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Self-Knowledge • Behaviours

Am I Paranoid?

The great drawback of the word ‘paranoia’ is that it can sound like something only very obviously disturbed people would ever end up being. We associate the term with types who are sure that the FBI is following and that aliens are planning a descent to earth. And thereby we miss out on ways in which, in a far more subtle but equally destructive manner, we ourselves are in fact prey to a host of paranoid and unfair interpretations of reality that over time drain life of a sizeable share of its joy and promise. 

Our everyday paranoia can have worked its way into being a constant, imperceptible feature of the way we look at the world. When a boss asks if we might step into their office for a word, it’s clear we are going to be fired. When a partner has been absent for a while, there is no doubt that they are having an affair. When we want to make a move on someone we like, we can tell they will judge us revolting. Equipped with such certainties, we take understandable precautions; we don’t smile much, we never initiate, we interpret every silence and ambiguous situation as the end or an insult. It can sometimes feel preferable to be dead.

The first step to overcoming our paranoia is to notice that, despite our robust disinterest in UFOs, we may actually be sufferers. We need to notice how often, and with what perverse imaginative energy, we keep interpreting uncertainty in a negative direction – and with what relentlessness we picture everyone and everything as having nefarious or damaging dimensions. We need to spot with what masochism we narrate the story of our lives so that nothing can ever be pure or reliable. We need to step back and identify with what insistence we close off every avenue of hope, every promise of trust – and how quickly and naturally it seems that everyone must hate us and disaster is going to have to descend.

As ever, paranoia has a history. It is an assumption about the future based on certain unconsciously held ideas formed in a past one has forgotten, or deftly chosen not to look at. Movingly, the paranoid person is not entirely wrong: some people are mean, some situations do turn out for the worst, some very bad stuff happens… But the subsequent error is twofold. Firstly, the paranoid person locates the issues invariably in the future, they scan what’s ahead rather than turning backwards and locating a particularly traumatic event that will have been responsible for the genesis of their frightened and angst-ridden mind. And secondly, there is an error of generalisation. The paranoid person imagines that everyone is about to be horrible and every hopeful situation is going to turn sour not because this is true, but because it was once true, and their difficulties have not been set into a proper context by a robustly healthy adult mind.

In the past of every paranoid person there will, we can say with near certainty, be an experience of appalling let down. Someone who should have been kind wasn’t at all; somewhere that should have been safe turned into a place of horror; someone one was waiting for didn’t show up. So traumatic was this, the paranoid person took their experience and imagined it to be applicable across the whole landscape of  human experience. And so now, necessarily, every love story must turn bad, every apparently respectable person must be cruel and every good thing has to turn to dust. Paranoia is a negative experience generalised – and then forgotten that it has been so. 

This gives us clues as to how to leave the paranoid mindset behind. We must work to expand the data upon which our impressions of reality have been founded. We need to learn that the entire world isn’t evil, we’ve just had a very bad, and very selective, introduction to it. There are a few pathological people, but the vast majority are kind and keen to help. There are a few big disasters, but most days are going to end calmly. We need a new voice in our minds that can in a kindly way probe at our sinister assumptions: ‘Are you sure they never wanted to see you again?’ ‘Did they really mean to insult you?’ ‘Does it have to be the end of this project?’

Then we need to remember that we are no longer the people we once were when the events which gave rise to our paranoia occurred. At that point, we were small. We had no options. We couldn’t run away, complain – or find a more benevolent environment. Children have no agency, but the adults we’ve grown into resolutely do. We have the choice, and indeed the right, to move away from the minority of settings that can harm us and individuals who seek to bring us down. We don’t have to cling to fear and anxiety because we have the confidence and security to know that we can look after ourselves.

Naturally, it doesn’t help anyone over a psychological problem to give it a label so horrible, no one would ever freely want to imagine themselves as a sufferer. So we should learn to see paranoia in mild, universal and respectable terms: as a very common but very unnecessary suspicion that disappointing and persecutory things are about to happen, not because they are, but because they once did. We’re paranoid not because someone is actually following us, but because – way back – someone did follow us, and we were too young and too fragile to learn to set negative events into their proper perspective. 

The opposite of paranoia is, in a sense, love, a trust that we deserve not to suffer, that others will respond appropriately to our vulnerability, that we are not to be natural targets of mockery. We aren’t a bit paranoid because we are mad conspiracy theorists, but for a far more poignant and understandable reason: because we were once extremely scared, very weak and very alone, and now never again need to be so.

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