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Self-Knowledge • Emotional Skills

The Problem with Cynicism

Cynicism has, in certain quarters, a distinct kind of glamour. It sounds tough not to have too many hopes – and to claim to see through the dreams of others.

Cynics will tell you that everyone is selfish and weak; that ‘the system’ is rigged and driven by greed; that you can never succeed so it’s pointless (and contemptible) to try; that all ideals are ridiculous and that ‘do gooders’ are only out to show off their own (supposed) virtues.

It is hopeless to try to disprove cynicism; there will always be an abundance of vivid examples to back up a catastrophic interpretation of humanity. But what identifies people as cynics is not so much what they claim – as why they do so. Their downbeat assessments are based not on dispassionate analyses of our species but on an inner emotional compulsion. Their philosophy is, first and foremost, a defence against suffering.

Beneath their gruff surface, cynics are afflicted by a near-hysterical fragility around the idea of expecting anything which turns out to be less impressive than they’d hoped. And so they twist their mental apparatus to secure themselves against the eventuality of any discouragement. They disappoint themselves before the world can ever do it for them at a time and in a manner of its own choosing.


Cynics may look like people trying very hard to see the facts as they are; in fact, they are trying even harder to insulate themselves against pain. The origin of their stance is not worldly experience and insight; it is – rather more poignantly – psychological trauma. Somewhere in the past, there will probably have been a blow to their hopes that felt too powerful to handle. Sadly though, cynics don’t give away the slightest clue as to their touching and vulnerable backstories. They will instead talk stridently about corruption and manipulation; pile up ample examples of greed and proffer complex-sounding theories around economics. But what they won’t do is voluntarily or easily reveal how their father humiliated them when he was drunk or how it felt when their mother ran away to another city when they were five. The cynic is never truly and completely cynical. They are still recovering from hopes that grew too painful to avow.


A natural temptation, when encountering a cynic is to try to argue them out of their attitude by citing counter-examples. But this is in its own way cruel, because it misunderstands what cynicism is about. It is an emotional protection, in essence, a mode of coping learned under conditions of duress. What the cynic really needs – and yet fears they may never get, so naturally never asks – is kindness, a kindness that may eventually help them to rekindle their stunted secret desires for hope and fulfilment.

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