Over the years, people have often accused me of being a cynical jerk. Whether it’s a disgruntled view on a popular trend or just a grumpy disposition, I almost always gravitate toward a negative outlook before a positive one. Thankfully, I found my way out of this without resorting to Disney-esque positive thinking.
My cynicism was so obvious at one point in high school that when a drama teacher cast me as the Grinch in the Christmas play my classmates praised it as the perfect choice. The countless articles on positivity I’ve read have little effect on me. But at some point recently, things began to click in my head and I stopped being the cynic I once was. Here’s what I’ve learned.
Why We Become Cynical
A cynical jerk is a special breed of person. You likely know the type if you’re not one yourself. A true cynic distrusts everything new they see or hear, they’re intolerant to new ideas, and they’re pessimistic about everything. They’re not sceptics. That’s a positive trait. They’re the downers of the group whose self-righteousness tends to bring everyone else down too.
Cynicism comes from a variety of places, but it most often happens when we’re emotionally vulnerable. Psychology Today explains:
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 holiday 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?”
Another cause of cynicism is pretty simple: our brains are hard-wired to pay more attention to negative experiences. The more negativity we see in the world, the more likely we are to share that disposition with others. Over time, that tends to make us more cynical. In severe cases, you’ll find yourself hating on pretty much everything without giving it much thought.
Admit You’re Being A Jerk And Fake It Till You Make It
As with most things like this, the first step is admitting you have a problem. To override this thought process, take some time to reflect and admit you’re being a cynical jerk. When you catch yourself taking the default stance of negativity, make note of it and think about it. If you’re anything like me, you’ll realise how much you sound like a whiny baby.
Once you acknowledge your problem, you can start faking a more positive attitude until it sticks. For example, Redditor LionLeo’s shares his “fake it till you make it” success:
I used to be that guy. Nobody really called me on it but I noticed people starting to hang out with me less and less. As I got older I found my cynical-ness had mostly gone away. It just kind of came from more of a “go with the flow” attitude that I adopted overall and it’s really made me a happier person. I used to deal with depression and anxiety and that’s mostly gone away just because I adopted a positive attitude about things. Just try to be a little more enthusiastic about others (genuine or fake, just try it) and be interested in what they have to say.
Something I always keep in mind to keep me in check is a quote from Bill Nye, “Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t.” When I think about it that way, people become more interesting to me.
Personally, I took to faking it on social networks. A few years ago, then-Kotaku editor Brian Crecente mentioned on Twitter that one of his goals was to stop being negative on social networks. For whatever reason, this struck something in me, and I took on the same goal for myself. Like anyone, I’ll lapse in that policy occasionally, but for the most part I try to stick to the mantra of positivity and shying away from whiny complaints when I can.
For me, it’s less about the flowery idea of concentrating on the positive and more about not focusing on the negative. If I have something constructive to say, I’ll say it. If it’s pessimistic vitriol, I try to keep it to myself. I’m more comfortable with this less blindly optimistic approach than I would be with a lot of the activity examples I’ve seen suggested elsewhere.
Of course, you can rewire your brain for positivity in all kinds of other ways. We’ve pointed out ways to trick yourself into being more positive before . Exercises include recording positive thoughts, giving positive shout-outs to others, and doing something nice for someone.
Audit Your Friendships
Cynical jerks tend to surround themselves with other cynical jerks. It makes those long nights at the bar complaining about pop culture a lot more enjoyable. At some point, it’s worth considering what impact these social relationships have on you.
I’ve had many cynical friends over the years. Those friends are funny when you’re in your early 20s, but as time marches on that cynicism and negativity tends to wear on a friendship. If you have too many of these types in your social circle, it’s hard to kick the habit of being cynical all the time.
I didn’t notice how cynical I’d become until I noticed how negative one of my friends was. I realised that we spent the bulk of our time complaining about things, whining about trivial mishaps from the day, or resenting anything new. I couldn’t take it anymore and started changing the dynamics of our relationship. The friendship remained, but we hung out less and for shorter periods of time.
I went through my contacts and cut back on my time with other similar friends. I didn’t need (or want) to cut people out completely, but it’s basic logic that when you surround yourself with cynics you’ll likely be a cynic yourself.
Breed Your Curiosity
Cynicism tends to make you close-minded, and that means it’s often difficult to pay attention to the world. When everything sucks, curiosity falls to the wayside, and that makes being creative difficult.
To help foster my own curiosity, I’ve taken on Jason Fried’s advice to give ideas five minutes before I react to them. This has the dual effect of soaking out my default negativity and breeding my curiosity by forcing me to ask questions. Fried explains how it clicked for him:
…I pushed back at him about the talk he gave. While he was making his points on stage, I was taking an inventory of the things I didn’t agree with. And when presented with an opportunity to speak with him, I quickly pushed back at some of his ideas. I must have seemed like such a jerk.
His response changed my life. It was a simple thing. He said “Man, give it five minutes.” I asked him what he meant by that? He said, it’s fine to disagree, it’s fine to push back, it’s great to have strong opinions and beliefs, but give my ideas some time to set in before you’re sure you want to argue against them. “Five minutes” represented “think”, not react. He was totally right. I came into the discussion looking to prove something, not learn something.
This was a big moment for me…There’s also a difference between asking questions and pushing back. Pushing back means you already think you know. Asking questions means you want to know. Ask more questions.
Asking questions and being curious is tantamount to critical and creative thinking. I’ve noticed that the less time I focus on my snarky, cynical responses, the more likely I’ll have an actually useful idea. I also tend to pay more attention to the world around me and stop to appreciate the creativity of others.
Cynicism Isn’t All Bad
The line between being a cynic and having a critical sense is a close one. The more we look at things critically with an emotional detachment, the more likely we’ll be cynical about it. That’s not always a bad thing, though. As Psychology Today points out, it’s positive in small doses:
Though cynicism may not be healthy in the long run, it can serve as an emotional coat of armour that blunts life’s everyday indignities. Philip Mirvis, a cynicism researcher at Boston College, says cynics’ caustic, detached outlook on life, also known as defensive pessimism, helps “protect them from what they imagine to be the slings and arrows of hustlers and higher-ups.” If they assume from the outset that a client can’t be trusted, or that a new mother-in-law will be a witch, they will be well prepared in the event these fears come true.
Casting a cynical eye on situations you can’t control reduces your emotional attachment to a particular outcome, says Yapko, and actually lowers your vulnerability to depression.
Cynics’ propensity to spot setups and snow jobs before the rest of us also makes them socially valuable. Infamous cynic Maureen Dowd, for instance, did a Pulitzer-winning job of highlighting tragic flaws in the Clinton administration. “Cynics deserve more respect than they get,” Bayan says. “You need naysayers who will shout down ideas that are extreme or just plain foolish.”
Remember, always-on optimism isn’t healthy either. Like most things in life, it’s about balance. When you find yourself being cynical about everything, then it’s time to take a closer look at how you’re interacting with the world.