I wrote a checklist on the back of a business card so that Virginia could read over it in emergency situations and learn to "armor up."
A is for Acknowledge
Spongy people who start to feel uneasy in company will often dismiss or tamp down their feelings, but a better idea is to let those emotions loose. Like a spiking fever in an ill patient, the wave of emotion is the beginning of the healing process.
R is for Recognize
What, exactly, does the emotion feel like? You may realize that the feeling fits the person next to you better than it does you (you're angry when they've been wronged, anxious when they're stressed out). The mismatch is evidence that a feeling is contagion based.
M is for Monitor
Sometimes the difference between your feelings and the other's is hard to describe—a bit like the difference between nutmeg and cinnamon—but you might be able to discern which is which if you track what happens in your psyche before, during, and especially after you've been around specific people. You'll begin to notice patterns—that you're always angry after dinner with one friend or nervous after a day with your high-strung aunt.
O is for Observe
The most powerful tool for emotional detachment is observation. As a highly contagious person gets closer to you, watch the interaction and resulting emotions as if you were a third party—something like "Huh, there's that surge of envy I always get around jealous Marcella." Active observation can help the spongiest person detach.
R is for Relax
If simply noticing the extra sensations rattling around your consciousness isn't enough of a remedy, take a deep breath and exhale completely while relaxing all your muscles. Negative energy will lessen.
Space is for Space
The gap between the words armor and up is a reminder to get real physical distance from emotionally contagious people. Walk into the next room. Take a potty break. If only for a minute, find a little private turf to continue watching your mind, breathing deeply, and relaxing physically.
U is for Understand
Few contagious people are deliberately trying to upset others; most are unaware that their anger or frustration or post-work venting can affect more yielding friends and family. Understanding that this is simply the way they're built frees you to tap into your compassion for them. If a stressed-out person wants to inflict her anxiety on you—and she's successful at it—simply realizing that you have methods to block social contagion can help you feel far less susceptible to it.
P is for Protect
The last step in the "armor up" process is to return to the mental image (or images) that connects you to the peaceful balance of your core self. Maintain your psychological shield by spending a few minutes a day visualizing this image, say, while you're driving or washing dishes. The idea is to make the image easily accessible, a way of keeping your armor at the ready.
If you're a bit spongy, vulnerable to the unsettling energy of others, count yourself lucky. You've been given an incentive to armor up, to consciously screen out the ubiquitous stresses that afflict humanity. Create your shining suit, keep your checklist on hand, and head out into battle, knowing that the power to keep yourself safe from social contagion is one thing you'll always find within.
More Martha Beck Advice On Coping With Stress
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