The experience of picking up on other people’s feelings (or thoughts or stresses) is a hugely common experience, but it’s also one that rarely gets spoken about. In fact, we don’t even have a real name for it. Empathy is really the closest concept we have (Healthline talks about the pros and cons of being an empath), but this doesn’t describe the detailed, day-to-day experience of managing other people’s emotions in interactions. In my sessions with client’s (and I talk about this with almost all of them) I call it Emotional Transference.

Here’s what I’ve learned about emotional transference based on personal experience, readings, and conversations with others: It is a universal experience but much more noticeable in some people than others. It is particularly noticeable in anxious personalities, highly sensitive people (as described in Elaine Aaron’s book), and neuro-diverse people. Like anything, it is something we can learn to do, consciously or not. Emotional transference can lead to a lot of troubling experiences, as well as truly beautiful moments.

Emotional transference goes wrong mostly when we fail to notice it’s happening. Consider this: If my friend or sister is having a stressful day, I might want to try to support them by listening and offering advice. But if during that conversation I myself start feeling their stress (my heart beating hard, jitters in my arms, and racing thoughts) then I’m losing my focus and my calm — and with it my ability to be the supportive person I want to be in that moment.

But it gets worse. What if instead of a friendly conversation, I’m in a meeting at work. My boss is upset and agitated about the team missing a deadline. Now I’m upset and agitated too, and instead of remembering that I am not solely responsible for the team’s successes and failures I am only thinking of everything I’ve personally failed to accomplish. Now I’m taking on the emotion of everyone in the room, AND their responsibilities. This is how emotional transference turns into Responsibility Transference.

Experiences like this have become more and more common in our culture. We live in a society which teaches us to take care of others, often at the expense of our own needs. We internalize these values and beliefs and they manifest in our interactions with people we know. (There are some really interesting articles about boundaries and culture by BloggerMental Health Match, and Counseling Today.) The problem is that when we are always taking on these responsibilities we often bite off more than we can chew. Then we get used to feeling unhappy and guilty because we cannot complete the impossible tasks we have taken on.

The unfortunate reality is that some manipulative personalities rely completely on emotional and responsibility transference to cope with their own stressors. With these people, it’s near impossible to have a conversation with them without having some of their feelings and worries crossing over onto ourselves. And so, it’s important to recognize that this kind of transference can happen two ways: we can pick it up ourselves, or someone else can place them on us. The best way to avoid this is to have awareness and boundaries.

Awareness means noticing transference when it’s happening. This takes some practice but is possible and hugely rewarding! Once awareness has grown we can start asking questions: Who does this feeling/responsibility really belong to? Am I willing to take it on? Does it help things to allow this transference to happen? And we can start reminding ourselves of a few important truths:

  • Other people’s emotions belong to them, and no one else can take care of their feelings for them.
  • The person best equipped to know what a feeling means, or needs, is the person feeling it.
  • We are never obligated to take on other people’s emotions or responsibilities for them.
  • If we do decide to cross that line it would be in an effort of going above and beyond for a person we care about.

Using statements like these we can create a mental space for ourselves where other people’s emotions and responsibilities can’t get in – at least not without permission. We also relieve the pressure of taking care of all the problems and emotions in other people and get to relax by focusing just on ourselves.

But emotional transference isn’t always a bad thing. When used well it allows us to be caring and empathetic people. And when it’s returned we get to enjoy closeness and trust with those we care about. Often the warmest and most rewarding interactions are caused when we allow those emotional walls to come down.