Building Immunity to "Emotional Pollution"

There’s been a devastating change in the emotional climate, too.

Posted Mar 08, 2019

Do you ever feel like you're surrounded by negativity? Do people, media, and the Internet make you feel lots of things you'd rather not feel? Well, you're not alone.

Emotions are more contagious than any virus. That's because the human emotional system is socially oriented. Early humans connected and communicated with each other by emotional display, long before the development of language. Emotions held us together then and hold us together now.

Just as environmental polluters spread waste and trash in the environment without regard of the effect on others, emotional polluters spread hostility in the environment without regard to the effect on others. They have the power to do so because negative emotions get priority processing in the brain, which continually scans the environment for signs of hostility and is likely to respond with equal hostility, even when we control hostile impulses. If someone comes into work resentful, by lunchtime everyone around that person is resentful. Aggressive-drivers make other drivers aggressive. A teenager with an attitude ruins the family dinner. A resentful spouse makes TV-viewing tense and unpleasant. A rude email or post on social media or a sensational news headline irritates us and makes it less likely that we’ll be as sweet to our kids than we might otherwise have been. Emotional pollution, usually below conscious awareness, passes cubicle-by-cubicle throughout the workplace, car-by-car down the road, locker-by-locker in school, and room-by-room at home.


Because emotional pollution feeds on feelings, immunity must come from our deeper values. Feelings, when not associated with deeper values, are susceptible to emotional pollution because they’re almost entirely reactive, transitory, and dependent on current sensations. We’re more susceptible to emotional pollution when hungry, tired, satiated, hot, or cold. When acting on feelings we’re more likely to spread emotional pollution than build immunity to it.

In contrast, values prompt proactive behavior and provide meaning and purpose with a sense of permanence, all of which insulate us from emotional pollution.

Building Immunity

1. Declare what kind of person you most want to be.

Do you want to be reactive to other people? (They push your buttons and make you act against your best interests.)

Or behave in your long term best interests (regardless of what people say or do)?

Do you want to be driven by your ego, which will make you highly susceptible to emotional pollution?

Or be motivated by your deepest values?

2. Identify with your deeper values.

Below are the broad categories of values:

  • Basic humanity (compassion, kindness, equality, fairness, respect).
  • Love (emotional support, kindness, compassion, appreciation, respect, acceptance of differences).
  • Spirituality (sense of connection to something larger than the self)
  • Beauty (natural and creative)
  • Community (goodwill, cooperation, flexibility)

3. Stand for something.

“Be not simply good, be good for something.” -Thoreau

Emotional pollution is all about being against something, devaluing rather than valuing, tearing down rather than building up.

List five things that you stand for. (Examples: fairness, hard work, integrity, compassion, kindness.) Make sure the values you listed are the guide and measure of your behavior for the next three weeks. At the end of three weeks, you’ll enjoy a greater sense of well-being and authenticity. You’ll build immunity to emotional pollution.

Love and Emotional Pollution

Most of the negative emotions couples blame on each other are stimulated or exacerbated by emotional pollution in the environment. But don’t take my word for it, test the hypothesis for yourself:

Briefly describe the last three times you had negative feelings for your partner. Then, ponder the following questions: 

  • What were you doing or experiencing immediately before the bad feelings?
  • What was your partner doing/experiencing immediately before the bad feelings?
  • Did any negative feelings unrelated to your partner precede the negative feelings for your partner?
  • Did you feel connected to your partner before the negative emotions?

Of the 400 couples in my practice who answered these questions, 83% reported that negative feelings, unrelated to the partner, preceded negative feelings between the partners. In no case did couples feel connected before the negative feelings passed between them. The space between partners is a Petri dish for emotional pollution.

Improving relationships requires that couples work together to overcome the effects of emotional pollution, rather than blame them on each other. That means standing for deeper values rather than acting on temporary feelings.

I’ve posted elsewhere about the toddler coping mechanisms of blame, denial, and avoidance undermining love relationships. They turn partners into opponents and, eventually, into enemies.

The problem lies in how we resolve cognitive dissonance, which is the discomfort of self-image colliding with reality. Some cognitive dissonance in life and love is inevitable. A functional self-image concerns what is most important to us, while behavior is mostly about short-term comfort, pleasure, and utility.

Cognitive dissonance strengthens love relationships when we resolve it this way:

“I’m a compassionate and loving partner, yet I’m resentful and not compassionate toward you. Therefore, I’ll adjust my behavior to be more compassionate and loving.”

Cognitive dissonance destroys love relationships when we blame it on our partners:

“I’m a compassionate and loving partner, yet I’m resentful and uncompassionate to you. Therefore, there must be something wrong with you. I must keep focused on what I don’t like to justify my negative feelings.”

Cognitive dissonance is not about getting what you want, it’s about being who you really are – true to your deepest values.

The Strongest Vaccination against Emotional Pollution: 

Become the partner you most want to be.

Begin by circling the point that best describes your current state as a partner on the following continuum:

Loving    l     l     l    l    l       l    l    l    l    l    Contemptuous

Compassionate    l     l     l    l    l       l    l    l    l    l    Resentful

Supportive     l     l     l    l    l       l    l    l    l    l    Critical

Flexible    l     l     l    l    l       l    l    l    l    l    Rigid

Fair    l     l     l    l    l       l    l    l    l    l    Unfair

Sexy     l     l     l    l    l       l    l    l    l    l    Rejecting sex

Describe what you will do to move a notch closer to the kind of partner you most want to be.

In response to emotional pollution, in the home and outside it, we either spread basic humanity or let in resentment, radiate light or let in darkness.