Emotional Pollutants II

Under your skin

Posted May 16, 2008

Here are more emotional pollutants identified by the people in our survey that are almost guaranteed to cause a negative response in bystanders.

5. Pettiness
It's making a big deal out of nothing or focusing on one small, negative aspect of something with no attempt to see the bigger picture. It's making less important things more important than the most important things. Pettiness is usually a function of resentment; for the resentful, nothing is too petty to resent.

Confronted with petty attitudes or behavior, you will feel reduced to some small mistake, as if nothing you have ever done right in your life matters. You will feel criticized, if not condemned, and diminished for the smallest of infractions, real or imagined.

6. Sarcasm
It comes in many forms. Sometimes it's just poorly-timed humor - saying the wrong thing in the wrong context. Sometimes it's innocently insensitive, with no intention to hurt or offend. More often it is hostile and meant to devalue. The purpose is to undermine a perspective you don't agree with or to shake someone's confidence, for temporary ego gain or strategic advantage. The sarcastic person tends to be especially into impression management, always trying to sound smart or witty. They often want to be admired rather than liked. Their tone is always diminishing.

7. Victim identity
Individual and collective identities exert far-reaching influence on thoughts, feelings, and behavior, as well as public policies and laws. The profound ripple effect of identity owes to its function as an organizer of experience and a filter for what sort of information the brain (or legislature) selects to process. The brain (or legislature) looks for information conforming to identity and overlooks all disconfirming evidence. A national identity organized around the sanctity of individual freedoms produces a different legislative agenda from one that considers itself tough on criminals. Similarly, people who identify with injuries, defects, or weaknesses tend to see only negative aspects of themselves and their experience.

Victim identity directs all intelligence and creativity to confirming the various ways in which we seem to be victims. The result is a terrible loss of power over internal experience, as responsibility for regulating how you feel (cheering yourself up when you're down and calming yourself down when you're upset) is abdicated through chronic blame - "I feel bad and it's your fault."

Victim identity has dire implications for healing. One of my teenage clients admitted that he did not want to relieve his depression because that would let his father "off the hook." This boy, like millions of others, wants his suffering to serve as a monument to to someone's bad behavior. In victim identity, the "damaged" self becomes a monument to the transgressions of others. Their attitudes announce loudly: "What others have done to me is more important that who I am as a person." Self-worth is measured by the never quite adequate apologies of others, by the amount of damages awarded in court, or the degree of "validation" garnered on Oprah.

The pollution element of victim identity lies in its obvious air of entitlement along with its built-in revenge motive of wanting to see the perceived offender punished. Think of your response to someone whom you think is a victim of misfortune or bad behavior as opposed to someone who identifies with being a victim. The former invokes a basic humanity connection. The latter makes you feel defensive, diminished, distrusted, manipulated, or used.

The dangerous part of victim identity lies in the fact that almost all criminals, abusers, and violent people have it. Their identity as a victim justifies in their own minds any kind of compensatory retaliation.

8. Enmity
Henry Kissinger once said that even the paranoid have enemies. Paranoid or not, emotional polluters can hardly avoid making enemies. Other people see their negativity or casual disregard of others as rejection or put-down and certainly do not see the core hurts, regret, or remorse that cause it. Far from invoking greater understanding, which is what emotional polluters really long for, their behavior creates little but an impulse for revenge in others.

The chronic negative feedback produced by entitlement, resentment, anger, superiority, pettiness, sarcasm, victim identity, and enmity can do nothing but create more emotional pollution.