I'm a Recovering Cynic—Here's How I Learned to Find the Good
Of the many talents I’ve acquired in my life, there's one that always used to rise to the top. I was an expert. A connoisseur, if you will. This talent never wavered under pressure—in fact, it only strengthened. And the more I practiced, the more deeply this “gift” became ingrained into my very nature. I probably could have qualified for the Olympics had I pursued it. The skill: Pointing out everything that was wrong. Wrong with my day, wrong with my job, wrong with my relationship, wrong with my life.
I found safety and familiarity in focusing on the negative. Whether it took the form of dark humor or a unshakable cynicism in all possible contexts—I was the antithesis to a ray of sunshine. I had created a dark ominous cloud and chosen to take shelter there. Because, after all, with an expectation for the absolute worst, I could forever avoid the let down and disappointment of something going wrong—because everything, after all, was already wrong.
What’s Wrong With Seeing the Wrong?
Research tells us that negative emotions narrow our minds and focus our thoughts. In nature, this is a helpful mechanism. If a monkey sees a cheetah that crosses its path, the monkey’s fearful focus becomes solely on the cheetah and on the escape plan (not entirely sure if that’s how the food chain works, but you understand…). In that moment, the monkey is unable to focus on anything else.
While that protective mechanism might serve us as monkeys, this programming doesn’t serve us human cynics very well. Why? Because our brains are programmed to respond to negative emotions and thought patterns by shutting out the world and limiting what we’re able to see around us. My tendency to focus on the negative became more than just a tendency—it became an inability to see anything BUT the negative.
What Optimism Really Is
As I dove deep into the personal development world as a prerequisite for my chosen profession (I’m now an emotional wellness coach and therapist), I felt inundated with prompts to “think positive.” In truth, that never resonated much with me. It felt like … bullshit. I had categorized positive thinking as delusional and the business of forest fairies with magic wands.
I had categorized positive thinking as delusional and the business of forest fairies with magic wands.
But after reading all the books, listening to all the podcasts, taking all the workshops, and getting a master's degree in the study of the human mind, the takeaway that felt more like “me” boiled down to this: We get to choose our experience of literally everything.
Now, as you can imagine, this was a bit of a conundrum for a cynic like myself. Had I been choosing, all this time, to focus on what was wrong? And if that was the case, could I then choose … differently?
We get to choose our experience of literally everything.
What I thought was an identity as #cynic4life was actually just a choice I was making. And the consequences of that choice? It created a warped and limited view of what is actually an extraordinary life, filled with endless reasons to be stoked. The emotional consequences of this approach were, as you can imagine, unhelpful. My attempt to avoid disappointment by focusing on the negative meant that I was also avoiding joy and ease in my everyday experience.
Making the Shift From #Cynic4Life
When I decided to choose differently, well, everything felt different.
I made this shift, perhaps not all at once, but gradually, as I began to realize that focusing on the negative didn’t in fact change my outer reality. It simply created a miserable inner reality. And to choose that for myself was just, well, mean. I deserve better than that.
Focusing on the negative didn’t change my outer reality—it simply created a miserable inner reality.
Life was unfolding in every moment, completely beyond my control, and the only thing I could control was how I chose to perceive every plot twist. The stressful stuff, the amazing stuff, and everything in between.
The shifts were born of small changes and integrative tools, with a dash of self-awareness.
Here, three of the tactics that helped me most:
1. Be Real With Yourself
Forcing anything never works—including positive thinking. Positive thinking doesn’t mean that you adopt a “This is AMAZING!” stance when your car gets a flat. It sucks when your car gets a flat. But what sucks more is choosing to focus on all the reasons why a flat tire will derail your day, make you late, cost you money. etc.
While all of the above may be true, what’s also true is that a flat tire could always be worse (like an engine blow-out or an accident). Focusing on the little ways things are OK is a form of positive thinking—or, as I like to call it sometimes, “not-so-negative” thinking.
Whatever perspective shift you take, know that it’s important for it to feel authentic to you in order for it to be a sustainable strategy. Being real about thinking positive also means a level of acceptance that some days you’ll be better at it than other days. The recovery of a cynic is not always a linear process, so be patient.
2. Understand Where Your Inner Cynic Comes From
Perhaps your inner cynic was born of family conditioning, past experiences, trauma, or is simply triggered by certain events or people. Once you can recognize your inner cynic as a product rooted in something other than your innate temperament, it gives you a chance to disidentify with it.
Think of it this way: We weren’t born pointing out everything that sucks—we were born sweet little babies who saw only the beauty in all things. That lil’ guy or gal is still in there somewhere. You are not your negative thoughts. You are the observer of those negative thoughts, and you can choose a different view whenever you so choose, dear reader.
3. Test It Out
We have to incentivize ourselves to make a shift away from negative thinking by showing ourselves the possibilities that lie in choosing differently. You won’t know what you’re missing out on until you make an intentional effort to focus less on the negative. Once you have the opportunity to feel the difference in how you experience the world, you won’t want to go back. And you will have a reason to stay committed, self-aware, and intentional about the thoughts that create your everyday experience.
4. Flex Your Optimism
If I find myself in a conversation of “Debbie Downers,” I will create a change in conversation by shifting the tone or topic entirely. I think of this skill as a muscle that needs to be exercised and strengthened: The more we take advantage of opportunities to shift away from the negative, the better we get at it. Making this shift outside of us, either in social situations or in the workplace, also prevents us from feeding energy into a negativity current that has the ability to sweep us out to sea and back into our old patterns.
I am proud to say that today, I am two years “negativity free.”
Well, mostly. 😉
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