The hidden effects of emotional pollution can be more harmful to your well being than breathing in someone else's cigarette smoke and more aesthetically disquieting than stepping over other people's trash. That's because emotions are far more contagious than any known virus.

Unfortunately, negative emotions are the most contagious. Due to their immediate survival significance, negative emotions get priority processing in the brain. It is more important to notice the snake in the grass than to appreciate the beauty of the lawn.

Think of how much overreaction you see in the course of typical day, while driving, in stores, at work, home, and on television. I'm not talking about dramatic flare-ups; think of the number of people you see who are not quite attuned to the moment and seem to bring emotion from somewhere else to the interaction you're observing. And what you see is just the tip of the iceberg. Most of the effects of emotional pollution are unconscious, processed by the brain in thousandths of a second. For every overreaction you consciously perceive, there are hundreds of more subdued displays of negativity, which you are likely to internalize without knowing it. These can be scowls, impatient grimaces, vacant stares or looks of disgust, superiority, impatience, resentment, anger, or intolerance - so subtle that you aren't consciously aware of them or of how often your body and mind have to put up defenses against them. And here's the really sad news: Those very defenses - conditioned responses over time - are less likely to protect you from emotional polluters than to make you one of them.

If you are around a resentful, angry, sarcastic, narcissistic, petty, vindictive person, you are likely to respond in kind, at least in your head. Unless you make a conscious effort, they will make you almost as negative as they are. That much may not be surprising. The more alarming point is that you are just as likely to respond in that same negative way to the next person you encounter, unless, of course, he or she makes a special effort to be nice to you. But if your well being depends on other people making special efforts to be nice to you, in no time at all you'll become powerless over how you feel and, to a large extent, how you behave. You'll become a reactaholic, with the experience of your life controlled by an uncomfortable level of reactivity to emotional pollution in your environment.

In the world of emotional pollution, we either convince ourselves of a subtle sense of value for everyone we encounter, or run the risk of absorbing their subtle negativity; we put out compassion or download resentment.

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