Do you sometimes jump to the conclusion that someone who smiles at you or asks how you’re doing is being fake – or has an ulterior motive? Perhaps you tend to criticize others (or yourself) more frequently than you used to. Or maybe you’ve been pulling back from getting together with friends, believing that they don’t really care about you. Possibly you’re just going through the motions at your job, rather than being excited about going to the office.
While there could be many reasons for the above scenarios, it’s possible that you’ve become cynical, defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “contemptuously distrustful of human nature and motives” or “based on or reflecting a belief that human conduct is motivated primarily by self-interest”. Dictionary.com describes cynicism as “bitterly or sneeringly distrustful, contemptuous, or pessimistic”. Do these characteristics ring a bell?
If so, you’re not alone. For the most part, we begin life with intense curiosity and a sense of wonder, fascinated by the innumerable new people, objects, and experiences we encounter. While there may be some fear or other unpleasant feelings at times, most of us as children engaged with life with some sense of hope and fascination.
Fast forward a few decades (or longer), and we’ve gone through many, many experiences, and in the process we’ve come up against some challenges and disappointments. It’s inevitable. Maybe we’ve been seriously hurt in a romantic relationship, gone through a divorce, suffered a major illness, lost a family member, struggled financially, or become disillusioned with our career.
Life can be tough and doesn’t always conform to our expectations and wishes. Cynicism can act as a powerful defense mechanism – if you don’t expect much, you can’t get hurt, right?
Well, yes and no. While withdrawing from relationships and opportunities may seem to buffer you from pain and vulnerability at the moment, the profound ache can come down the road when you realize how many chances for connections with other people and adventures you’ve forfeited. When we make a habit of saying “No” instead of “Yes” or “Maybe – let me check this out”, our life can eventually become void of meaning or purpose.
Some tips for triumphing over cynicism:
Notice kindness. What you focus on grows. Sure, you can point out the shortcomings of others, yourself, and the world at large, but you can also look for the many instances (and there are many) when someone lends a helping hand, says a word of encouragement, or shows compassion to someone else. On a daily basis, try writing down three instances of kindness you observed (or did).
Be realistic in your expectations. The gap between the real and the ideal can serve as fodder for cynicism and “what’s the use”. Lower the bar a bit. This doesn’t mean giving up, though…
Be idealistic in your wishes. Nobody says that you can’t dream big. Being clear on your goals is important. Just remember the difference between a wish and a demand.
Be mindful of your thoughts. Recognize when cynicism has cropped up. No blaming, scolding, or defending your thought – just note where your mind takes you. Remember that a thought is just that – it may or may not be true. Also consider whether this thought contributes to your happiness.
Examine the evidence. Ask yourself if this thought coincides with reality. What proof do you have that this belief is true? How do you know that the person next to you on the train moved seats because they don’t like you?
Come up with an alternative explanation. Could it be that the person on the train moved closer to the door, for the sake of convenience when their stop comes up?
Consider your social network. What sort of people do you spend time with? Are they upbeat and the type to “make lemonade out of lemons”? Or do you associate with people who habitually complain? If the latter, you might benefit from seeking out more positive companions.
Take a media break. There is an endless amount of news being foisted upon us 24/7, and the majority can be alarmist in nature, as this gets our attention. Due to evolution, we are primed to focus on potential threats, so to better prepare to fight or get the heck out of there, if necessary. Do you really need to be checking your cell phone every hour to “hear the latest”?
Practice gratitude. There are always blessings to be counted, although admittedly this can be harder on some days than others. At the beginning of the day, write down three things for which you’re grateful – and if this involves other people, you might reach out and thank them. You will probably brighten their day, and who knows – in turn, they may become more conscious of the pluses in their lives. At the very least, you’ll remember that goodness exists in the majority of people, yourself included, and in this world.
Replacing cynicism with a healthy and realistic optimism is courageous, make no mistake about it. At times, you may be disappointed or hurt – but your power lies in your response. Dare to care, and to see the oak tree in the acorn.
As William James said, “Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact”. Don’t let anyone or anything destroy your faith in the good. See the problem, but be part of the solution.