her book Fierce Conversations, it has brand-new resonance. Part of that is our divisive political climate, says Arielle Schwartz, Ph.D., a Colorado psychologist. "When we're faced with unpredictable or erratic behaviors from other people, like politicians, we are more hyperaware of their facial expressions or body language" in an effort to suss out their motivations, Schwartz says. That state of heightened scrutiny trickles into our own relationships. The result? "We're vigilantly sensitive to other people's wakes right now." Social media, too, contributes to our extra-sensitivity, says Jennifer Uhrlass, a marriage and family therapist in New York City: "It's easier than ever to make a quick comment without fully understanding the impact of your words on others."
Think of the phenomenon as "catching" someone else's feelings—which our brains are wired to do. When we see someone making an emotionally expressive face, for example, it's enough to trigger neurons in our brain to make that same expression ourselves. This mirroring lets us display empathy—but it can also make it hard to keep clear where our emotions end and the other person's begin.
That's all fine when you're coming from a happy interaction, like laughing your butt off with your best friend or getting praised at work. But when a chronically bitter friend eats up your whole coffee break with her rants, or a boss doles out only negative feedback, you wind up feeling like garbage. In the same way people go into fight-or-flight mode when physically threatened, when you perceive an emotional threat ("My friend seems bored by me," "My boss never thinks my work is good enough"), your thinking brain gets hijacked by your emotional brain. You snap into defensive mode and become closed off and fearful, or you struggle to feel compassion for the person who's been bumming you out.
Worse still, the blowback can impact both mind and body. When someone frequently leaves a toxic wake and you don't do anything to address it, a sort of emotional sediment forms, leading you to feel depressed, anxious, or even sick: Research shows our immune systems are affected by the relationships we have. In a 12-year study of more than 10,000 subjects, scientists discovered that people in negative relationships were at a greater risk of developing heart problems, including a fatal cardiac event, than those whose close relationships were overall mostly positive.
And the drawbacks aren't just for the person on the receiving end. Someone who gives off a negative wake may find other people less likely to open up to them and more likely to reflect that negativity back. If you're a leader of a group at work, says Scott, leaving a constant not-so-great vibe sticks you with an uninspired team that's too mired in bad emotions to perform. But no matter what your job, a bad wake can hold back your career. Michelle Dean, 41, an Oklahoma HR professional, recalls a former coworker who "had a way of making everyone feel dumb or like they'd bothered her by asking a question," she says. When the woman was turned down for a promotion, she was told it was due to her terse tone. She complained to Dean that the feedback caught her off guard. "Everyone knew her reputation, yet she was totally unaware."
Simply being conscious of your invisible aura can vastly improve your relationships. "When you take responsibility for your wake, you're essentially saying, 'I care about the impact that I have on you,' " says Schwartz. Simple ways to leave people feeling good: Make eye contact, ask thoughtful questions, listen to the responses. "Take a moment to think, What has their day been like? " says Uhrlass. "If you take a real interest in people, that can have a huge impact on how they feel about you and around you."
Shana, 43, a restaurant owner in New Orleans, makes that effort. "As a boss, I know I can be a bull in a china shop, so I try to pay attention to how I talk to each of my employees," she says. "I try to think, This person needs to hear things this way, and this other person needs to hear it like that, and then tailor how I deliver information in a way that will come across as positive."
Another key is recognizing and spelling out your own feelings. "If you come home from a tough day and yell at your partner, he thinks it's about him and will feel punished and victimized," says Schwartz. "Instead, how about saying, 'I had a rough day at work and I'm in a crappy mood, but it's not your fault.' " Sharing a laugh can go a long way too, she says.
Sometimes your wake has less to do with how you feel about a particular person and more to do with your internal universe. "Are you taking part in activities that lift you up and energize you, or are you stuck in negative patterns that drain you?" asks Uhrlass. When you are constantly feeling run down, chances are slim that you're bucking up anyone around you.
If you're getting feedback, especially from more than one person, that they see you as angry, unkind, or generally a major downer, pay attention—and don't get defensive. "This does not mean that everything you hear from a family member, coworker, or friend is true," says Schwartz. It may be more about another person's perceptions or projections. That said, if the reports are unanimous, it's time to make a change. Even Susan Scott, who coined the term, wrestles with her own wake. "In my early days of leadership training, I got feedback that my message was right on but my delivery was harsh," she says. "I thought, If I'm too strong for some people, that's their problem! It was only later in life that I recognized that in all the disappointing events of my life, I was the constant, and it often came down to my delivery. I've learned that I need to stop and think, How might this land? "
Consider a good emotional wake as a positive goal as opposed to a punishing ideal, says Asia Wong, L.C.S.W., a therapist at Loyola University in New Orleans. Instead of being something else to add to our list of things we don't do well enough, it's as a way to make all the difference in another person's day—and your own.
When you're on the receiving end of someone's noxious vapor, your first instinct might be to bolt. "But remember that it's not your distress," says Sylvia Morelli, Ph.D., director of the Empathy and Social Connection Lab at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "The key is to see what they're feeling but not take it on."
One clinically proven strategy, she says, is visual distancing. This means you listen but imagine yourself physically farther away from the person than you are. That doesn't mean checking out emotionally; you're just focusing on the broader picture. Another tactic is to cut the acidity with kindness. One mental health professional, who asked to remain anonymous, has a client with such a strong negative wake that it's making the therapist sick. "I get tension headaches talking to her," she says. "I've even started getting them before I see her!" How does she handle it? "I make sure to point out the things she does well, which takes some of the steam out of her toxicity and makes me better able to deal with her."
Having a person like this in your life raises the question: When do you confront her about her wake, and when do you just let it go? "The rule of thumb that I like is that if you're irked by the teller at the bank or the driver in front of you, just move on. But if there is a mutual long-term commitment to the relationship—a spouse, a friend, a boss—then it's worth your while to bring up how they make you feel, even if it's uncomfortable," says Schwartz. For important relationships, dealing with awkwardness can present opportunity for growth—for both people—if they're willing to engage. Nothing can get better if we just accept things as they are.
This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Women's Health. For more great advice, pick up a copy of the issue on newsstands now!