From Cynics to Critics: Transforming Negativity in the World Around Us

Recently, I noticed that a twitter chum had committed to a 21-Day, Complaint-Free Challenge.

I immediately tweeted him with hearty, virtual pat on the back!

This got me thinking about just how much of the content of conversations I hear each day focuses on gossip, complaining, criticizing, cynicism or otherwise filling the air (and our ears) with unnecessary, disheartening, and even downright unkind commentary.

I literally cringe when I hear, “Did you see how fat so-and-so has gotten?”; or “Can you believe that so-and-so did such-and-such with you-know-who?”; or, “I can’t believe she lets her kids wear this-that-and-the-other-thing!”.

This happens on the internet a lot, too.

For example, an e-thug is someone who takes to the internet to ramp up the charge they get from not having to look into the eyes of the person they’re flaming as they spout spiteful, righteous, mean-spirited, wrong-making polemics.

Most e-thugs wouldn’t have the kahunas to do this in person. That said, I’ll save my thoughts about cowards and bullies for another day.

Where do we draw the line between having a conversation where we mention others…and gossip?

For me, there’s just something about the intention behind the words that smells wrong when it’s gossip.

There’s a kind of gratuitous unkindness, a lack of compassion there that just hurts my heart.

I think this is because I know that, most of the time, people who routinely engage in gossip are trying to soothe or silence their own anger, insecurity, fear, pain, shame, discomfort, grudge, etc. with the spiteful, gleeful, power-trip that goes along with anonymously criticizing someone who isn’t present to defend themselves.

That said, I think we need to expect more from each other. Because I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been devastated when they discovered they had been the subject of mean-spirited gossip.

Yet, while we’ve all been there, this kind of conversational pollution is so normalized that we overlook how unnecessary and destructive it is.

I say this, of course, fully aware that I also engage in gossip sometimes – in spite of myself. And I know for certain that I’m most unconcerned about the negative impact of gossip on myself and others when I’m talking about someone I’m holding a grudge against.

So what can we do about habitual gossip-mongers? You know, the folks who aggressively defend gossip because it seems so “normal”?

While I think it would harsh to label all these folks bullies and cowards; and while I know that many of us are working really hard to ignore our own pain when we engage in gossip; I think we can take steps to transform this kind of habitual negativity into something more constructive.

In fact, I think it’s not only possible, but perhaps even necessary that we take on conversational pollution. It’s the very definition of a win-win scenario, you know?

On Being the Change You Want to See in the World (or just around the water cooler)

Since I’ve already said a word or three about gossip, I want to focus my thoughts on three other types of conversational pollution: the complainers; the criticizers; and the cynics.

The complainers: Many of our friends and family move through the world reciting a never-ending litany of all the things they’re unhappy with in their lives. These stories can be about everything from jobs, relationships, or fears about the latest environmental disaster…to the weather.

However, the common denominator here is that we are often using these things as excuses to fix our vision upon the external world at the expense of our internal, authentic needs.

What does this mean?

I’m suggesting that the complaining, winging, whining, and worrying we are doing can have a profound impact on our health, our state of mind, our relationships, and our ability to cultivate peace, joy, and gratitude in our lives and in the world.

Watch me now: there has never been an authentic need to worry or complain.

There is no practical, emotional, spiritual or social ‘up side’ to endlessly rehearsing our victim stories.

Does this mean we shouldn’t talk about the things that are bothering us? Of course not!

There is an enormous difference between talking through our daily challenges with a view to resolving them as best we can; and a habitual, unconscious cataloguing of all the things that we are dissatisfied with.

This kind of talk pollutes our minds, hearts, and spirits; as well as our relationships with those people we expect to listen to our litany of grievances.

In fact, if we look closely, most of us have at least one person in our life with whom the entire basis of our relationship is complaining – about our jobs, our bodies, our finances, our relationships, etc.

This has become so normalized in North American society that it’s practically invisible to us. But if we investigate the content of our dialogues with others, it’s very possible that – if we removed the conversational pollution – we might find that we don’t have anything to say to one another!

Because, here’s the thing: complaining is safe. We do it precisely because we don’t have to think about it. We don’t have to be present. We don’t have to be vulnerable. We don’t have to respond creatively to what people and circumstances are offering us.

One way – one very powerful way – to shift this right now, right away in all of our conversations is to raise our perspective on the day-to-day challenges we face.

How do we do this?

When confronted with a challenge, we can make a choice to see it as an opportunity instead of as problem.

Imagine a coworker is starting up with their daily routine of conversational pollution.

They begin slowly with a haiku about how bad the coffee is, move into a soliloquy about their workload, and finish with a full-throated, full length epic about how their current relationship may be ending (again).

Now, our culture has taught us that it’s impolite to interrupt people when they’re speaking. However, sometimes, interrupting this conversational trajectory is a very loving thing to do – both for ourselves, and for our friends. What if instead of listening politely (read: wearily), we were to summon a heartfelt, loving attitude and say,

“Excuse me, Pratiba, but it sounds like you’re really being overloaded with work. Maybe I can help you to role-play a conversation with our supervisor about adjusting your workload. If we practice a little, you might be able to find some real relief in your workday, while impressing to the boss with your clear commitment to doing excellent work so that the company can be successful”.

The criticizers: Another kind of conversational pollutant is wrong-making criticism.

Now, I really believe that constructive critique is valuable skill when employed responsibly.

Being able to see what’s missing or how things aren’t working is essential to creating evolving relationships, work environments, and societies that can reach higher and higher. However, there is a difference between observing a situation in order to take loving action in the world…and critiquing the heck out of everyone and everything around us.

Oftentimes, the criticizer professes to be content or even happy with their life. Yet they dissect other people’s lives with an eye for minutiae that would make a forensic accountant jealous!

I would argue – as a reformed criticizer myself – that those who pick apart the lives of others are, in fact, not very happy with their lot.

In order to retool over-deployed criticism into something more constructive, it’s important to note that the criticizer generally has one primary objective: to deflect attention away from their own foibles, vulnerabilities, or perceive shortcomings.

Often, they’re not even aware of this. Their edgy, analytical gear is set on autopilot. In other words, when we are stuck in criticism-mode, we are frequently trying to avoid ourselves.

Here is a question I sometimes ask myself or others when periodic critique for the greater good has been abandoned in favor of all-out, both barrels blazing nit-pickery: “Would you rather be right, or helpful?”.

Or, “Would you rather pick things apart, or be a part of putting things together again?”.

Or finally, when confronted with a very determined criticizer, “Well, Jerome, you seem to have a really clear understanding of all the things that are wrong with this situation. I’m sure you’ve also given some considerable thought to how we can make it better. I’m all ears!”.

The latter approach – when shared authentically and hopefully – opens the door to the criticizer to use their powers of observation for the greater good: by identifying solutions, opportunities for change, and practical ways to shift the situation to something more desirable. It redirects the conversation to being solution-oriented – and if we march together down that road, everybody wins!

The cynics: I just can’t say it any better than this dude:

“What passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human.” – David Foster Wallace

The cynic uses cynicism as a means to mask their fears about the world, other people, and themselves.

Used sparingly – like critique – cynicism can be disarming, revealing, or downright hilarious. However, we are talking about conversational pollutants that are deeply ingrained patterns, here.

In effect, chronic cynicism is just fear dressed up as intellectual superiority.

The affected ennui and uncaring or disengaged aura the cynic projects oftentimes conceals an almost-paralyzing terror that the future will be worse than the present (all you A Course in Miracles readers out there may be nodding).

Indeed, the close cousin of the cynic – Mr. or Ms. Sarcastic – inspired someone to once suggest that, “sarcasm is the lowest form of wit used only by fools to cover up their own inadequacies”. But I digress.

The cynic and his close friend, Mr. / Ms. Sarcasm, share in common the same spiritual dilemma: they are afraid to hope.

To hope that the things they love and care for deeply won’t be lost;

To hope that they are worthy and lovable, and will be treated accordingly;

To hope that they really are so much more than a clever quip or a detached-seeming sound-bite.

So, the cynic cultivates the appearance (even to themselves) that they don’t care in a pre-emptive strike against loss, heartache, disappointment, inadequacy, and above all, pain.

Know what I do with cynics? I cozy up on ’em. I turn up the volume on my love, my light, and my unswervably deep belief in their beauty and their grace – then I shine it on them until they notice they’re being loved like crazy. Rinse and repeat, as necessary.

In other words, I have found that determined love, civility, kindness, and sincerity are the best response to chronic cynicism.

Taking these kinds of approaches to transform negativity in the world around us requires thoughtful, loving action from us – they ask that we be more than passive recipients of conversational pollution.

This is because loving action begins with us: with being loving instead of simply professing to love.

Loving action is enacting the love we have within us for our friends, family, and yes, even our co-workers (it’s there, I promise you!). It means choosing to gently but persistently challenge ourselves and the people around us to look for the opportunities in day-to-day problems – instead of resigning ourselves to victimhood, worry, criticism, or hopelessness.

Leveraging the Human Impulse to Change

Every now and then, a new client comes to me and says, “Okay, I’ve read all the self-help books. I’ve watched The Secret. I know every affirmation under the sky. My life still sucks. What can you do for me?”.

I absolutely love it when this happens.

When I hear this from a client, I’m internally saying, “All right! You want to do more than become an expert in the content of books and movies. You want to do more than consume information like it’s fast food. You want real change. You want what I call, epic self-transformation!“.

Then I say out loud, “Are you ready to rock?”.

Well, okay, I only rarely say that last part out loud.

To begin with, though, I want to emphasize that what I undertake with my clients is self-transformation, not “self-improvement”. This distinction is important, but I don’t want to go on about it just now. Suffice is to say, when you’re done here, check out the fabulous Danielle Laporte’s blog, “Why Self-Improvement Makes You Neurotic“, if you’re interested in why the notion of self-improvement is a sneaky, sneaky trap of the ego.

So how is epic self-transformation different from stuff like ‘positive thinking’?


Sustainability. Sustainability means something that can be maintained at a certain pace or level; it’s not temporary. It is not movement which stops and starts, but more like turning lead into gold – and more gold, and more gold, and more gold.

Encouraging sustainable transformation is the best way I know of help someone begin the process of recovering the promise of their life – the promise of who they are.

But this isn’t because I have magical powers (although I just might – you never know!).

Rather, what makes this process work – what makes it replicable, if you want to get all evidence-based about it – is this: we all have within us the answers, the questions, the road-map, the guidance system, the wisdom, and the LOVE to create a life that is as beautiful, delicious, and fulfilling as we can possibly imagine (and then some). Here’s why:

There is something within all of us that yearns towards expansion and change.

We can resist it if we want to (and boy, does this ever come back to bite us!).

Nevertheless, this is one of the most powerful, natural impulses of the human experience – and evolutionary biologists can tell you all about why if you really want to know! But no matter how you slice it – no matter how uncomfortable change makes us – we have built-in mechanisms for adaptation, expansion, evolution, and, yes, transformation.

So how do we leverage this natural inclination towards transformation – particularly when many of us are scared-to-piddling-in-our-pajamas at the slightest hint of change?

How many times have you read a book, listened to a wonderful teacher of meditation, yoga, mindfulness, present-moment thinking, etc.? How many times did you resolve to put into practice what you saw or heard, only to fizzle out after a week or three?

Visualizations, mantras, affirmations and positive “I” statements can be useful tools, when put to use in sustainable ways. However, simply rehearsing these over and over again when we really want something often produces limited results. We then get frustrated or discouraged, and soon drop these from our daily routine.

Rinse and repeat this process often enough, and you have a recipe for some deep cynicism about life.

Contrast this with cultivating sustainable changes in your approach to living. For example, I often encourage folks to examine their perspectives (not just their thoughts!). Thoughts spring from perspectives. Or, if you prefer:

Perspectives are the filters – the lenses – we apply to the incoming data of human experience.

Consider, too, that our perspectives are deeply rooted in the past, and you can see how leaving our perspectives unexamined causes us to get in our own way. How can we meet the present honestly…if we’re interpreting everything through the lens of the past?

Imagine that your thoughts are the software running on your computer, and your perspectives are like the operating system.

After awhile – with all the changes in technology, the volume of data streaming in, etc. – the software starts to malfunction. You can observe your software getting slower and more bogged down for as long as you like. But if you want to transform how the system fundamentally works, just attending to the software won’t get you where you want to go.

In other words, if we only observe our thoughts, it can take a lot longer to notice (if we ever do) that our perspectives – our operating system – desperately need to be updated!

Whenever I explore with a client their perspectives about life, work, relationships, etc., we discover that they’ve inherited some their most influential ideas about who they are, what’s important, what they believe, and what they have come to expect from life.

This is key: we don’t create our perspectives, we absorb them – from our families, from media, from social institutions like schools, churches, etc.

Very often, we discover that we’ve been carrying around incredibly influential perspectives in our noodles our whole lives – ones that we don’t even necessarily agree with!

Given that our perspectives are how we orient ourselves to what we experience, you can imagine how powerful it is to shift the amazing capacity of your conscious awareness to observing – gently and patiently – what perspectives are driving your thoughts, feelings, reactions, etc.

In other words, I encourage my clients to shift how they look at the world, rather than just tacking on a positive affirmation to the things that they are looking at. And this impacts on the whole life of a person – not just the things they want more of or less of in their lives.

Changing our perspectives in ways that are sustainable means raising our perspective, moment to moment.

What’s the pay-off for engaging in this kind of self-transformation?

For starters, in raising our perspective, we recover vital energy, insight, and capacity that we have previously squandered on worry, stress, drama, a personal victim-story, unhealthy relationships and co-worker dynamics, etc.

These unwanted, energy-sapping patterns of thinking can be powerfully made-over when we explore the perspectives that support them.

In addition, there is always, always something generous, something beautiful, something worthy of our notice and our gratitude in each moment. We simply have to re-train ourselves to look for it – because, yes, All Experience is Generous.

When we shift our perspectives, we notice that there are abundant resources, beautiful people, and accommodating circumstances all over the place – and this transforms problems and challenges, difficulties and dramas…into opportunities.

Suddenly, we notice that change has become less terrifying – because we can see all of the things and people around us that are present to support our transformation. These are things we simply can’t see if we stay stuck in the perspectives we absorbed way-back-when.

But…by consciously aligning our perspectives with who we want to be in the world, we build a solid foundation for epic self-transformation that can utilize the resources that have shown up to support us now.

This is when we can really begin to leverage our human impulse to change.