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Cynicism – The Price We All Pay

September 1, 2010

“Cynicism is an unproductive reaction to disappointment. It springs from the helplessness people feel when they are disappointed by others and allow themselves to become detached observers rather than active participants. It carries with it a sense of entitlement that says, “You have disappointed me therefore  my cynicism is justified.”                                                                                                                                                                               Jamie & Maren Showkeir 

Where are you on the cynicism meter these days?

 

If you are in the red zone of low to no trust – you have plenty of company.

Have you become a cynic?  Hard core or soft – cynicism can be sapping you of your vitality, spontaneity and possibilities.

The signs of cynicism are obviouslow or no trust,  blame, criticism, divisiveness, either-or thinking, pessimism, negativity, sarcasm.

At work, in relationships and in relating to the world – cynicism has become a dominant response to life’s events.   Cynicism’s on the rise and has become a pervasive meme in the culture at large.

It seems that lots of people are cynical about everything today – the economy, leaders, colleagues, media, government, corporations – you name it!  To be sure, there is good reason to question the conduct and motives of many of our institutions.  As citizens, employees and parents we should be demanding greater responsibility, accountability and transparency (of ourselves as well).

But often cynicism breeds apathy – not activism.   We inoculate ourselves with ever-increasing doses of cynicism as a defense against life’s disappointments and often wear our cynicism like a badge of honor.

While it’s easy to understand why cynicism is rampant – and even celebrated as “realism” by many in the cynic’s fan club, cynicism costs us all dearly.

What is Cynicism?

Dictionary.com defines a cynic as a “person who believes that only selfishness motivates human actions and who disbelieves in or minimizes selfless acts or disinterested points of view.”   Other definitions include words like bitter, contemptuous and pessimistic.

Cynicism is not an emotion.  It is an internal state that’s made up of our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. It colors our perception of what we see – what we feel and how we act in the world.  While cynicism itself in not an emotion, it can trigger and reinforce  many life-sucking emotions –  hostility, anger, frustration, impatience, bitterness, resentment, hatred, rage, annoyance, doubt, anxiety and fear are all emotions associated with cynicism.

Cynicism is a psychological self-protection against – hurt, disappointment, sadness and most important – fear.

Cynicism is often fueled by anger – whether it’s the big noisy kind or the seething slow-burn types of anger. It can also be a distraction.  A cynical response is sometimes easier to handle than taking action to make changes in our lives and in the world.

While cynicism is sometimes justified, unless the strong feelings it evokes drive us to constructive action, it can corrode our spirit and sap our energies.

The unchecked feelings that fuel cynicism can also take a big negative toll on our relationships, mental & physical well-being, families, organizations, institutions and our culture in general.

“Cynicism distracts the brain from solution-building and rewires it to problem-blaming instead. It can also increase hormones that produce dangerous levels of stress. It rewires the brain for damaging practices such as distrust, doubt and scorn. The parts of the brain that are engaged in cynicism differ from those involved in more positive behaviors such as compassion for others or building meaningful solutions to problems. Eventually the brain moves cynical behavior from its working memory over into the basal ganglia where your mind stores habitual behaviors. At that point… choices for positive behaviors are harder to make”   Dr. Ellen Weber

The lenses of cynicism can become a habituated reaction to the world around us. When we are cynical – we are mostly out of conscious awareness – reacting on auto-pilot to events and behaviors we have determined (often without examining) as suspicious and untrustworthy.  Because the state of cynicism is fraught with unproductive feelings, it clouds our critical thinking process and saps our ability to make rational choices.

Justifications for Cynicism – All Roads lead to Beliefs

How we define cynicism tells us a great deal about our thinking process – and our beliefs.  Beliefs are at the core of cynical reactions.  You’ll often hear cynic’s rationale expressed with statements like these:

  • I’ve been “burnt” too many times in the past to let myself get “taken in” again
  • The world is a hard, tough place and you have to be tough to survive in it.
  • I’m not cynical – just experienced.

All of these statements carry some truths.  They also carry old hurts and wounds and lot of doubt and fear about the world. When we live based solely on the experiences of the past, we poison the well of creativity, spontaneity and possibility.

Is this the place you want to be?  Is this line of thinking and feeling ultimately serving you and your goals? And what are the implications for workplaces, schools and institutions scarred by cynicism and plagued by mistrust? What kind of future are we building with cynicism?

There are so many reasons not to trust.  There is ample evidence for disappointments at many levels.  It is easy to see the negatives.

But it is much harder to dig deeper and affirm what is working in our lives, our organizations, our families and friendships and our society.  This is the key to staying vibrant, hopeful and in the “game.”  Most important, it’s vital to stay present!   One of cynicism’s worst aspects is that it claims our presence. While we may not be able to solve all the problems we see, we can stay aware and engaged.  We can choose where to apply our energies because we haven’t squandered them on cynical impulses. It’s not about sticking our heads in the sand. It is about taking responsibility and making choices internally – and externally.

It takes discipline and constant activation of our deeper wisdom to not bail out emotionally.  When we succumb to our cynical self, we disregard all the good within and around us and align ourselves with the worst behaviors and actions of others.  In doing so, we separate ourselves from the world and take refuge in the temporary illusory protection that cynicism shields.

So – where are you at on the cynicism scale?

How does your cynicism or the cynicism of others impact your feelings and energy?

What do you see as the most useful antidotes to cynicism?

Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.

Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. September 9, 2010 5:54 pm

    Great post and such an important issue. I have to keep my own cynicism level in check sometimes (my excuse is that I’m a New Yorker but that isn’t a valid reason either). It’s easier, sometimes, for clients to go down the cynicism path rather than taking action for positive change…but the outcome is so much more productive with the latter. Thanks for a though-provoking post.

    • September 10, 2010 12:47 pm

      Hi Terry and thanks for the comment!
      Yes cynicism is easy – we’re hard-wired for the threat response and cynicism seems like a prtotective strategy for the brain. Unfortunately, it has quite the opposite effect.
      Speaking of regional cyncism (!) as a former New Yorker of 17 years, in retrospect I find many New Yorkers to be a smart, savvy lot – not necessarily cynical, certainly resilient – but also open in many ways. I think sheer diversity of experience can blunt cycnicism – leaving open possibilities. But as the saying goes – it’s complicated!
      Best,
      Louise

      • September 10, 2010 1:42 pm

        Hi Louise,

        I actually agree with you about New Yorkers. I think we/they are the most open minded people around. (I am a little biased though)

        All the diversity creates open-mindedness.

        I enjoy your posts – keep ’em coming

        Terry

      • September 10, 2010 1:46 pm

        Thx Terry. Where do you live now? and where are you from in NY?

  2. Daniel permalink
    April 28, 2011 2:42 am

    I’ve become cynical and impatient, I think borne out of frustration which turned to slow-burning anger. I try to control it, in particular because of what I saw it do to my dad, my oldest brother and my oldest nephew… Angry Old Men. But I see too many people trying to maintain the status quo of greed and oppression, and feel completely powerless to do anything. People write me off as an oddity and I feel less relevant, which only exacerbates the situation.

    • April 28, 2011 5:26 pm

      Daniel,
      Thx for the comment. It’s easy to get cynical – especially these days. But it has its price – as you suggest in terms of the men in your family. I do believe what we have power over is our emotional response to events around us.
      Wishing you well – and thanks for reading.
      Louise

  3. August 9, 2011 8:23 am

    I googled disappointment breeds cynicism and found this article, originally I was only thinking in terms of in my relationship where my partner constantly cancels joint appointments that I was really looking forward to, agrees to things in advance only to ‘flake out’ when it really matters, and well, more examples than I can think of at the moment.. I feel as if I am becoming cynical towards him but I still consider myself an optimistic person towards life in general.. Is it possible to become cynical towards only a specific person? Is there a ‘cure’ for cynicism?

    • August 9, 2011 10:02 am

      Hi Erica,
      You’re right when you say disappointment breeds cyncism. Over time, many emotions accumulate when we are disappointed. In many cases this gets exacerbated when we don’t express what we feel to the other person – not always appropriate but often important. Neuroscience research findings show that our emotional reactions change shift when we express specifically what we feel.
      Clearly, all of us experience disappointment when we don’t like or understand the actions of others. I think what’s critical is that we take care of ourselves internally by not letting these experiences erode our optimism or concern for others. Like I mentioned in the post, cynicism is a real slippery slope. We can find ourselves feeling alienated and even depressed. The only “cure” I know is to be vigilant with our own internal emotional state and to be careful to constantly align ourselves with what’s positive and working for us. This doesn’t mean we stick our heads in the sand when we encounter other’s behavior, but that we safeguard against the emotional fallout from things we can’t control.
      Thanks for your comment!
      Louise

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