Emotional Pollutants

You've got them (all of them) under your skin.

Posted May 14, 2008

You've got them (all of them) under your skin. Emotional pollution is transmitted covertly by body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice and more overtly by language and behavior. The negative effects of the more subtle forms of emotional pollution are nearly as great as the more dramatic forms. This post will list the top four emotional pollutants.

1. Entitlement
Entitlement is the primary emotional pollutant because it plays some part in all the others. Think of how you react when you see people who behave as if they deserve special treatment or consideration. They expect to cut in front of you in line, smoke wherever they want, drive anyway they like, say anything they want, and do anything they like. By making their rights superior to yours, they imply that you don't count.

Why do they do it? Emotional polluters often feel put upon by what they perceive as the world's unfairness and general insensitivity to their needs. Driven by high standards of what they should get and what other people should do for them, they feel chronically disappointed and offended. So it seems only fair, from their myopic perspectives, that they get compensation for their constant frustrations. Special consideration seems like so little to ask! Here's the logic:

"It's so hard being me, I shouldn't have to wait in line, too!"
"With all I have to put up with, I deserve to take home a few supplies."
"With the kind of day I had, you expect me to mow the lawn?"
"All the taxes I pay, and they bother me about this little deduction!"
"The way I hit the golf ball, I should get the best seat in the restaurant!"
"I'm the man; you have to cook my dinner!"
"I'm the woman; you have to support me!"

2. Resentment
The most common emotional pollutant, resentment is based on a perception of unfairness for not getting the expected help, appreciation, consideration, praise, reward, respect, or affection. It is one of the most unpleasant emotional states to be near, in part because it carries a powerful sense of entitlement - it's only fair that the world give me what I want. More to the point, resentful people are so caught up in their "rights" and so locked into their own perspectives that they become completely insensitive to the rights and perspectives of others, which means that you will certainly feel shut out and diminished in their presence.

3. Anger
An isolated expression of anger, like an isolated display of entitlement or resentment may not be polluting. However, it is rare to see an isolated expression of anger, simply because it is the most contagious of all emotions. Our unconscious brain constantly scans the environment for evidence of aggression and is primed to react to it before we become consciously aware of it. In other words, you'll be defensive and angry (or afraid) in response to an angry person before you even know it. That's why it's so hard not to become angry around an angry person, even if the anger is not directed at you. A prime example is the driver who leans on the horn in a busy intersection. He is angry at only one particular driver, but he upsets everyone who hears his self-righteous outburst. Many angry men are clueless to the effects of their anger on their intimate partners, because they don't direct the anger at them. "What does she have to be afraid of?" they naively ask.

4. Superiority
Superiority is the implication, at least through body language or tone of voice, that you are better than someone else. Emotional polluters tend to have hierarchical self-esteem, i.e., they need to feel better than someone else to feel okay about themselves. Not surprisingly, this form of distorted self-esteem lies at the heart of racism, sexism, and all other prejudicial points of view.

The most abusive form of hierarchical self-esteem is predatory self-esteem. To feel good about themselves, persons with predatory self-esteem need to make other people feel bad about themselves. Family abusers usually have predatory self-esteem. Many will test high in self-esteem, while everyone else in their family tests low. When intervention increases the self-esteem of the emotionally beaten-down spouse and children who then no longer internalize the put-downs, the predator's self-esteem invariably declines. Predatory self-esteem rises on a wave of criticism used to put down loved ones. When the arousal wears off or when victims no longer internalize the criticism, the predator drops once again into depression.

Genuine self-esteem is a virtually unachievable goal for those who need to feel superior. No matter what criterion they use to determine their superiority, they will always find people with more of it. They will inevitably meet those who are smarter, wealthier, more powerful, better looking, more popular, have better socks, and so on; failure is the inevitable end of this precarious notion of self-worth.

Less toxic, though no less pleasant, examples of this form of emotional pollution are displays of arrogance and self-righteousness.

Steven's Amazon blog