My past training as a therapist has carried through into my legal practice in several unexpected ways. The most useful skill set of which is watching for features of psychopathology – for the lay-folks, what you would call red flags – to warn me when I should leave a situation.
It’s important to realize that there is no one who is the paragon of self-actualization. Growing up is a messy business, and none of us make it to adulthood unscathed.
For some this translates into addiction, for others a criminal history, or sometimes just a lifetime of therapy. On the less extreme end, it can just mean a unique way of interacting with the world; some taking an adaptive approach, while others have a more maladaptive approach.
Diversity of ideas, ways of coping, and thinking and learning styles are some of what make the world a beautiful, interesting, and lively place. Unfortunately, not all personalities play nice with others, and the world sometimes, unwittingly, rewards toxic behavior. Here are some warning signs to look out for.
The Broken Like to Break
Unsurprisingly, our prison system is not clogged up with people for whom everything has gone well in their life, and no one is five years old saying, “I want to be a convict when I grow up.” Criminal behavior is emblematic of something else being wrong – poverty, addiction, abuse, trauma, and/or mental health issues.
People who have been broken know how to break others, and they do. Often no one seems to notice their plight until they have. But it’s naïve to begin looking at these issues in a criminal context only, when this is a societal issue.
Red flags relating to people’s social interactions present themselves in every facet of day-to-day life. In fact, the corporate context is a perfect microcosm of society, and an excellent context to reflect upon this notion.
The Generational Divide
Now that Gen Xers have hit their 40’s and 50’s, the disparate results of their free-range childhood as compared to the hovering Millennial and Gen Z parents has never been more palpable.
Raised in an era where Boomer parents were reminded to check where their children were at 10pm because they were out riding bikes and playing in a forest, Gen X children largely raised themselves. Getting jobs babysitting as early as 10 or 11, and job permits at 14, Gen X is well acquainted with digging in and working hard to get what they want.
What Gen X never had was structure, so Gen Xers have difficulty setting boundaries, and owning feelings. When Gen Xers had children, they strove to give their children everything they didn’t have – attention, structure, positive feedback and support, scheduled activities – you name it, and Gen Xers sought to give it to their children.
The resulting generations can name their feelings, and set boundaries, but sometimes struggle with resilience and coping with adversity. They also struggle with empathy, because they don’t have the same contextual experience with learning how to cope with all forms of conflict and adversity without parental intervention or support.
Without commenting on which is the better deficit to have, it is important to understand the impact of this generational divide on social skills and personal accountability.
Technology Advances as Social Skills Decline
The rise of technology in the Millennial and Gen Z eras has both brought the world together and kept individuals worlds apart. Lost are the days of knocking on a door unannounced because you “happened to be in the neighborhood.” In fact, we’ve entered a time when people feel they have to text first for permission to call; a thumbs up is now considered sarcastic or hostile.
These developments are characteristic of people who have experienced a poverty of human interaction. The written word is fraught with ambiguity, because it doesn’t provide signals like tone or facial expression to guide the recipient into understanding the intention behind the communication.
Consequently, modern life leaves us is in a perpetual heightened state of anxiety trying to interpret the messages coming in, and make no mistake, many are hostile.
Without having to face a person and see the reaction your words have on them, it is a lot easier for people to be cruel. When you are cruel without consequences, you never learn empathy. You are never forced to watch the tears and heartbreak you have caused.
The Healing Power of Human Interaction
Positive interpersonal interaction is healing. Having a real-life shoulder to cry on, a hand to hold, looking into the eyes of someone who cares – these are all healing interactions that are becoming harder and harder to encounter.
We have cloistered ourselves away in our homes, many people don’t know their neighbors, they don’t talk to strangers, and seldom have people over to their house. We venture out into the world on an as-needed basis, and text or email rather than call.
Those lucky enough to have partners in life have at least one human to relate to, but this places a tremendous burden on partners, who in many instances are one of just a handful of live support for each other.
The Narcissism of the Self-Care Machine
Ironically, healing human interaction and hours in nature, which are keystones in the arc of wellness, were abundant in the Boomer and Gen X eras, which gave little thought or analysis to the psychological impact of almost anything.
Now, self-care is a $450 billion market, but people have never been more unwell. The Aspen Forest is one of the world’s largest living organisms: although each tree looks separate, they are all interconnected with one massive root structure. So too are people interconnected.
Everything we know and experience is always in relation to someone. We learn and grow from others, yet we are being sold remedies that we are meant to apply to ourselves. Should we take care of ourselves? Definitely. Is it good to set boundaries so you don’t overextend yourself? Yes. Should we do so without any regard to the circumstances, context, and impact on others? No.
Sometimes a point is best made when taken to its logical extreme: you’ve had a challenging day, you really need to decompress. You decide that as part of your new boundary setting, you are turning your phone off and taking some much needed “me time” with a book.
Your quiet is abruptly shattered with banging at your door; you look out, your neighbor (who you recognize, but don’t talk to) is covered in blood and screaming, “Call 911, my wife was just hit by a car.” Do you: (A) Not answer the door, your phone is off, that isn’t your problem & you need to enforce your self-care boundary, or (B) Do you turn your phone on and call 911?
The hope, of course, is that you have what they call “flexible boundaries,” and can adapt as appropriate in unique contexts or circumstances, and would answer B. There is, however, an entire movement supporting unapologetically firm boundaries that, while they might not rise to the level of their hyperbolic example, do come dangerously close.
This notion of placing the self above all others can enter the realm of toxic narcissism very easily. So what’s the difference?
“Healthy-Selfish,” as I often call it, is making sure to carve out time each day to take care of yourself: Go to the doctor, the dentist, exercise, and take time away when you need it to decompress, grieve, heal etc., but not in a vacuum.
Take care of yourself and support the people around you in their efforts to take care of themselves as well. Not everyone is good at asking for help, or realizing that we need help. It is often the people around us who first realize we may be struggling.
Help Others, Help Yourselves
Offering to help and mentor and lift others up when they are down often makes us feel good, and consequently helps and heals us too. This is fundamentally different from narcissism. Narcissism involves a person with deep-rooted insecurity and pain, building a wall of contrived confidence around them.
They are the protagonists of their story, and everyone around them plays just a bit role. “Self-Care” to the narcissistic person is just another reason the world should play by their rules, and anyone who doesn’t is a villain.
This construct lends itself to a self-care industry that profits off of the notion that we, as individuals, should be the core focus of our own existence. Pills by mail, therapy by Zoom, yoga by video, and isolation all in the promise of finding peace.
Humans are Social Creatures
When in reality, we are social creatures, and while sometimes medicine is absolutely essential to our biochemistry, also essential in the pursuit of peace is seeing other humans in person. Or at least one human who can look in your eyes, examine you for self-harm, and who can just sit in the same space as you whether to be present, to listen or to offer advice.
Part of the yoga practice is meant to be social, spiritual, and grounded in community. While videos may be fine for getting physical activity, it is creating a solely internal examination, rather than an interactive one.
The more and more we exist in our own heads, the less practiced we become at connecting with others. The less relevant we believe other people are to us, the less we care about how we impact them, and the less empathy we are capable of showing.
Today, the mantra is “respect is earned,” however, these memes and sound bites that tout idioms as fact leave out essential context.
Yes, respect can be earned, and is worthy of endeavoring to earn. But all people are worthy of respect just for being human. They are worthy of being treated with respect until they do something to lose your respect.
We are all humans struggling through life, knowing none of us gets out of it alive – the least we can do is give our fellow people a baseline of respect.
Misunderstanding a Principle Doesn’t Make it Toxic
I heard an influencer recently that argued that the Golden Rule is toxic. That the notion of treating people the way you would want to be treated places inappropriate expectations on others, who have no obligation to do anything for you.
It has been argued to be the ultimate form of narcissism because it is behaving well, just because you want to be treated well back. Such an analysis simply highlights the nuance of human interaction that has been generationally missed.
Much to the contrary, the Golden Rule isn’t devoid of empathy, rather it is an exercise in empathy. It is asking you to look at another person’s circumstances and imagine how you would feel and want to be treated if you were in their shoes.
It isn’t a transaction – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you; is telling you that we must realize what it is like to be on the receiving end of our own interactions.
Nowhere does the Golden Rule say “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, because then they are guaranteed to be nice to you.”
Rather, it is a construct from which people can learn to have more empathy in their interpersonal interactions. It is these unnuanced and literal misinterpretations of past wisdom that has contributed to the chasm between the generations, and it has left its mark everywhere. People are hurting, and broken people break people.
Hell is Empty, All the Devils Are Here.
They say hell is empty and all the devils are here because truly, we are living in a time where people place themselves first, above all others.
Selfies, personal phones, tablets, laptops – you name it, we find a way to isolate, inflate our own importance, and build a narcissistic ego, replete with entitlement and dismissal of others’ feelings.
In this context, it is easy to villainize the people who break the law. It’s easy to point to the groups who break societal norms and look at them as the problem – but we are all connected – the dysfunction of others simply exposes the dysfunction in the system altogether.
If we are going to examine how to intervene, we have to look at where most adults spend the majority of their time – at the workplace.
The Poisoned Well of the American Workplace
Recognizing that 8 hours a day, at least 5 days a week, means that approximately 2,080 hours of our lives are impacted by the culture at our jobs. Even if you love the work you do, the entire construct of the American workplace can be problematic already.
Add on a generational trend toward lack of empathy, and narcissistic tendencies and it is easy to foresee how toxic the corporate environment can quickly become.
A whole new army of twenty-somethings have entered the workforce. What they lack in experience they overcompensate for in enthusiasm. However, there is a toxic trend that has permeated some members of this bunch.
Experience Should Come Before Entitlement
There are new college grads whose life of privilege and opportunity has left them feeling entitled to top-paid positions, the belief that they are superior, and the prior generations have nothing to offer.
This lack of respect is a perversion of idealism, born from a life without hardship or struggle. Empathy and respect for older generations grows from life kicking your teeth in and a mentor helping to lift you back up.
In the past, mentorship opportunities came easily because the new generation wanted to learn. They had outgrown the teenage “know-it-all” complex, and used college as a way to interact with others, exchange ideas, and start forming their own belief-sets.
All People Have Value
Now, however, poverty of human interaction has set the modern generation back many years in social and emotional intelligence.
While of course there are always exceptions (certainly no generation can be defined just by their worst members), there is a frighteningly large group of new people entering the workforce who don’t just think they know everything; they candidly believe their elders have no value.
Failure to Take Responsibility for your Own Actions is Toxic
We’ve all seen obnoxious examples: Young staff members who sit with blacked out screens on Zoom calls, engage in nothing, contribute nothing, placate, and then do what they want. When their work product isn’t up to par or they don’t follow instructions, they blame others, conveniently “overlook” emails and, when all else fails, complain about the “toxicity” of the people asking them to work.
These are people without the emotional skills to communicate with the person who upset them with their expectations personally. They are unable to navigate through interpersonal conflict.
Instead, their complaints are underhanded, behind peoples’ backs. They may even kiss up to management to ensure they can continue to coast while they step on anyone around to claw their way to the top.
Fortunately for them, like attracts like, and as long as they stay in their lane, there are many other narcissists waiting for them when they get there.
Red Light-Green Light, 1, 2, 3
It can be difficult to know how to navigate in such an environment. But pick a context and this paradigm exists.
The first step toward progress is always to STOP. Just stop, look around, and assess.
What is your role in the story? What role do you play in maintaining a toxic system in any part of your life? How can you play a role in changing that?
The first step is knowing that it won’t be easy. Dysfunction has a way of getting its hooks into people, and it works very hard to maintain itself.
Understand that relationships and jobs are often lost when you try to intervene and break dysfunctional patterns – that doesn’t mean you don’t try.
The Truth will Set You Free
Sunlight is the best disinfectant. It is always better to be honest. Give people the hard feedback, and offer proposed solutions. Share what is working and what isn’t working from a boots-on-the-ground perspective.
They may not realize it in the moment, but honest people are at a premium, and should be valued. Many more people will just tell you what you want to hear, and then trash you behind your back.
The same person who calls you a visionary to your face, is the same person who will trash-talk you to employees, and give directives contrary to your directives because they think they know better.
If you find the narcissistic attitude in your environment, you will ultimately find the dysfunction. Sit at the red light until you do, excise it, and then you’ll have that green light on progress.
Letting go of a Toxic Environment is a Gift
Maybe these toxic behaviors have permeated the environment so much that you’re even participating in them. Only through dispassionate assessment to identify problematic behavior, can you implement change and solutions.
This is one situation where what you don’t know, definitely can hurt you. So if you see something, say something. Whether its in your life, your family, or your company – everyone deserves to know when something isn’t working so they can do better.
Unfortunately, best laid plans and efforts don’t always work out. Sometimes you aren’t in a position to change the system.
Or worse yet, sometimes all of your efforts will just be poorly received, because the toxicity progresses all the way to the top.
When that’s the case, just be really grateful at the opportunity to say goodbye, because those broken people won’t be breaking you. You deserve better and so do they, even if they aren’t ready to accept it.