Cutting edge science and ancient wisdom have come to same conclusion: Negative people have a toxic effect on your health.
We all have people in our lives that are overly negative.
Humans are inherently social creatures and in today’s modern age, we are connected like never before. Unless you’re extremely fortunate, most of us have a few friends or family that we know have negative – if not outright toxic personalities.
Negativity can manifest in many different, yet familiar ways. There’s the eternal pessimists. People whose glass is always half empty. Every time you see them they have some new drama, some new ailment to complain about.
There’s the friend that always seems to pick a fight at the bar. The person that somehow finds themselves at the center of some drama – and inevitably drags you into the middle of it.
Then there’s the “Haters. ”These people typically take delight in celebrating when other people fail. These friends whose favorite past time seems to be indulging in petty gossip and celebrating other people’s shortcomings.
Worse, sometimes – even most of the time, the people that bring us down the most are seemingly impossibly intertwined in our lives. A close friend, coworker, wife or husband. People we spend large portions of our life with.
Our greatest thinkers, philosophers and strategist have gone out of their way to tell us to avoid these people like the plague. Master strategists like Sun Tzu and Marcus Aurelius have warned us about the perils of surrounding yourself with negativity.
At some level, most of know intuitively that these people affect our mood negatively. We might notice that we feel slightly drained or agitated after spending time with them.
Yet we ignore our instincts. What harm could a little venting from our friends really do?
Well, the answer might surprise you. In many ways science is now catching up what with our greatest minds have always warned us about.
Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience are changing the way we look at the dangers of surrounding yourself with negative and toxic people.
The following is a comprehensive breakdown of the actual science behind negative people. What their toxicity does to our brains and strategies to identity and ultimately root out these mental parasites.
The Science behind negativity – Mirror Nuerons
In the 1980s an Italian Neurophysiologist named Dr. Giacomo Rizzolatti found an interesting thing when studying the behaviors of monkeys while they attempted to complete simple tasks.
While performing brain scans on monkeys in his laboratory at the University of Parma, Italy, he found that a particular set of neurons fired off identically for both execution of actions as well as perception of the same actions.
In simplest terms, this means that parts of the brain were not distinguishing from when they actually performed an action themselves to just watching someone else perform the same action.
Dr. Rizzolatti dubbed these “mirror neurons.”
Their brains were learning to accomplish tasks by just observing others do the same. Since then, evidence has mounted that human brains also have mirror neuron network that work in similar fashion. (1)
Unlike monkeys however, our mirror neuron system is far more sophisticated and complex. Our mirror neurons don’t only “learn” when we perceive actions of other people but also “learn” when others express emotions, feelings and attitudes as well.
This is not just a mechanism to learn simple tasks but perhaps our most ancient defense mechanism hardwired in our brains. Unlike other animals that are born with claws, sharp teeth or can run within minutes of being born, humans are born extremely vulnerable.
In our early days, our ability to decode other people’s intentions have been the key to our survival. To identify enemies and make alliances. Our ability to use our brains is the reason we are the dominate species on this planet.
“We are exquisitely social creatures,” Dr. Rizzolatti stated. “Our survival depends on understanding the actions, intentions and emotions of others.”
Why does that matter?
It matters because neuroscientists say that “neurons that fire together, wire together.”(2)
In many ways your brain is like a muscle. What we call habits are actually neural pathways that have been created from doing something over and over. Repetition of thoughts draw these neural synapses closer to each other over time.
Now imagine being around particular negative and bitter people constantly. Over and over. Even if you yourself are not someone that is not inherently bitter, envious, negative and toxic…your brain, whether you like it our not, is firing off mirror neurons to identify with those emotions you are encountering. To understand and empathize with their feelings and attitudes.
It becomes a destructive cycle. You, just by listening may be creating neural pathways that form habits and patterns of thought that are easier and quicker to fall into.
Habits are not just actions we perform throughout the day. They begin as thoughts in our brain. Neural pathways that through repetition of thought become stronger and stronger.
Generally, that’s why things like mediation or gratitude exercises are considered tangibly beneficial to the human brain. By cultivating positive thoughts or mindfulness, we are rewiring our brains to achieve these positive states easier and quicker.
In fact a study done in 2011 at Harvard University found that after 8 weeks of practicing Mindful meditation, subjects increased the actual brain density and thickness of their hippocampus. (3) This is the section of the brain responsible for learning new things, regulating memory, spatial navigation and long term memory storage.
Another study saw that taxi drivers in London had larger hippocampus then the average person. The study suggested that the process of navigating through London’s labyrinth of streets and alleys literally made their brains bigger.(4)
Neuroscientists call this “experience-dependent neuroplasticity.”
The idea that our thoughts can shape our reality was once thought to be the realm of pseudo-science and mysticism. However, clearly our experiences, emotions and even thoughts can literally shape and change our brain.
With that in mind, it makes it so vital that we truly make an effort to weed out the negative people from our lives.
If you steep yourself within negativity, your brain will adapt accordingly. This goes for your own attitude and thoughts as well as the people you surround yourself with. When your hanging out with someone that constantly whines complains or constantly “hates” on other people’s successes, your brain is firing off signals to empathize with their emotions. Your brain is lighting up very similarly – if not identically to whats going on in their brain.
“Mirror neurons allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation. By feeling, not by thinking.” said Dr Rizzolatti.
Some scientists have proposed the idea mirror neurons are in fact responsible for how humans process all of our empathy. Unfortunately, if “neurons that fire together, wire together,” is an accurate representation of how brain works: then inherently more empathetic people are perhaps more affected by other people’s toxic behavior.
Look, empathy is obviously a good quality. It’s important that we be empathetic. It allows us to have deeper and more meaningful connections with the people in our lives.
Just don’t waste it on the people that bring you down. Don’t stimulate your brain with toxic stories about how awful someone’s boyfriend is or how terrible their boss is at work. Look at empathy as if it were a finite resource that only the right people deserve.
Final thoughts on Mirror Neurons:
Simply put: neurons are designed to learn. And once they learn, they are designed to control some action when used. Eat a lot, neurons learn to activate parasympathetic response to digest food. When you hear people bitch all the time, your reaction is to sympathize or empathize, so that if you’re ever in a similar situation, your neurons have already learned from your friend’s experience, and that will guide you to have a cautionary view of the situation (because you taught your neurons to empathize by listening to your friend).
Toxic people will teach your brain to be weary that the world around you is toxic. Which in turn will cause stress. Repeating this process over time will imprint negative toxic thoughts into your own thoughts.
Break this cycle by weeding out the Debbie Downers from your life.
CORTISOL - THE GREAT ENEMY
Why most of this matters is because negative thoughts stress us out. When were stressed our adrenal glands produce a stress hormone called cortisol.
Cortisol gets a bad rap generally. For most of human history it actually was quite beneficial.
Its main mechanism is to give an extra edge in survival situations. Your body is actually pretty smart; when faced with stressful and dangerous situations your body will optimize your chances of survival by creating a “fight or flight” mode for you to operate.
It achieves this by suppressing “non-essential systems” like your sleep regulation, immune system, digestive system and sexual and reproductive systems.
This makes sense when the tiger is about to eat you.
This isn’t meant for when you sit at the bar for two hours and listen your buddy bitch about the government.
See, all though your body is pretty smart, it’s still playing by the rules of our caveman ancestors. “fight or flight” is pretty clear. The modern human, however (hopefully) doesn’t have to run from a hungry predator but our cortisol levels have never been higher.
There could be many reasons for this. For example the average American spend nearly 90% of his or her life indoors, typically hunched over a desk.
It could also be because we surround ourselves with fake superficial friends that even further stress us out with their toxicity.
One of the main effects of cortisol is suppression of the immune system. This is why people chronically stressed get sick more often. Again, this makes sense to be de-prioritized when the tiger is about to eat you and you need every once of energy to escape.
But modern humans have bad health outcomes with their body is constantly suppressing key systems like the immune system or digestive system.
If you’re one of the many people that suffer symptoms from elevated cortisol perhaps you should take a look at the nature of the company you keep; especially those you date or marry.
Speaking of which…
Why you should divorce or break up with your negative partner as soon as possible.
In 1992, a psychology professor named Dr John Gottman devised a study to determine if it was possible to predict if newly married couples would be divorced or happily married in the near future.
Dr. Gottman identified a handful of behavioral markers that he felt were ether positive or negative and then interviewed each couple. Anytime one partner demonstrated these markers he recorded it and added it to his over all equation he was testing.
4 years later, after the follow-up of the participants to see who divorced and stayed together, It was determined that Dr Gottman’s model was able to predict with 93.6% accuracy which couples would divorce.
That’s not a typo. Just by developing a model that tracked peoples negative responses he was able to predict with 93.6% accuracy if the couple would be divorced or not in the next 4 years.
As part of his predicting model, Dr Gottman identified 4 negative traits that he felt were so destructive for couples well being that he dubbed them “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. These were:
Dr. Gottman was particularly wary of contempt, in which he defined as “statements that come from a relative position of superiority” and he went as far as to say that Contempt was “the greatest predictor of divorce and must be eliminated”
How many couples do you know where one of them is openly contemptuous of the other?
It’s actually amazing how many of these people don’t think twice about showing contempt for their partner – even in public setting with other friends. Most of the time people just regard this as light teasing, or just justify it with a blanket statement like: “Oh, that’s just how they are”
Don’t let the fake veneer of joking or playful rolling of the eyes fool you. Showing contempt for your partner is a deeply disrespectful and negative habit.
Now, we probably all have a specific couple in mind when reading this. How long have they been married or together? Most likely, it’s not very long. Do you enjoy hanging out with these people? Probably not.
In fact, staying with a toxic partner could be one of the worse decisions you make in your entire life.
Keeping in mind what we now know about our mirror neurons and the effects of stress hormones like cortisol it makes sense that researchers at the University of Michigan linked unhappy marriages to a 35% greater increase of getting sick. (5)
The study also claimed that an unhappy marriage shorten your overall lifespan by 4 – 8 years. (5)
Another study in the United Kingdom at the University of Birmingham claimed that people in happier relationships – when given a yearly flu vaccine actually had a stronger immunity towards the influenza virus. (6)
This is incredible stuff and we’re only at the tip of the iceberg of understanding how much someone’s toxic attitude actually effects our health.
Look, you can withstand a handful of negative people in your life. It’s unavoidable. You cant “break up” with your co-worker or boss at work. But the people we date or marry are going to be a huge part of our daily lives. You’re going to see them nearly every day.
Your going to see them first thing in the morning and your going to see them when you fall asleep at night.
Would you sleep next to a nuclear reactor if you could help it? Probably not.
3 easy easy tips to identify if someone’s a toxic influence in your life.
Go on a trip
Try organizing a trip. This could be a simple hike, camping trip or even a long extended trip overseas.
Mark Twain once wrote: “I have found out that there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.”
Mark Twain loved to travel. From experience, he understood that when we travel, most of our default behaviors are really exposed. Often travel requires communication, patience and even the occasional good luck. Mistakes are unavoidable. Tension can be high. Flights need to be boarded, Flights are canceled or changed at the whims of unpredictable weather and so on.
How your friends and loved one handle these situations speak volumes about these people. Do they dissolve into petty bickering and finger pointing? Do their negative habits get worse when they travel? Or are they able to set aside their baggage for the common good? People that confront obstacles with anger and negativity quickly become insufferable. Mark Twain was very wise. You’ll find out quick if you really like someone after traveling with them.
Be conscious of your first thoughts when seeing people
We can talk all we want about mirror neurons, cortisol levels and ancient Greek philosophers but at the end of the day, these things are secondary to our primal “gut-instinct” responses.
Try visualizing the people in your life and imagine if your walking down the street and turn the corner to unexpectedly see them. Right there. What is your first thought? Are you happy? anxious? annoyed?
Trust your instincts. Usually, most people are actually pretty aware of the negative and toxic people in their life. Your first thoughts are often your most honest thoughts. Pay extra attention to your first thoughts when you see the people in your life.
Drink with them!
Pay extra attention to your friends in social situations – especially when alcohol is involved. Sure, we all say and do some foolish things after a few drinks but especially jealous and salty people just can’t help themselves when a little alcohol comes into the picture.
Do you have a narcissistic friend that seems to always cause some sort of scene when it’s your birthday or celebration? Often they won’t cause this drama or disturbance with you directly, but rather somewhere else close by.
These are some of the worst types of people. They crave attention above all else and will try to divert the attention away from you at any cost.
Real friends should be able to share a few drinks with you before their catty jealously streak comes out. These types of Debbie Downers crave attention above all else.
Look, deep down, they don’t actually like you. If they did; they could suspend their ego for a few hours and just be happy for you. Fortunately, these types are the easiest to spot because they are the most predicable.
We can talk all we want about all the various signs of people that ooze negativity but chances are, anyone reading this probably has a pretty good idea intuitively of who’s a positive and who’s a negative influence in their life.
its not that most of us don’t see the signs – its that we just glaze over them.
Look for people that attempt to control you. People that dictate where you sit, what you should order at the restaurant. People that are quick to tell you what you are doing incorrect in your life, but get defensive when others tell them the same?
Look for people that cross their arms and frown slightly when you talk. People that roll their eyes and show contempt – even in a joking manner
Its amazing how much of our body language actually communicates to the world. If you’re paying attention.
You don’t have to be paranoid but you do need to have your eyes open. You can feel your above the petty social games people play but ultimately if your choosing to spend your time with these people that indulge and play these games; you’re a participant.
Quality over quantity. Be careful who you let into your circle
We’re not saying you should be happy all the time. That might actually be quite annoying to the people around you. The truth is, we all have stuff to do and some of it is unpleasant, tedious or difficult.
In fact, in a strange way – being happy and being negative almost have nothing to do with each other.
Unless you’re a saint or a monk living in a cave somewhere, having negative thoughts is a daily part of all our lives. It doesn’t mean you’re a toxic person.
Toxic people impose those negative thoughts on others and try to tear other people down. They cultivate our worst impulses like jealousy, envy and bitterness and become deeply negative people.
Life is certainly a complex web of unfair advantages, tough breaks and legitimate bad luck.
But what’s truly contemptible is how many of these people that wallow in negativity – truly have nothing to complain about.
In the scope of human history, how truly blessed are many of us? Most of the people that come to mind when reading this probably have access to clean water, a roof over their head. Most of them are probably healthy and able-bodied. How truly insignificant are their problems compared to other, less fortunate souls?
Simple gratitude goes a long way. Studies have shown that gratitude does wonders for the human brain and we are just beginning to understand a tiny fraction of how our thoughts change our reality.
The losers and haters of this world will always waste their energy trying to break people down. They will spend their days trying to pick apart and make excuses for other people success and wallowing in a “hater mentality” that is poisonous and self destructive.
Even more insufferable, is that many of these people will wear this like a smug badge of honor. They think to be cynical and nihilistic is a way for them to be “cool” or signify they are superior to others.
At the end of the day misery loves company. Often these people want their bad habits to become your bad habits. They want you to drink excessively or make poor decisions.
Remember, You have ONE life. The quicker you realize that your not going to change their behavior or outlook, the better.
Life is short. We only have so much time on this earth to achieve all of our ambitions and dreams. Why spend that time with superficial fake friends or family that feed off negativity?
These people are like parasites. Ultimately you choose who and what energy they bring into your life. Besides, at the end of the day, How many of these people are actively working to improve their outlook?
The truth is: its really really difficult to break bad habits and rewire our brain. Its takes real effort. If they wont do this for their own benefit, what makes you think they would be willing to completely rewire their brain for yours?
Nor would it be fair to ask them to. It can be a difficult journey. Its not easy. It’s a battle. Meditation, working out, diet, proper sleep, good genuine friends that love you. These are all tool to help you along your way.
Chances are, if you’re a fan of this website then probably enjoy some of these things already. They make us feel good. They lower stress hormones like cortisol.
But its difficult. If it were easy, everyone would do it.
All the more reason to ditch the dead weight on your journey.
Easier said then done? Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, you have one life to live and the quicker you sort out who holds you back the better you are.