Jack and Steve have been friends for years. But over time Jack has developed a different view of people and approach to life than Steve. In fact, just the other day when Steve made a large donation to a local children’s home Jack accused him of doing so just for bragging rights,
“Yeah, you’ll be able to use that! Everyone will call you St. Steve and all the ladies will think you’re amazing. Nice move.” Jack’s cynicism has become intolerable for nearly everyone close to him.
Know anyone like this? Someone who has become so cynical that they have a hard time believing anything good can really happen, or that anyone actually does things for unselfish reasons? I do. Several people as a matter of fact, including Jack whose family finally convinced him he needed to change.
Why People Become Cynical
Before we talk about why people become cynical, let’s first make sure we know what cynicism is and what it looks like.
Cynicism is the belief that the actions of others, no matter how altruistic in appearance, have selfish and self-serving motivations. It’s often confused with skepticism, but the two are different.
A skeptic may also doubt the motives of others, but it’s generally with a curious nature and a desire to have things proven rather than just stated.
A cynic, however, believes the worst in people. They assume everyone is inspired by greed and ambition and therefore are often disdainful, derisive, or sarcastic in their opinions and commentary of others’ behavior. Much like Jack’s comment to Steve, his best friend.
So why do people behave this way? Does a cynic truly believe that no one does anything just for the good of the act?
Possibly. Although they probably haven’t always believed that.
Cynicism is a defense mechanism. The distrustful nature of a cynic is a means of self-preservation. By thinking the worst of people and assuming everyone is really just out for themselves the cynic prevents themselves from being fooled, looking foolish, or being taken advantage of. This means at some point they or someone they love, very likely was taken advantage of, made to look foolish and hurt, usually deeply. So, consciously, or unconsciously, they are determined not to let that happen again.
Whatever the hurt was they suffered or witnessed was impactful and possibly long-lived. As a result, a cynic’s faith in others to do good without personal gain is nonexistent.
That’s not the only reason people can become cynical, however. Cynicism can arise from self-doubt as well. When a person feels not good enough, fears they are likely to fail and disappoint others, or does not feel good about their own motivations, they may use a cynical approach as a means of deflecting and defense. Assuming others are selfishly motivated makes it easier to hide your own motivations or take the pressure and focus off of yourself.
Problems Faced By Cynical People and Those Around Them
We all know cynical people. Although they may be friends or family, consistent exposure to cynical people can be exhausting. And it’s not healthy for them either.
To be cynical is also to be negative - you really can’t be a positive cynic. Pervasive negativity will cause problems for both the person and the people who love them, and cynicism is an especially toxic form of negativity.
Among the problems commonly experienced by cynics are:
- Health issues. Cynicism has been linked to physical problems such as heart disease, eating disorders, and high blood pressure. It’s also been connected to dementia and early death. This kind of constant negativity and distrust of others clearly takes a toll on physical well-being.
- Depression. A cynical mindset can serve to incubate other negative responses and viewpoints. These thoughts can push people into a depressive spiral. In fact, cynicism and depression are closely associated.
- Loss of relationships. Not surprisingly, cynical people can easily sabotage relationships and alienate the people they love. When you distrust the motivations of nearly everyone, creating intimacy and a healthy, loving relationship is very difficult.
- Loss of faith. This isn’t just religious faith, but faith in humanity and the idea that things can be done for the greater good. Faith, religious or otherwise, plays a different role in everyone’s lives. Cynicism, however, can make it difficult for faith to exist in any form. If you can’t believe that people can behave in the best interest of others it’s hard to have faith that anything is done for positive reasons.
Cynicism can also become contagious if you’re not careful. You’ve heard the saying misery loves company? Cynics will do their best to convince those around them that they’re sheep, gullible, naive, or just plain stupid for believing in the positive version of human nature. No one wants to be viewed this way, and if the cynic is persuasive enough, or in a position of influence (like a spouse or a parent), it can be easy to get drawn into their viewpoint.
A cynical viewpoint can also be alluring because it can negate your moral compass. If everyone is really just out for themselves, then selfish, self-serving or hedonistic behaviors should really be fine, right? A cynic’s answer would be, “Sure, why not. Take care of number one and do what you want. Everyone else is.”
If you’ve become cynical it can feel like you’re trapped in that mindset, but you don’t have to be. You can find your way back to a more positive outlook. Depending on how you ended up becoming cynical, however, it may take some work.
If you have been influenced too heavily by someone around you, you’ll likely be able to refocus and see things in a more positive light more quickly. If your cynicism is more deeply rooted and has become part of your emotional defense system, it may take more effort though. You, like Jack and many others, will likely need help from a qualified counselor to work through and overcome the pain that’s at the heart of your cynicism.