Now that we’ve dived into a few nuances of the toxic sides of “Christian nice” (see the bottom of this page for the earlier posts), it’s time for us to discuss why the gangrene metaphor I used in that post isn’t so metaphorical. Which is all to say that it’s time to discuss how suppressing our stress and emotions and disagreements literally makes us sick.
My Experience and Some Disclaimers
Before I dive into the details, let me say I’ve spent a lot of time looking into the biology of stress and trauma and burnout in order to understand how it affects our communication. What I’m talking about here is scientifically based (look up, for example, Robert Sapolsky’s research, or Elizabeth Blackburn’s). It also fits in with a lot of healthy kinds of spirituality and humanities/social science research—and when all of those things work together, it’s usually an excellent sign that you should pay attention to what’s coming up.
I believe I’ve also experienced physiological signs of all these phenomena since I was a young child—I just didn’t know it at the time. I learned about this after my own forms of trauma and burnout (which we all deal with from time to time), and I’ve gotten relief from my physiological trauma symptoms. I found the research I’d been intuitively doing quite helpful in assisting me to seek the right strategies and advice, and part of my personal mission is to help others do the same.
Sadly, my primary physician didn’t give me the tips or the referral to the strategies I needed to find the right strategies, though. But although stress and trauma causes a lot of real physical symptoms at times, the word hasn’t filtered everywhere in general medical practice quite yet. I dearly wish that doctors offered referrals to effective stress and trauma therapists (especially those who know treatments such as EMDR) as often as they refer patients to physical therapists for muscle and joint pain.
Seeking better health after trauma wasn’t all about seeking the right forms of therapy for my neurological responses, though that helped tremendously. It also involved changing some deeply held patterns of my behavior, including the hard work of changing my conflict styles.
A disclaimer before I go further: I’m going to inevitably remove some nuance in how I talk about stress and trauma here. There’s much more to say—I spend a lot of my life thinking about this stuff and applying it to my own situation and those of others. None of this phenomena is simple or easy to “fix.” But as I’ll discuss at the end, there ARE fixes that can be applied.
That said, here’s the thing about cordial hypocrisy: it’s literally stressful. (So is open aggression, obviously.)
Before I go further, most people are used to defining stress as “feeling overwhelmed,” so let me give you the physiological definition most stress and trauma researchers use: stress is our body’s response to perceiving threat in some way. It’s actually the same response that animals have when a predator comes along, and it’s ideally designed to help the body rise to the occasion to fight, run away, play dead, or get help from others.
In the human world, our brains and bodies often associate threat with all sorts of things, including feeling like we’re not enough (see Brene Brown’s work on shame—that’s a stress response). We are designed to fear for our safety if we don’t have the support of others. We also naturally fear for our safety if others have expectations of us that we can’t meet.
Why Cordial Hypocrisy Is So Stressful
Here’s the thing: we instinctually surround ourselves with people and groups and objects that we think we can trust. It makes complete sense that we experience stress if people show themselves unworthy of trust.
As I discussed in the last post, cordial hypocrisy—pretending to be good with relationships when you’re really not—is antithetical to authentic trust.
And trust is crucial to feeling safe with people. Without it, there’s a lot of resentment and suspicion.
People in cordial hypocrisy societies, whether in the world of “Christian nice” or in those period dramas I used to love, are not actually increasing trust by pretending everything’s okay. A veneer of trust isn’t enough to overcome our own tendencies to detect threat in others and respond with negative emotion, whether or not it’s expressed.
For those in the back: this is a natural response. It happens whether we want it to or not. It is not the problem.
Why We Get Sick When We Get Stressed a Lot (Which We Can’t Fully Control!)
And here’s the sad part: when we don’t take care to address the roots of the problems, including healthy emotion management but also addressing dysfunctions in interpersonal relationships up to broader group levels, we tend to make ourselves and others sick.
Our bodies aren’t designed to be responding to threat all the time. And when we don’t deal adequately with our feelings in response to threat, they have to go somewhere.
They often end up one of two places—as an extra bonus, sometimes both!:
- Into our own bodies and psyches (often called “acting in”–which makes us sick!)
- Displaced onto other people or groups (called “acting out”–which makes them sick!)
A Lot of Stress Causes Trauma and Burnout
Ultimately, when we experience a lot of stress, it can lead to one of two conditions: one is called trauma and the other is called burnout. Both are strongly associated with physical illness of a wide range of types. Major psychological associations have published findings suggesting that they strongly suspect that stress responses underlie most, if not all, mental illnesses.
This all means that how we treat one another matters greatly to both physiological and mental health.
Both burnout and trauma can either come from acute stress (a bunch all at once) or from chronic stress (small bits of stress over long periods of time). And both conditions can increase our negative perceptions of the world. Which can add to more stress reactions for that person, which reinforces the condition.
How “Christian Nice” Specifically Makes Us Ill
But let’s get back to how this specifically may be applied to the context of cordial hypocrisy situations. For one thing, cordial hypocrisy builds the illusion of trust, so a big reveal that the trust wasn’t authentic can be a huge acute stress.
Those who are particularly good at reading resentment in such situations can also experience burnout and/or trauma from just being particularly good at “reading the room” in cordial hypocrisy situations to see the (passive) aggression there.
Both things can make people sick. And in both cases, the ways in which cordial hypocrisy cultures and practitioners alike discourage airing genuine concerns just makes the illness worse for everyone. (As I’ll discuss in future articles, toxic authoritarianisms do the same thing.)
In other words, to make themselves more comfortable in the short term, conflict avoiders of all types, whether openly aggressive or not, punish those who mention the disease rather than being willing to treat the gangrene under the surface. And that’s literally not healthy, whether it’s practiced on the individual level, on the group level, or on the systems level.
What Can Be Done?
One final note: you don’t ultimately get to have a say over whether someone experiences you and your relationship or group as stressful or not. But we can all take lots of steps toward making disagreement open but also safe for your relationship or group as well as on the systems level.
Stick around this site if you want more advice about how to handle the social/communication side of what I’ve been talking about—which experts often call the bio-psycho-social model of health—is exactly what I’m trained to help people with.
- The Toxic Spirituality of “Christian (Midwest Middle Class White People) Nice”
- The Toxicity of “Christian Nice” Part 2: Some Tips to Counter Cordial Hypocrisy
- Swear-Policing Part 2/”Christian Nice” Part 3: The Robert DeNiro Vulgarity Case
- Christian Folk, Please Stop Enabling Human Rights Violations!
- How “Christian Nice” Literally Makes Us Sick