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Understanding the Cynical Mind: A Look into Why Some of us Have Dark Outlooks

Updated on December 8, 2016
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Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.

Negativity is supposed to be a bad thing. Like something that drags down a person’s self-esteem and makes their life miserable in some shape or form. It’s definitely those but it’s also something else as well. Negative people are often generalized into a single block and collectively discarded. There is a reason though for that perception and like any other social group, they are not a homogeneous block.

Evolutionary Adaptability

I deal with negativity or AKA cynicism, when I get into a frame of mind where I’m struggling with something, especially a past trauma. Particularly if it’s a repeat issue, I find that the more I meet with the same obstacles or failure, the harder it is to be positive. It’s because when I feel like I failed, it puts me in this sink hole.

Cynicism can be a shield or a power boost to work through a mired or dark situation and prevent a total, mental shutdown where one just gives up. Does it block out good opportunities and perspectives: yes. Does it make a person less desirable as a friend, lover, or mate: potentially. But it can keep up the forward momentum to get through the situation. However,n this does not mean it is a desired frame of mind. It certainly isn't for me.

For other people, cynicism and a negative outlook on life serve a different role. In the film, Rambo, the character of the same name gets into an argument with a missionary whom he is escorting into the jungles of Burma. He tells her that she is naive trying to change the natural state of the world and human existence, which is war and violence.

Rambo is no stranger to that, being a Vietnam vet who suffers from PTSD. In fact by this point in his life, he has seen so much violence that when he thinks about peace, he calls it an, “accident”. He has gotten used to people choosing to be their worst selves and doesn’t expect anything to change.

Yes, it is a fictional character, but it describes how cynicism is also used as lenses for trying to process our chaotic, life experiences in the world. For extreme cases, it can be a survival tool when the reality of a situation and where it leads you to become too hard to accept. Cynicism is both a reaction to our reality and a coping mechanism that either helps the person to accept it or survive it. The human species is built to adapt to its environment and cynicism is a form of that adaptation if the environment is negative or hostile. It is reinforced by that environment, hence why it is hard to break. Getting out of it is not opening a door: it’s bringing down a wall.

And in fact, we can become so used to it that when put into a situation where the happy outcome has happened, they can become disoriented, not knowing what to do with it. This something I’ve been in before and have seen in other people as well: particularly in relationships where they did not expect to find the 'one' person and suddenly they do. Many of them push those long-desired-but-forgotten opportunities away because they can no longer accept it to be true. They had been in the dark a long time. New light can be blinding.

How Rambo views the world


It is because of cynicism being a reaction that I think people today want to stay clear of it. Modern society is primarily built on two things: being happy and individualism. Happiness is not bad and something that can be achieved, but once it is, we often allow ourselves to feel that it becomes impenetrable, indestructible, and immortal. Once you become happy, it never leaves and it always remains as long as you surround yourself with happiness and happy people.

To a degree this is true. Just as negativity and cynicism are created through negative reinforcement, so is happiness through positive reinforcement. It is not a bullshit idea. When people blind themselves to how fragile happiness is however or that life can bring struggles along that may remove that happiness, a false sense of security develops. While there are negative people out there who just like being negative and do drag others down into their darkness, there are many who do not. It is just an outlook that they have and if there is chance, they would love to have a shot at something different. It’s just so fucking hard most of the time.

That outlook though contradicts with our happiness doctrine. Cynics can remind happy people that life is not always happy, or that their own happiness can disappear at anytime. It also introduces us to how vulnerable out lives and lifestyle are, and in some cases how weak we are. Life promises nothing.

Naturally we don’t want to be reminded of this. That’s not a judgment of people, it's just a natural human reaction. Most people will take the ‘flight’ option rather than the ‘fight’ option if they have the ability to choose.

My friend, Clarissa, once had two roommates, one of whom she described as having a dark personality. He usually stayed to himself and had a dark sense of humor, but wasn’t a bad guy. These types of cynical people aren’t bad people. They are not the type of people who try to bring others down. They may have given up on being positive or happy, but they don’t actively try to discourage others from it.

A positive friend can help slowly introduce some light. Even if the light is rejected, it still can be a grounding point. In my own life, when I was going through an extremely manic depressant period, it was a friend I met named Jenny, who helped me get through it. I didn’t become a lighter person because of her, but she stayed by my side until I was able to get out of it. She was an anchor, a reminder of sorts.

However, negative people who willingly choose to remain cynical and try to bring others are probably ones to not be close to. That is a sad admission on my part as I don’t like leaving others behind, but as I read in a book once, “some people don’t want to be saved.”

Cynical people sometimes develop it as a weapon to cope with difficult realities that they may feel vulnerable to otherwise.  But not all of them try to be arrogant about it.
Cynical people sometimes develop it as a weapon to cope with difficult realities that they may feel vulnerable to otherwise. But not all of them try to be arrogant about it.

Brother’s Keeper

The worst thing we could do though is to generalize all cynical and negative people as social lepers. Sometimes an alternate, if darker, outlook can be useful to see potential obstacles ahead that we otherwise wouldn’t see because our heads are too stuck in the clouds. And a reminder that not everyone achieves happiness or struggles to do so is a good reminder of our humanity to each other. It is natural to leave those who are not helpful behind, but it doesn’t have to be a forgone conclusion. If we can help each other, maybe we can get a more balanced society and individual sense of our lives that leaves us less vulnerable and more prepared.

Or not...


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