Four Symptoms of Cynicism (And How to Heal)

Four Symptoms of Cynicism (And How to Heal)

I discovered I was a cynic while in a church, 6,000 miles from home. It was summer in Buenos Aires, and the pastor had just started his sermon. I realized I was looking at the pastor with disdain, sure nothing he said could change me or anyone else.

Back in San Diego, I’d often felt the same way, but I blamed my church of 25 years. Except here, half a world away, the negativity was still with me. That’s when I realized I was the problem.

Help me, God, I said, shivering. I didn’t want to feel cynical any more.

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  • Uprooting Cynicism from Our Hearts

    Uprooting Cynicism from Our Hearts

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    Over the course of the next five years, God took my cynical heart and healed it.

    Miriam-Webster defines cynicism as being “contemptuously distrustful of human nature and motives.” Sitting in church Sunday after Sunday, I doubted the sincerity of the pastor and the heart of the congregation. I was indeed contemptuous.

    Ephesians 4:31 exhorts us to “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.” But cynicism and its partners, resentment and bitterness, aren’t always obvious. How can we tell we’re cynical? And how do we uproot it from our hearts?

    I’ve found four tell-tale symptoms of cynicism in my life and four antidotes to combat them. 

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  • Cynical Symptom #1: You feel rejected and alone

    Cynical Symptom #1: You feel rejected and alone

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    Underneath my cynicism about church was a deep hurt: I had invested faithfully in my childhood church, yet when I went to services, I felt estranged.

    You might feel like everyone is finding connection or belonging except you. Or maybe a relationship or community you depended on died, leaving you isolated or angry.

    We all experience loneliness and isolation, but if the losses pile up or we let them fester, they can form unhealthy habits. For a long time, when I walked into a church gathering, I told myself it wasn’t even worth connecting to people—it wouldn’t make any difference. That assumption only deepened my isolation and bitterness.

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  • Antidote: Explore your hurt and speak up about it.

    Antidote: Explore your hurt and speak up about it.

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    After I came home from Argentina, I kept crying out to God to reveal why I felt so angry, isolated, and cynical. The answer surprised me. As a high schooler in my church, a pastor had spiritually abused me, and sexually abused my best friend. Though the people responsible were gone, I’d never really talked to anyone in the church about the experience.

    I felt alone because I had never spoken my deepest hurts aloud. As I began to do so—first to staff, then to friends and acquaintances, I began to feel known and loved at church for the first time since I was a teenager.

    I’ve experienced resentment, cynicism, and bitterness in other relationships too, and every time there is hurt at the root. Often Christians plaster over wounds with Jesus-talk and fixed smiles, but Christ calls us to place our whole selves—even our rage and woundedness—on the altar. Through therapy, honest conversation, and courageous story-telling, we must bring past hurt to light.

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  • Cynical Symptom #2: You assume the worst possible motives for peoples’ behavior.

    Cynical Symptom #2: You assume the worst possible motives for peoples’ behavior.

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    Before my husband and I got therapy, I’d sometimes wonder how someone I loved could be so awful. (In therapy, I’d find out he was thinking exactly the same thing about me). I could not understand what could possess him to act the way he did, and I thought he did not care enough to do better.

    In her book, Rising Strong, Brené Brown made similar assumptions about a terrible roommate’s motives. Later, her therapist suggested that most people, even her bad roommate, do the best they can. Brown felt deeply offended by the idea. Is it really possible that even “sewer rats” and “scofflaws” are doing their best?

    If you’re a cynic, the answer is a clear no. People are awful, and it’s useless to expect otherwise.

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  • Antidote: Practice reflective listening.

    Antidote: Practice reflective listening.

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    When my husband and I got therapy, I was shocked to discover that even when he was being “awful,” he was trying to be a good husband to me. Sure, deep hurt sometimes clouded his judgment, but he was genuinely trying.

    I was also surprised by how much I needed to learn how to listen to him, and vice-versa. As we healed, we’d take turns sharing a small piece of our pain. The other one played “journalist,” asking questions and reflecting back what they heard without judgment or commentary.

    It took a long time, but slowly, we began to understand each other’s wounds and grieve them together. As we did, it became possible to trust the other was doing their best, even when they bewildered us.

    Brené Brown came to a similar conclusion in Rising Strong. She discovered that everyone she most admired tried to assume the best motives of those around them—no matter what.

    As The Message paraphrases 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, “[Love] doesn’t keep score of the sins of others…[it] always looks for the best…” We’re commanded to assume the best of our neighbors, even when they hurt us.

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  • Cynical Symptom #3: You feel used

    Cynical Symptom #3: You feel used

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    Let’s be honest—some people are horribly inconsiderate or even abusive. You might assume believing the best of those people is a recipe for becoming an easy target.

    For a long time at my church, I gave and gave without receiving much in return. In marriage, I resented my husband asking more and more of me while I felt starved for crumbs.

    Are we just supposed to slap a happy smile on our face while we turn into a doormat?

    How do we believe the best of people when people can be terrible?

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  • Antidote: Develop appropriate boundaries.

    Antidote: Develop appropriate boundaries.

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    Love is not an unqualified “yes.” Learning our limits and sticking to them allows us to develop healthy relationships.

    If my church had responded to my anger about past abuse with indifference or blame, I might have needed to find a different church. If my husband refused to get therapy or became abusive, I might have needed to pursue a trial separation.

    Drawing boundaries with unhealthy people allows us to treat them with kindness while not tolerating or encouraging sin. It’s the way to loving sanity in a world full of suffering.

    As I began to say “no” to obligations that I could not handle, my sense of being used disappeared. Even more surprising, I discovered that I was often the cause of my own maltreatment. I did not say “no,” share how terrible I was feeling, or ask for what I needed. Beginning to assert myself with kindness and candor showed me that love has nothing to do with being a doormat.

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  • Cynical Symptom #4: You assume the future is hopeless.

    Cynical Symptom #4: You assume the future is hopeless.

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    I recently read some bleak advice given to recent graduates by John Ziegler, a talk radio personality. He said, “The vast majority of you…will be absolutely miserable in whatever career you choose…[your] boss will not be the only stupid person you encounter in life. The vast majority of people are much, much dumber than you have ever been led to believe…they are also far more dishonest…”

    I gasped at the deep cynicism in the speech, but honestly, I harbored those same dark assumptions the day I sat in the Argentine church. I had so little hope that day for the Church, for God’s power, and for the intentions of the people around me.

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  • Antidote: practice intentional gratitude.

    Antidote: practice intentional gratitude.

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    In her book The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom’s dormitory at the concentration camp becomes terribly infested with lice. Incredibly, she rejoiced, since the lice made the awful guards leave them alone.

    I do not possess Ten Boom’s resilience, but her gratitude inspires me. In the darkest place imaginable, she turned her face towards the sun. Our circumstances can be grim indeed, but as Paul asserts in Philippians 4:11-13, we can learn to be content in all of them. This is not pretense, but a deep and patient practice.

    Daily gratitude allows me to live with hope. Rather than expecting a bleak future, I live with my heart open and unafraid.
    It is so easy to live in despair. But that posture steals our joy and our futures.

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  • Cynicism Nurtures Death in Our Hearts

    Cynicism Nurtures Death in Our Hearts

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    In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” He compares these sins to murder.

    Cynicism is an emergency. It means we’re allowing ourselves to live in hell. Any time we look to our neighbors with contempt and dismissal, we let the root of cynicism flourish.

    But thanks be to God—there’s an alternative. When we share our hurt, listen deeply, say “no,” and cultivate gratitude, we can heal our alienation from our neighbors and cultivate hope in our hearts.

    Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego who uses tiny, joyful yeses to free herself from anxiety. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, “Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety," for free here.

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