Mindfulness for NGOs

Changing the world starts from within

Being cynical is good (?)

1 Comment

A few days ago I went on a photo-shoot in London with a group of amateur photographers. Talking to a lady in her 30s, I discovered that she’d been involved in humanitarian work over the last years. As we chatted over lunch about the challenges that aid workers face in the field she said: “Well, one has to be a bit cynical in this work. Imagine if a doctor cried every time he saw a patient?”.

I know many in aid work think this way.

Do we need to be cynical to be healthy in frontline work?

I disagree.

Healthy empathy and healthy boundaries are very different from cynicism.

burnout in aid workers

burnout in aid workers


A doctor who cries at the sight of every single patient who is suffering may be in the wrong line of work. But a doctor who feels nothing, never cries, and is emotionally flat, distant and numb, may equally be in the wrong line of work. Or most likely may simply have reached a point of burnout, and like many, will think that his cynicism is normal, just a way to cope.



I’m reminded of the words of Rachel Naomi Remen, a doctor herself:

“We burn out because we have allowed our hearts to become so filled with loss that we have no room left to care.

The burnout literature talks about the factors which heal burnout: rest, exercise, play, the releasing of unrealistic expectations.

In my experience burnout only really begins to heal when people learn how to grieve. Grieving is a way of self-care, the antidote to professionalism. Health professionals don’t cry. Unfortunately” (extract from Kitchen Table Wisdom).

Do you think that being cynical is normal?

Has cynicism become your way to cope with too much suffering?

Do you feel like ‘you don’t feel anything’ anymore?

If the answer is yes to any of the above, a healthy break from aid work may be required.

One thought on “Being cynical is good (?)

  1. Thank you for this helpful piece. I’m taking a long break from aid work, because of my growing cynicism and doubt about what I do. When it becomes regular to every job, then you realise something is wrong. Being cynical and negative is not going to help anybody, and if anything will have a destructive impact on those around you, including whoever you’re trying to help.

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