Self-Help Cynics

April 5th, 2007 by Steve Pavlina

At the other end of the spectrum from self-help junkies, we find self-help cynics.  Self-help cynics are people who’ve become totally disillusioned with anything associated to personal development.  They regard the entire field as nothing but a sham populated by scammers and charlatans.  Cynics don’t subscribe to the idea that people can actually change by conscious intent.  They are who they are, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

Skeptics vs. cynics

As opposed to a cynic, a skeptic is doubtful but still open-minded and logical enough to consider new input.  Skeptics primarily seek truth through the process of asking questions.  Sometimes the real truth cannot be pinned down so easily, so the skeptic must learn to live with ambiguity and uncertainty much of the time.  For the cynic, however, the mere existence of doubt is immediate cause for labeling an entire field as erroneous.  If you try to engage a cynic about his/her beliefs, you’ll usually receive some emotional and very close-minded arguments but little logic.

I think any field should welcome skeptics with open arms, but it’s hard for a field like self-help to engage cynics because cynics vehemently resist the very nature of conscious growth, especially the idea of seeking help from others.  Conscious growth requires a degree of openness and the willingness to take reasonable risks, but cynics haven’t yet achieved a sufficient feeling of security to override their fears.  Consequently, the path of growth available to the cynic is mainly an unconscious one.  That’s typically a slower and more painful way to grow, but the cynic’s resistance to growth is an exercise in futility.  Growth springs from change, and change is inevitable.

In my own life, I’m happy to interact with genuine skeptics.  I have a high degree of respect for the open-minded skeptic.  I often consider myself a skeptic because I don’t tend to trust new ideas until I’ve applied them myself and have experienced the results first-hand.  I trust direct experience more than third-party reports.  For example, I believe in astral projection because I’ve done it many times.  If I’d never experienced it for myself, I’d have a hard time understanding it.  There are many skeptics who post in the forums here, and they often help participants keep discussions grounded in reality by injecting common sense and thoughtful questions.  Skeptics are great at balancing those who hold very strong (but perhaps publicly unprovable) beliefs.  Some very interesting discussions result.  I often enjoy discussing ideas with intelligent skeptics because the process assists me in my own pursuit of growth.  I lack the time to address all the questions that are addressed to me, but I appreciate that there are always people in my life that will question my ideas, actions, and intentions.  Every time I post a new blog entry, it’s like I have a group of friends to beta-test it and help uncover any bugs.

There are certainly shades of gray between skepticism and cynicism, but I believe what paints the dividing line between them is the cynic’s close-mindedness.  Whereas a skeptic will engage in open debate in order to seek the truth, the cynic’s goal is to make everyone else wrong.  Sometimes cynics will try to hide behind the banner of skepticism, but when their ideas are challenged, they eventually self-destruct with emotional, close-minded retorts.  In our forums skeptics frequently make significant and valuable contributions, while cynics often end up getting banned for violating the forum rules by resorting to trolling, thread hijacking, and/or personal attacks.  They can’t really help it, however, because it’s the nature of a cynic to subconsciously manifest their own rejection from such a community in order to prove their pre-conceived beliefs correct.

The cynic’s motives

I think there are several reasons cynics find it necessary to attack and denigrate those who pursue personal growth:

  • Powerlessness - Cynics are often in denial about parts of their lives they lack the courage and/or ability to change.  They find it effectively impossible to make the changes they feel are necessary or important, but they’re unwilling to accept this because it makes them feel powerless.  The intelligent solution, which the cynic rejects, is to acknowledge the problem and the desired result, even though no solution is available.  A problem with no apparent solution is still a problem, a condition to be accepted.  As noted in The Courage to Live Consciously, the ability to accept the existence of unsolvable problems in our lives is what ultimately creates the strength and ability to solve them.  Cynics prefer the illusion of perfectionism to the reality of serious challenges; in the long run, however, this only weakens them further.
  • Insecurity – Cynics attempt to make themselves feel more secure by surrounding themselves with others who are in the same boat, i.e. people who are stuck and who don’t appear to be growing much.  Cynics find safety in numbers.  They don’t feel secure on the inside, so they try to create artificial security on the outside.  This involves discouraging and dissuading others from new pursuits that might succeed.  The cynic is terribly worried about being left behind and feels threatened by others’ attempts to advance.  The cynic in your life will take a keen interest in your maintaining the state of mediocrity as much as possible.  A cynic may give you a leg up when you’re down, but s/he will not help you pass them by.  Being abandoned by his/her peers is one of a cynic’s worst fears.  Ultimately the cynic is fighting a losing battle, since it’s impossible to find genuine security in a static position.  But this doesn’t stop the cynic from trying anyway.
  • Fear of the unknown - Cynics who fear change may be concerned that the growth of others around them will disrupt their comfortable routine.  Change, however, is inevitable.  By resisting change the cynic will only delay it, and often when the change finally occurs, it will be overwhelmingly strong — a massive disruption instead of a gradual shift.
  • Fear of rejection – The cynic may interpret others’ desire to grow as a personal rejection.  For example, if you commit to changing your diet and losing weight, the overweight cynic in your life may perceive your decision as a rejection of their own choices.  This can also lead to jealousy if the cynic feels s/he is being left behind.

I have a lot of compassion for cynics, and I’ve been fortunate to see a number of them outgrow their cynicism over the past couple years.  It’s a bit sad when a cynic overshoots the mark and ends up becoming a self-help junkie (another form of denial), but I love watching cynics open their minds a little and graduate to a more healthy skepticism.  It takes a lot of courage for a cynic to do this.  In fact, it takes a lot of courage for anyone to admit to themselves, “I am finding no joy on this path.  I must seek out another.”

Cynical lessons

Although I wouldn’t take pains to invite them over for dinner, I feel grateful for the self-help cynics in my life because they remind me not to fall into the trap of becoming so attached to an idea that I close myself off to new possibilities.  Whenever I feel myself needing to emotionally defend my position in some way instead of open-mindedly exploring it, I recognize I’m resonating with the cynical part of me that needs to be right.  So I remind myself that I am not my ideas, and I needn’t ever defend them as such.

Cynics also remind us that we need to seek out realistic, measurable results and not fall victim to the self-help junkie’s pattern of self-delusion.  The junkie will mislabel the act of spinning in circles as a growth experience, while the cynic will dismiss everything as failure to progress.  But when you start thinking about whether your personal growth results are strong enough to incite a cynic to have an emotional blow-up, then you know you’re getting somewhere.  :)

As odd as it may seem, the more successful I become in my own pursuit of growth, the more cynics I see imploding around me.  It’s been said that success is the best revenge, but it’s also a means of counteracting the low awareness level of cynicism.  The presence of people who are succeeding in their growth efforts helps drive cynics to question their own self-imposed limitations and to begin asking the questions they’ve been avoiding for so long.  Initially the cynic may do this out of frustration, anger, or jealousy, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.  As you pursue your own growth, you’ll inevitably find that you infect others with the pursuit of conscious growth as well.  When you eventually infect a cynic, it’s quite a sight to behold.

Optimal growth

The existence of self-help junkies and self-help cynics directs us to the middle ground between gullibility on one side and total close-mindedness on the other.  Both are suboptimal strategies.  If you’re too loose, you chase too many bad leads for too long.  If you’re too tight, you miss out on great opportunities for genuine advancement.  While everyone has their favorite spot along this continuum, I generally prefer to err on the side of being a little loose.  I’m willing to suffer some extra defeats, failures, and losses in order to uncover opportunities and gain experiences I might otherwise miss.  Sometimes this approach pays off.  Sometimes it doesn’t.  But it’s certainly a fun ride.



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