THE EMOTIONAL WAKE
It’s the aura-like after-effect that can alter your state of mind and relationships – here’s how to take charge of it like a boss
A friend and I recently ran into a woman I’ve known for years. I respect her and yet, whenever we interact, I depart under an anxiety cloud, thinking, ‘Why do I feel so flat now? Does she not like me?’ As we talked, she gossiped about someone I didn’t know and seemed to vibrate with negative energy. After we left her, my friend turned to me and said, “Why do I suddenly feel like crap?”
Every human interaction imparts some feelings for either side to process. While it’s obvious that you’ll walk away stung if someone insults you, conversations often pack more subtle undercurrents. It could be a matter of disconcerting words, an odd look, an eyebrowraising text or just a mood that descends like a fog when a person departs. This after-effect is called an emotional wake – the feelings churning behind a conversation like the waves behind a speedboat.
Sometimes the wake is an uplifting one, but walking away from a negative exchange can leave us feeling somewhere between vaguely anxious and downright destroyed. And often people aren’t 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.
The aura we create
Think of the phenomenon as ‘catching’ someone else’s feelings, which our brains are wired to do. When we see someone making a face, for example, it’s enough to trigger our brain to make that same expression ourselves. This mirroring lets us display empathy, but it can also make it hard to tell where our emotions end and another’s begin.
That’s all good when you’re coming from a happy interaction, such as cracking up with your bestie or getting praised at work. But when a bitter mate eats up your break with her rants, or a boss doles out only criticism, 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 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, which can lead you to feel depressed, anxious or even sick. Research by Ohio
State University, US, shows our immune systems are affected by the relationships we have. Meanwhile in a 12-year study of more than 9000 subjects, University College London scientists discovered that people in negative relationships had a greater risk of developing heart problems
than those whose close relationships were mostly positive. Fascinating!
Own your wake
The upside? Simply being conscious and owning your aura can vastly improve your relationships. Easy ways to leave people feeling good: make eye contact, ask thoughtful questions, listen to the responses. “Think, ‘What has their day been like?’“says marriage and family therapist Jennifer Uhrlass. “If you take a real interest in people, that can have a huge impact on how they feel about … and around you.”
Another key is recognising 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,” says psychologist Dr Arielle Schwartz. “Instead, how about saying, ‘I had a rough day at work … but it’s not your fault.’” Sharing a laugh helps a lot, too.
Sometimes your wake has less to do with how you feel about a particular person and more to do with what’s going on internally. When you’re constantly feeling run down, chances are slim that you’re boosting anyone else around you.
And if you’re getting feedback, especially from more than one person, that you seem angry, unkind or generally a downer, pay attention. “This doesn’t mean that everything you hear from a family member, co-worker or friend is true,” says Schwartz. It may be about their perceptions or projections. That said, if the reports are unanimous, it could be time to change things up.
Process their wake
When you’re on the receiving end of someone’s nego ’tude, your first instinct might be to bolt. “But remember … it’s not your distress,” says Dr Sylvia Morelli, director of the Empathy & 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; just focusing on the broader picture. Another is to cut in with kindness. One mental health professional, who asked to remain anonymous, has a client with a strong negative wake. “I … 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,” she says.
Having a person like this in your life raises the question: when do you speak up, and when do you just let it go? “If there’s 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. Dealing with it can be good for both of you (if they’re willing to engage). Nothing can get better if we just accept things as they are, right? Good vibes only, please!
0.5 Come up for air, mate. When you’re chatting, a half-second is the perfect pause between sentences for someone to take in what you’re saying, reckon scientists. Source: University of Gothenburg