Setting Emotional Boundaries in the Workplace



How can you keep up your energy  and stay centered in a highly stressful, busy and emotionally charged  workplace enviornment?

Emotional contagions refer to how we spread and pick up emotions in social situations. We quite literally, ‘catch’ other people’s moods. This usually happens without our awareness; through mimicking of the facial expressions and body language of people we interact with. By unconsciously copying other people’s expressions, we begin to feel a trace of their emotions.

This ability is useful as is facilitates empathy and smoother social interactions. Paradoxically, we have little awareness of this process and of its significance. This lack of understanding leaves us susceptible to unconsciously picking up negative emotions from others. This can be problematic, as science has shown that negativity narrows our thinking and our ability to see solutions to problems.

People working in psychologically high-risk professions need to learn how to filter other people’s negative emotions. Being surrounded by chronic anxiety, fear, frustration, and depression can wear us down and make us more permeable to the negative feelings of others. Taking on other people’s drama is emotionally exhausting – making us less resilient when it comes to handling our own life stresses.

Fortunately, there are steps we can take which can enable us to choose what emotions we let in, and which ones to keep firmly out!



1. Learn to Neutrally Observe

Learning to neutrally observe the play of emotions in our interactions helps us to understand what’s happening objectively – without getting drawn in. In emotionally charged situations, train yourself to distinguish between your own emotions and those of others. Focus on your breath – taking deep, slow breaths reassured our body that everything is ok. Ask yourself ‘Does this feeling belong to me or someone else? It could be both. If the emotion such as fear or anger is yours, gently confront what’s causing it. If not, try to pinpoint the originator. Notice when you are reacting to another’s negativity – a clear indication is when we feel our own body tensing up – our posture can become more rigid and our breathing more shallow. Don’t worry if you don’t get this skill at first, learning to neutrally observe in an emotional situation takes a while to master. Regular mindfulness practice, such as meditation, can be hugely helpful for helping us to remain more neutral and centered when confronted with our own someone else’s negativity.

2. Choose Positive Company

Who are the most positive people in our workplace? If you find that you regularly in the company of people who spend most of their time griping, complaining and generally focusing on the negative –  there is something you can do about it. Our happiness levels are directly influenced by the people we spend the most time with. For example if a friend who lives within a mile of you is happy you are 25% more likely to be happy! Spend time with a colleague who affirms the bright side of things. Listen to hopeful people. Hear the faith they have in themselves and others. Remember, positive emotions are contagious too!

3. Practice Acceptance

When you find yourself stuck  in a situation with someone who is acting negatively, accept it. Allow this individual to whine, complain and criticise to their hearts content.  Listen, breathe and stay neutral. Remind yourself that the negativity is not yours, and that you don’t have to take it on. After 5 minutes have passed, as sincerely as possible, ask, “Can I help?” If they reply, “Yes, you can help”, then do so if reasonably possible.

4. Empathise without Collaborating

Sometimes we feel compelled to get sucked into or try to fix other people’s drama. This can from the belief that this may help them or the situation. However, this strategy rarely helps. Instead, we unwittingly become a collaborator in their drama. In addition, when we or take on someone else’s emotional drama or somehow try to ‘fix’ it, we subtlety reinforce their belief that they are incapable of dealing with difficult emotions or situations themselves. By collaborating in their drama we unwittingly enable them to avoid taking ownership of it. This deprives them of the opportunity to face a challenge themselves and learn from it.


If you want to read more about the science of emotional contagions, check out

If you want to find out more about how happiness is spread here’s  great article- Fowler, J. H., Christakis, N. A., Steptoe, & Roux, D. (2009). Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis of the Framingham Heart Study social network. BMJ: British medical journal, 23-27.

Catherine O' RiordanRead all author posts