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Lisa Firestone

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Why So Cynical?

Posted: 12/06/2012 12:46 am

Whether it's a lazy coworker who calls in sick every Monday or a flaky friend who always bails at the last minute, there's always something (or someone) in our lives that can make us cynical. Like an ill-fitting sweater, cynicism can be easy to slip into, yet difficult to shake off. But what are the risks of indulging in cynical attitudes? A 2009 study of more than 97,000 women showed that optimistic women had lower rates of coronary heart disease, cancer-related deaths, and mortality. Conversely, women with the most pessimistic and cynical personalities had higher rates of these diseases and death. When we think of hostility and negativity as life-threatening conditions, it makes the goal of being less cynical all the more crucial.

Cynicism is part of a defensive posture we take to protect ourselves. It's typically triggered when we feel hurt by or angry at something, and instead of dealing with those emotions directly, we allow them to fester and skew our outlook. When we grow cynical toward one thing in our lives, we may slowly start to turn on everything. During a visit with her family over the holidays, a friend of mine found herself getting increasingly frustrated with her husband. What started as small irritations at him forgetting their camera and not being ready on time soon grew into a hostile attitude toward almost everything he did. This critical and guarded point of view shaped her vacation and left her grouchy and irritable toward her family and friends. It wasn't until she got home that she asked herself, "What was my problem? How did I let that feeling of cynicism take over?"

When we get cynical, we are often indulging in self-righteous attitudes and forming expectations that people should behave a certain way. For example, my friend had thoughts like, "I never would have made him wait; he is so inconsiderate," or "I guess he really doesn't care if we get pictures of us with his family. I care more than he does about us all being together." Through this shadowy perspective, we start to seek out and focus on the worst in people. My friend's anxiety about the visit combined with her style of coping with that uncomfortable feeling by "being organized" and "taking control of the situation" made her more reactive to anything that didn't go as she had planned. She was on edge, watching for mistakes, rather than focusing on the experience of sharing something with her husband.

My friend's story reminded me that cynicism often surfaces when we direct negative emotions or perceptions we have toward ourselves outward onto those around us. Her critical feelings toward her husband rose from a pressure she was putting on herself to "be her best" in front of their families. She wanted everything to go perfectly, from their arrival to the pictures they would come home with.

Many of our cynical emotions arise when we are feeling vulnerable. In moments when we are feeling open and are let down, we are far more likely to react by toughening up and becoming defensive. A heightened susceptibility to cynicism can be a sure sign that we're turned on ourselves. When we enter this state of mind, we are often viewing those around us through the same critical filter through which we see ourselves. This critical inner voice is frequently directed at us, telling us we are not good enough or that we are not going to fit in. Yet, the harsh judgment of this inner critic can easily be projected outward onto the people around us. We may start seeing anyone, from our closest friend to a distant relative, solely for their flaws and fail to have compassion for their own struggles and distractions.

Because cynical and suspicious attitudes create a negative filter through which we observe our surroundings, when we are in this state, we tend to miss out on joys in life. We indulge in an "us vs. them" mentality that pins us against a certain person or group. It is easy to distort people and create a caricature of their flaws. When we do this, it's valuable to ask ourselves, "Whose point of view is coming through? Is this how I really feel, or am I overreacting based on old feelings from my past?"

These connections aren't always easy to make, but very often, our cynical attitudes mirror those of influential figures from our past. When my friend told her story of her holiday getaway, she remarked that: "The way I tore into my husband, I sounded exactly like my mother. They actually felt like her words, not mine." The critical attitudes we're exposed to early in life, whether directed at us or at others, can shape the way we see people when we grow up. Events that leave us feeling vulnerable, hurt or angry will often trigger these old, defended, often cynical, reactions. As adults, it is our responsibility to separate these attitudes from our own and to differentiate from destructive early influences, so we don't hurt those closest to us.

This negativity can be contagious, bringing down those around us. It will lead us to alienate others, acting in a hostile manner, or to become self-protective and isolated. Ultimately, it is always in our own self-interest to be open and vulnerable rather than to be nasty or write people off. The only person we can control is ourselves. When we get cynical, we are the ones who suffer.

Being a glass-is-half-full kind of person not only makes us happier but healthier. Research published in the Journal of Personality poses that "positive emotions contribute to psychological and physical well-being via more effective coping." In other words, our positive feelings actually make us more resilient when facing negative circumstances. So the question becomes, "Why not look for the best in people?" Why make ourselves suffer over the flaws in others? How can we shake off cynical, destructive points of view and the critical attitudes that lead us in a downward spiral?

Avoiding cynicism does not mean avoiding emotions. It is not about being phony or in fantasy when it comes to our surroundings. Rather, it is about alleviating our own suffering by dealing with emotions directly without letting them color the lens through which we view the world. It is important to acknowledge our emotions and to allow ourselves to feel them fully. We can then decide how we want to act. Instead of letting out critical comments under our breath or gossiping about someone we feel provoked by, we can think about what is triggering our cynical reactions. Are we projecting our self-attacks? Are we experiencing hurt or anger? Have we perhaps slipped into a point of view that is not our own? We can then talk with someone else about our feelings, or we can at least acknowledge what we are feeling to ourselves. We can then maintain our integrity by taking actions that won't leave us to sabotage our own experience or bubble over with cynicism.

To take a different course, we have to be sensitive to ourselves and notice what we are experiencing. Cultivating a compassionate attitude, in which we are curious, open, accepting, and loving toward ourselves, is essential to fighting cynicism. When we are able to feel safe and secure in ourselves, we are better able to express compassion toward others. We can start by recognizing that everyone struggles. Often, when a person does something that hurts us, they are acting from a place of defense and hurt themselves. Some people may have worse traits than others, but everyone has shortcomings.

Compassion requires a unique combination of accepting that we each have sovereign minds that think differently, while also realizing that we are all in the same boat, that we are all hurt in our own ways. Compassion counters cynicism by allowing us to feel our anger, pain, or frustration without taking these feelings to a dark place that bends both us and those close to us out of shape. My friend's biggest regret over her holiday was having acted cold and dismissive toward her husband instead of seeing that he too was hurting. Visiting his family always brought up painful memories of being called "stupid" and "forgetful." She could have expressed her concern without turning against him, and they both could have benefited by talking through their underlying emotions.

It's important to accept that we create the world we live in. When we cultivate compassion instead of turning cynical, we feel better. We feel closer to the people we care about and more fulfilled within ourselves. By being open and understanding, we relieve ourselves of our own destructive attitudes, and we draw out the best in those around us.

Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org.

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