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.

Why Forgiveness Makes Us Shiny…

xA few years back when “The Secret” was featured on the Oprah Winfrey show, I heard something that made me begin to reconsider what I’ve since come to call “unforgiveness”.

Lisa Nichols was one of the featured speakers for that episode, and she shared her definition of forgivness. She said, “Forgiveness is letting go of the hope that the past could have been different”.

I nearly went bananas when I heard her say this because it resonated with me so deeply. There are many things I love about this way of describing forgiveness. For example, it doesn’t let us off the hook for what we do when we get it wrong; it doesn’t sound like an obligation; it’s not presented as something we should do in order to purchase God’s approval.

What it does do, however, is position forgiveness as something we can do for ourselves. It’s a letting go. And yes, it puts the responsibility for importing the past into the present squarely on us.

It does all of this while preserving space for meaningful accountability – something I value a great deal (more about that another time!).

In other words, the definition Lisa Nichols offered was one that I found empowering. It’s not about being a doormat or a martyr. It’s not about being a saint. It’s about freeing ourselves from the burden of old stories / pain / emotional baggage, etc. so that we can make a space inside us where joy can live. Or kindness. Or tenderness. Or creativity. Or whatever good stuff you want more of in your life.

Do you ever replay negative scenarios in your head?

You know, that argument you had way back when? Or that thing that happened to you in high school that still makes you cringe when you think about it? Or that road-raging-twit whose hand was stuck to his / her horn in traffic today?

Yup. Me, too.

I used to do this whenever I was in the shower. Go figure, right? Seriously, I would replay what I call “mental movies” of all the shitty things that other people had done or said to me in my life. And given that I felt like an outsider for the first 30 or so years of my life, I had a lot of mental movies to provide variety.

Except, in the shower, I always re-wrote the script. I said that witty thing that put that other person in their place. Or I used all my powers of persuasion to change their mind about what they were doing, making them see the error of their ways. Or, if I was remembering getting bullied as a child, I would imagine busting out a ninja move that would make them sorry for every bit of torment they ever tried to visit on me.

Oh, yeah. I pitied the fools.

Even when I started to notice that I was doing this “mental movies” thing – in the shower or out of it – I couldn’t seem to stop doing it. And it always put me in a crappy mood.

This is because rehearsing painful events in our minds activates the emotions that accompanied these experiences: the grief, loss, humiliation, unworthiness, etc.

Before I saw that episode of Oprah, I had already begun to notice that keeping my resentment, bitterness, victimization, anger, pain, rage, and been-done-wrong feelings alive didn’t serve me.

What it did do was allow my ego the illusion that it can change the past. Seriously, the ego has delusions of grandeur, and this is one of them. Ego says, “If I just rehearse that past event again and again, I can change it!”.

Then the Universe put me in front of the television on the day that Lisa Nichols spoke her truth about forgiveness. Man, if I ever meet her, I am going to give her one big, squishy, grateful hug of thanks. She gave me a key piece of the puzzle on my journey to this realization:

I am not the things that have happened to me.

Once this thought arose in me, I started to ask myself if maybe I needed to forgive the folks who had treated me badly by letting go of my hope that the past could have been different.

And I discovered that I really, really didn’t want to forgive the people in my past who had caused me pain.

I wanted to hold onto my righteous victimhood.

I wanted to keep making them wrong, over and over again, in my mind – as if that could somehow even the score.

I wanted to cling to my moral certainty that the other person or people who had wronged me were less than me.

I wanted to preserve my belief that those other people who had been cruel or mean spirited or abusive didn’t deserve the time of day – let alone my forgiveness.

In effect, I was creating a victim-identity for myself out of my past, painful experiences. This was an identity I could use to position myself as morally superior. This is because, in the stories I was drawing on for the foundations of this victim identity, the other person was always the bad guy.

This meant that, in my mind, I got to be the good one – the one who was deserving of approval, love, respect, recognition, worthiness, and all the things I thought other people could withhold from me.

Over time, I created a forgiveness ritual for myself.

I find some time and space for stillness, close my eyes, and say something like this:

“Thank you, Universe, for helping me to surrender and release any unforgiveness towards myself and (person’s name) for what happened in x y z situation. I surrender and release this to you now, and I thank you for taking it from me”.

As I say this – giving it my fullest attention – I visualize the unforgiveness (read: bitterness, resentment, anger, grudge, etc.) leaving me.

Then, I say,

“And in the space I have made within by releasing this unforgiveness, thank you Universe for helping me to bring in _______”. I then bring in whatever feels appropriate on that day – peace, discernment, compassion, gratitude, grace, understanding, joy, etc. – to fill the space within me that used to be occupied by my unforgiveness about that event / person.

Now, this is my personal forgiveness ritual. Feel free to use it, change it, discard it and / or create your own. But I recommend having one. It sounds simple, but it’s deeply transformative. By practicing this little ritual myself, I’ve let go of a lot of anger, grief, loss, resentment, frustration, anger, shame, guilt, remorse, etc.

Guess what happened along the way?

Because I gradually but persistently put down my unforgiveness…I became more open.

I became more comfortable in my skin.

I became more aware of opportunities to offer kindness day to day.

I became more accountable to myself for the experiences I was creating, and more grateful for what I was learning about myself, my choices, my boundaries, etc.

I became less judgmental and more watchful for opportunities to be compassionate towards others who – like me – sometimes made mistakes, acted badly, or somehow showed up as less than they were for one reason or another.

And, boy, let me tell you…did I ever become less angry.

Most importantly, I became more…me.

Instead of carrying these victim stories, I became more reflective and creative in my self definition (instead of being reactive to what others thought about me).

For example, instead of mentally saying, “I’m not your doormat / emotional scratching post / target!”, I started saying, “Who do I want to be in the world?” – and then choosing that, acting and behaving and relating to others in ways that were more consistent with that.

Without the weight of all those grudges and grievances about being an outsider, a victim, misunderstood, or badly treated weighing me down, I had more room in my mind and heart to say, “what can that experience teach me about myself? About who I am? About who I want to be in relation to that person / circumstance / event?”.

I felt more empowered to make conscious choices, instead of feeling like a victim of my life.

And instead of creating mental movies where I re-lived all the stuff other people had done “to me”, I started using that mental energy to imagine how I wanted my life to feel.

This is very, very joyful. Because, yes, when we put down all that anger, fear, and pain…

We can create a space inside where joy can live and thrive and shine.

So what’s so shiny about shining? Because that’s when our REAL beauty emerges into the world, effortlessly. For real.

Click here to read my last post, “All Experience Is Generous”.

All Experience is Generous. Yep. All of it.

I wanted to begin my adventures in blogging talking about this notion that I’ve shared with clients from all walks of life – folks who’ve been able to honestly and powerfully step out of their ‘victim story’ by integrating this notion: all experience is generous.

I’m suggesting that it’s not only the pleasurable or joyful experiences that have something to offer us.

Oftentimes, the hardest experiences of our lives – the loss of a loved one, a serious illness, the end of a relationship, losing a job – can also be rich with opportunities to transform our lives. Of course, they also can be pain-filled, loaded with grief, or downright devastating. But this does not mean they are not also offering us something.

What would happen if we devoted ourselves to looking for what’s generous about loss, grief, hardship, or heartbreak?

Now, I am not advocating denial. Denying or repressing our feelings is neither healthy nor spiritually productive. Gabor Mate has made the case for this idea that suppressing our emotions is a leading cause of illness and disease. His book, “When the Body Says No” is a very worthwhile read if you’re interested in this kind of thing.

So, no, I’m not recommending that we pretend to be happy when we’re not, or otherwise deny our authentic feelings.

Rather, I’m suggesting that we ask ourselves what our feelings can teach us, and make room for them: holding a space for ourselves to feel powerful emotion allows us to experience both the feeling and the lesson beneath the feeling.

Crucially, we must recognize that when we repress the emotions that we find uncomfortable, we miss the lesson. Moreover, our joy, gratitude, and creative capacities are also muted, because when we repress the ‘bad’ emotions, we turn down the volume on all of them.

Simply put, I am suggesting that we do not need to be resigned to forever and only feeling helpless in the face of our grief, loss, anger, resentment, bitterness, or been-done-wrong feelings.

Rather, we can come to a place when we are authentically able to ask, “What can my anger about the loss of my father teach me?”.

Or, “How – amidst phone calls from creditors and utility companies – can I transform the loss of my job into an opportunity, a new experience, an inspiration to push me to confront my fear or shame about asking for help?

Can this experience inspire me to take a closer look at what it is I want to offer the world?

Can this event be a catalyst to community building, personal growth, or profound transformation in the ways I think about and move through the world?”

Once we’ve really done the work to see everything that an experience has to offer us – the good, the painful, the uncomfortable, all of it – thinking about or remembering that experience shifts profoundly, and takes on a deeply rooted quality of balance.

This allows us to move forward with an authentic recollection of what was challenging or painful about an experience, but also with an abiding gratitude for what it has given us.

Lived in this way, we can allow life’s difficult experiences to change us in the ways that we choose.

In this way, we can come to recognize that we are not diminished. In this way, life’s experiences can be consciously lived in ways that make us greater. This is consciously applying our highest awareness toward chosen processes of progressive transformation. This is freedom lived.