Wanting to protect ourselves from harm is only natural. It would be naïve to trust everyone all the time or simply assume that the world is always a safe place. The hard truth is that people sometimes have devious motives and that life can contain danger and tragedy.
However, there may come a time when our natural instincts for self-preservation dominate our lives, and we realize that we are often assuming the worst about people (sometimes including ourselves), our circumstances, or even this planet. Does this sound like you? If so, it may be time to assess your current attitude and, if necessary, make some adjustments.
Do you sometimes assume that someone who smiles at you or asks how you’re doing is being fake or wants something from you? Maybe you criticize others (or yourself) more frequently than you used to. Or perhaps you’ve been putting off making social plans with friends, because you suspect that they don’t really care about you. Are you just going through the motions at your job, rather than being excited about going to the office?
Certainly there could be many reasons for the above scenarios, but there’s also a chance possible 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 describe you?
If yes, you have plenty of company. Consider that we begin life with intense curiosity and a sense of wonder – so much to explore! Just about everything is a novel experience, be it a puppy, flower, cookie, or merry-go-round. While fear or other unpleasant feelings might have come up, 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. In the process we’ve come up against some challenges and disappointments, which is inevitable. Maybe a romantic relationship fell apart, or we’ve gone through a divorce, suffered a major illness, had a family member pass away, 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 protect you from pain and vulnerability in the short run, down the road you may feel deep sorrow when you realize how many chances for connections with other people and adventures you’ve passed up. 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 ideas for nixing the cynicism:
Notice kindness. What you focus on grows. Sure, you can dwell on the shortcomings of others, yourself, and the world at large, but you can also focus on the many instances 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. Go ahead – dream big. Being clear on your goals is important. Just remember the difference between a wish and a demand.
Be mindful of your thoughts. Notice 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 does not necessarily reflect reality. Also consider whether this thought contributes to your happiness and effectiveness. Is it useful?
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 your coworker walking down the hall didn’t say hi because they don’t like you?
Come up with an alternative explanation. Could it be that your coworker was in a bad mood or preoccupied?
Review your social network. What types of people do you spend time with? Are they generally upbeat and resilient? Or do you hang out with people who tend to complain? If the latter, you might consider seeking out more buoyant companions.
Go on a media diet. There is an endless amount of news being foisted upon us 24/7, and the majority can be negative or alarmist in nature. 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 – and the media knows this. However, you don’t have to fall for this. Do you really need to be checking your cell phone every hour for updates on the latest scandal or outrage?
Practice gratitude. There are always blessings in our lives, 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, try thanking them. Chances are that you’ll brighten their day, and who knows – in turn, they may even “catch” your grateful attitude. 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.