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I am too porous a person. I tend to take on the mood of the people around me, often to my detriment. But I was listening to Invisibilia (a new NPR podcast) recently and heard this episode and discovered that we all do this to a certain extent. We are hard wired to adapt to and adopt the behaviors and emotions of those around us.

I can see this every night as I conduct class. The mood of the entire class tends to follow that of the most vocal participant. So if someone at the beginning of class starts huffing and puffing and complaining that they suck or that they’re stressed or that they “thought this was supposed to be fun,” the entire class starts doing the same and by the end of the night, everyone is stressed out (including me). If someone begins class by saying that this is such an adventure or that it’s a great way to get out of the house or they’re having so much fun or they did a great job on that particular step of the painting, the entire class has a much more positive attitude through to the end. Often, people aren’t even cognizant that they’re setting the tone or that they’re complaining. I’ll be thoroughly convinced that someone hated the class based on the things they’ve been saying, but then, at the end of class, they’ll rebook for another. So clearly, they were enjoying themselves, but their way of communicating with the world tends toward complaint or self degradation.

In an effort to remind people that they shouldn’t take this too seriously, we have signs up in the studio saying that, “Wining is fine, but please don’t whine.” Occasionally things will get so bad that I have to set a rule during class that you cannot say anything negative about your own painting. You can say whatever you like about your neighbor’s painting, but they are allowed to beat you with a wet paintbrush.

Women in particular tend to put themselves down. Women are not generally taught to say positive things about themselves. When someone gives us a compliment, we dismiss it or say why the person giving the compliment is wrong. Partly, it’s false modesty, but I also think that we spend so much of our lives comparing ourselves to those around us that we honestly don’t think good things about ourselves. On a regular basis, I’ll hear a woman compliment her friend’s painting. But instead of saying, “Thank you,” the friend will say something like, “You’re crazy. You’ve had too much to drink.” If I give a compliment, the person will pretty much always say, “You’re paid to say that.” I also think we tend to complain about how we’re doing in hopes that someone will contradict the negative things we’re thinking about ourselves. Subconsciously, we’re hoping someone will tell us we’re special and talented and worthy of love. Interestingly, men in my classes rarely whine. They will sometimes laugh at their own work, but it tends to be much more lighthearted than the way women do it. They’re more than happy to put their friends’ talent down, though.

Anyway, I have come to realize that so much of my happiness with my job depends on the overall mood of my customers. When they’re crankypants, I’m crankypants. When they’re enthusiastic, I’m a rainbow ball of unicorn giggles. So I’m trying to learn from that and be a more positive person when interacting with others, from the teller at the bank to person waiting in line behind me at Starbucks, to my customers, and to my spouse. I need to set an example of kindness and generosity, even when I’m feeling anything but. This is not to say that I can’t have a bad day or vent or have a little pity party, but in general, I’m trying to be more aware of the way my mood influences the mood of those around me. Listen to the podcast and try to think about your role in the world, too, because I might be the next person you bump into, and wouldn’t you rather do something to make me laugh until I wet my pants than make me go home and cry into my poor kitties’ fur (because really, when I do that, I end up with cat fur stuck all over my face, and it invariably gets onto my contact lenses so I have to take them out, and then I get a headache from wearing my glasses, and you don’t want to be the cause of my headache, do you)? And if you can’t be nice, at least have the courtesy to pass me the bourbon.

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