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Emotional Chameleon or naturally empathetic?

Posted May 21 2013 5:00am

Do you soak up others emotions like a sponge?

Emotional Chameleon

If you find that the way you feel changes when you are around certain people you may be an emotional chameleon.

Emotional chameleons have difficulty identifying what they feel and as a result they are at risk to assume the feelings of those they are around. They were feeling fine when they entered the class room but within a few minutes they have adopted the sad feelings as well as the behaviors of someone who came to class depressed.

We are all affected by the feelings of others around us but the emotional chameleon is unaware that they are changing emotional state throughout the day as they move around others and adopt the feelings of those around them.

Be careful who you hang with, you might catch their emotions as well as their behaviors.

Some people are naturally empathetic. That is not the same thing as an emotional chameleon. The empathetic person can see and sense what others around them are feeling. The can understand what that person is feeling and behave appropriately.

Some people just are not good at empathy. Someone comes up to you and there are in tears, you might ask what is wrong. They tell you that a family member just died.

Someone with low empathy might make a joke about the funeral home should be running a two for the price of one sale with all the deaths going around. A more empathetic person might respond with some conversation about how this person was handling the loss and how can we all be supportive. The emotional chameleon will start crying and tell this person all about the deaths in their family going back to the turn of the century.

Counselors are trained to be empathetic, that skill of being with the other person and picking up on how they must be feeling. Humans have mirror neurons that help us understand what the other person must be feeling. This helps us to behave appropriately and promotes social connection if you pay attention to the other.

The empathetic person can understand what the other person is feeling without being swept away by the feelings.

Not so for the emotional chameleon. They quickly take on the feelings of the others. It is as if they have no feelings of their own and they need to absorb others emotions to know how and what to feel.

If you find that you are particularly sensitive to others feelings there are several things that you can do to keep yourself grounded and avoid emotional contagion.

Learn to identify what you feel and distinguish this from what others around you are feeling. This process of work with feelings begins by noticing that you are feeling something, find the place in your body that you feel this thing. Next identify that feeling. This means studying feelings and developing a vocabulary to identify them when you have them. Lastly learn to vary you responses and behavior depending on what feeling you are having.

Having strengthened you own feelings system you will be at less risk of catching someone else’s emotion. The more you know about you feelings the better you will be at being empathetic and understanding what others are feeling without having to catch your feelings from others in order to feel.

This also allows you to be with someone who is having a negative feeling without having to take that feeling as your own and take it home with you.

Are you high in natural empathy or are you an emotional chameleon who is at risk to catch another feeling from someone else every time you change locations?

David Joel Miller, LMFT, LPCC

For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page . For information about my other writing work beyond this blog there is also a Facebook authors page, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at

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