BY: T. Franklin Murphy | September 2018
Our environment is instrumental to our mental health. When work or home constantly ignites stress, our systems bog down, and well-being suffers.
From gestation, embryo development, throughout childhood and continuing in our primary relationships we absorb nutrients and toxins from our environments. We need permeability to surroundings to master the give and take of living. Unfortunately, we are not blessed with an abundance of nurturing environments. Childhoods, work, and primary relationship are rift with complex mixtures of good bad, wealth and poverty, joys and sorrows. Our aliveness is vulnerable to the surrounding forces that collide with our existence and collaborate with our being to form the quality of our experience.
We envision environmental toxins as a metaphorical expression when discussing their impacts on mental well-being. But this is not the case. Our interaction with stressful environments creates a physical response that overtime is toxic to development. The body responds to stress by releasing stress hormones into the blood stream, primarily cortisol, increasing adrenaline, blood pressure, heart rate, and glucose. This is a survival mechanism necessary for interaction with the occasional dangers of an unpredictable world. But chronic stress, when our bodies bath in an inordinate amount of cortisol, is toxic. Science has proven that too much stress to the developing fetus and young child significantly impacts brain development. Consequently, these young children have trouble concentrating, managing emotions, controlling impulsive behaviors, and following directions.
Brain development continues long after the first precious years of existence. Even during the twilight years, we still draw support and decay from the nutrients and toxins we ingest. Too much stress impacts aliveness, blunting experience, and interfering with continued flourishing. Literally and figuratively ingesting toxins is the self under attack.
Stress is a biological mechanism fashioned by millenniums of evolutions to effectively manage dangerous and threatening encounters—social acceptance included. Without a motivating effect, we would likely be an unwitting target of some of the nasties of the world. So, we respond to protect, escape and prevail. We identify elements in the environment and act to effect not only our survival but growth, chasing opportunities and limiting damage.
Toxic stress disrupts this smooth flowing system. The world overwhelms our ability to effectively respond. No matter how skilled, reasoned or organized the response, we still fail. Our sense of efficacy is crushed against the frozen ground of experience. Children living in the impoverished emotional worlds of struggling adults quickly learn that liveliness is met with indifferent and angry responses. These children must forage in the formidable piles of rotting garbage to enjoy a few morsels of acceptance. Their toxic world is normalized. Their rudimentary concepts of relationships are formed around their experience of toxicity. In adulthood, they both seek and contribute to the toxicity of the world.
We never completely escape toxicity. We are surrounded by competitive workplaces, attacking politics, and hateful, self-absorbed groups. Each encounter offers a mixture of good and evil. Even our healthy relationships occasionally face moments that disrupt rather than support liveliness. Our task is to grow within the givens of life, creating healthier environments, while also scavenging through the unpleasant moments to discover the tiny nuggets of wisdom buried in the rubble.
"These children must forage in the formidable piles of rotting garbage to enjoy a few morsels of acceptance. Their toxic world is normalized."
Common Pollutants that Corrode the Soul
Many toxic elements are obvious. Living in a country or neighborhood where physical safety is paramount, only achieved through hyper-vigilance is toxic. The stress is constantly present, flooding the biological system, disrupting psychic growth, and preventing healthy interactions with others. Suspicions constantly haunt connection and prevent open expressions of aliveness.
Addictive substances and behaviors interfere with lively interaction with surrounding environments, narrowing experience to the paucity of fulfillment achieved through satisfying an unrelenting desire. The addiction becomes the answer to any discomfort, slowly destroying the soul through an impoverished interaction with life.
Financial poverty gnaws at our well-being. Struggling to pay rent and provide food strikes at the heart of survival, igniting stress, and demanding all of our attention; unless, of course, we can escape the stress through blinding addictions.
Other toxins are not so obvious. We have normalized their existence, invited them into our lives, justify their existence and pretend they uplift. These are the toxins we not only accept but also promote. We find them in our work relationships, families and lovers. We embrace a life that feels wrong as the only life possible, stuffing our liveness, to partake of a little warmth from acceptance.
Environments that erode our efficacy are loaded with toxins. Both internal and external elements that deter self-determined action that improve existence. These include protective adaptations typically presented as self-defense mechanisms, and manipulative interactions that destroy self-worth.
Narcissist exemplify the use of toxins, spewing out their poison in disregard to others. Their purpose is to achieve their aims with indifference to the painful impact their actions have on others. But regular people, such as ourselves, get pulled into these nightmares. There is tremendous pressure to align with a narcissistic boss and become part of the inner-circle, rather than the brunt of attacks. These work places often breed alliances, and back-stabbing. We adapt to the toxins by participating in the distribution of the virus. Our work day drains rather than inspires, creativity is lost for the sake of survival.
We can maintain sanity, even when engrossed with toxins from work, if we escape the burdens of the office when we return to a supportive and rejuvenating home. But unfortunately for many, they leave the toxins of work for the equally potent toxins of home. Without the rush of free-flowing nutrients from some important area of our lives, we will slowly whither from experience, suppress liveliness, and become a shell of the person we potentially could be.
We must remain vigilant to spot the vexing toxins, and work to purify our environments—sometimes this requires major changes.
"These work places often breed alliances, and back-stabbing. We adapt to the toxins by participating in the distribution of the virus. Our work day drains rather than inspires, creativity is lost for the sake of survival."
Elements of Interpersonal Toxins
Chaos severely disrupts our lives, interfering with structured improvements. When chaos pervades, we have limited ability to prepare for the constant onslaught of disaster. A boss, partner or children that constantly change the rules of the game inhibits restorative action. No matter what we do in these environments to succeed fails, not because we are responding wrong, but because chaos is the chosen environment for some, and they will constantly act to confuse, undermine, and destroy.
Harsh Judgments are deformed and metastasized from healthy evaluations. Recognizing error and properly addressing miscalculations is critical to refining our response to experience, escaping unhealthy patterns and changing trajectories of a mundane life. Harsh judgments also identify weakness but with a different purpose. The identified weakness is used to humiliate, through shameful attacks. The weaknesses are viewed with disgust, and a brutal turning away from the stigmatized and diseased carrier of imperfection.
Critical Labels often accompany the harsh judgments. When labeled, we no longer are given the respect as a person. Domineering partners, bosses, and coworkers replace respectful names with derogatory references. This toxic approach strikes deep, critically undermining self-respect.
Indifference while mild in display is a powerful poison. The still face studies from the seventies revealed the power of emotionless responses as mothers held a blank stare in response to their infants’ bids for attention. The small children’s moods quickly disintegrated from happy to alarmed to threatened. It is no wonder that indifference—or Stonewalling—is often used for control in emotionally abusive relationships. Parents and partners masterfully integrate the emotionally unconnected response to regain the upper hand. The momentary expression of “I don’t care about you,” leaves deep scars and threatens stability by igniting fears of abandonment, signaling that we really aren’t that important.
The Adaptive to Toxic Environments
In the early 1970’s Martin Seligman conducted a series of experiments that led to the development of his theory of learned helplessness. Many of the animal studies during this period provoke a little queasiness to our modern ethics. This study does just that; but provides interesting insights to the biological response to loss of efficacy.
In this study Seligman placed dogs in a boxed, harnessed them so they could not escape, and gave them painful but non-lethal electrical shocks. The harness rendered them helpless to the shocks; they had no choice but endure the momentary pains. Later the same dogs, were placed in the same boxes, but harnesses removed. They were physically cable of jumping from the box and freeing themselves from the make-shift torture chamber. But when the shocks were administered, the poor animals remained still and endured the pain. A control group that was never subject to harnessing and helplessness, responded to the shocks by quickly leaping from the box, and escaping the pain.
Adults that had rotten childhoods where their emotions and actions were discounted tend to develop learned helplessness. A harnessing to the careless berating and humiliations from caregivers established a conceptual picture of a world of no self-efficacy. Instead of healthy action to escape, the system depresses, succumbing to outside forces—the shocks of life. Too many toxins (chaos, harsh judgments, derogatory labels, and indifference), depresses our souls.
Another adaptation to unhealthy levels of toxins is defensiveness. Instead of giving in to the pounding on our self-worth, we fight. We have learned that our actions can protect. This may be a healthy response to occasional poisoning but not a constant barrage of insults.
If we remain in the toxic waste dump, relying on self protections to preserve self-image, soon the whole world appears threatening. The normal ruptures in human interactions ignite the flow of cortisol, and the body prepares for another battle of wills. We become procurers of our own toxins. Our contributions to the work place and home are as noxious as those we have learned to attack. We become the blamers, the shamers, the labelers, and the still-faced caregivers.
Internal Versus External Toxins
When we discuss environments, we typically envision our external surroundings. Many toxins are absorbed from people and situations we encounter. But the effect of toxins occurs on the cellular level and spreads through the whole body. The individual cells environments include the internal mechanisms of our bodies. We all become producers of chaos, harsh judgments, labels, and emotional disconnection. We internalize misguided parental guidance. Their criticisms continue long after we leave their venomous environments. We see ourselves as unworthy, unloved, and ugly. Even when living in healthy environments, our self-derogations continue to haunt and depress our souls. We’ve become the carrier of the virus we long to abandon.
It is overly simplistic and very antidotal to direct those suffering from toxic environments to simply leave. Sometimes this is possible; often it is not. However, we can’t be the helpless dog, sitting in the corner, enduring painful shocks, and dreaming one day the world will change—most likely it won’t without our intervention. We must critically examine our workplaces, our homes, our friends and inner dialogues to discover places of refuge where we can be nourished. If they do not exist, we must create them, finding new friends, and new places to enlarge our souls, giving freedom for aliveness. This may be necessary to strengthen our resolve to work through the more difficult steps of recovery.
A more involved, but necessary step, for recovery is improving existing environments. This includes addressing inner demons poisoning our thoughts. A mindful approach, and possibly professional guidance can guide us through an improved relationship with ourselves exorcising the demons of our past and nurturing the better angels of self-kindness.
Outside relationships will always bump and bruise as we navigate the intricacies of communication. This is normal in all relationships. Our response, on the other hand can escalate differences, contaminate the environment or heal.
In Ryan Holiday’s wonderful book, Ego is the Enemy, he writes, “Sometimes because we can’t face what’s been said or what’s been done, we do the unthinkable: we escalate. This is ego in its purest and most toxic form.”
By escalating, we choose to spread the toxicity. A better response is to notice the rupture in connection, and seek to repair by reestablishing the connection, reaffirming the disagreement isn’t reflective upon the relationship. Through repair we open pathways for correction, a common goal to work through the conflict. This deviates from patterns of toxic responses of blame, shame, labeling and disconnection. Over time these approaches filter out much of the toxins that poisoned our lives.
People do not always respond positively to repair efforts. Some environments will remain toxic and banefully extract precious aliveness from our lives. We may need to find a new job, separate from an abusive partner, or distance ourselves from hurtful parents. These decisions are not easy; and sometimes dangerous. Gather resources, discover supportive agencies, and courageously move forward with life.
Life is difficult enough without suffering from the toxins that can be avoided. We can jump from painful shocks that damage our souls and escape the unneeded and unwelcome poisons slowly eroding our aliveness and contributing to our unhappiness.