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Self-Knowledge • Fear & Insecurity

The Origins of a Sense of Persecution

In the privacy of our minds, in a zone too tender and shameful to be readily admitted to, many of us carry around what could best be described as a sense of persecution: an impression that others are not especially on our side, that people in general may be looking out to harm us and that we may at any point be attacked, derided or destroyed.

This eerie sense – never far from the surface of consciousness and prone to come especially to the fore when we are tired and overworked – has a power to spoil many a promising day. It doesn’t take long before we assume that a missing email is a definitive sign that someone has turned against us; the hotel is almost certainly trying to give us the worst room as a punishment for an awfulness they spotted inside us the moment we arrived; when we leave a party early, we take it for granted that everyone there thinks we’re absurd; we readily suspect a partner is cheating on us. We may over the years have had our fair share of heated altercations with strangers and acquaintances as we try to correct injustices and slights: as we try to instil some respect in the driver who is taking an age parking or send a sharply worded message to a colleague who disrespected us in a meeting. We may even have directed rage at a computer mouse that stopped working or a household item that (inexplicably, yet again, in order to humiliate us) decided to go missing.

Francisco Goya, The Dog (El Perro), 1819

Our persecutory condition is so troublesome, we may lack the courage to name it, let alone try to trace it back to its origins. We do ourselves a disservice. We are like this not because we are wicked but because – very far back – we almost certainly had a particular kind of history.

We now feel constantly on the edge of persecution at the hands of everyone because a long time ago, we were the subject of mockery and lack of tender care from a few people in particular, almost certainly our caregivers or parents before the age of ten. For a web of reasons of their own, these specific people were unable to lend us the reassurance we needed: they failed to give us a feeling that we mattered, that they were on our side, that our concerns were theirs, that we were fundamentally good and worthy humans. And as a result, we have grown up with a constant impression of our sinfulness and an anxious, jittery assumption that the worst is owed – and will probably be coming – to us some time soon.

It’s an unfortunate quirk of psychology that small children who are badly treated do not – as it would be strongly in their interest to – normally turn against their persecutors. Quite the contrary, they invert the direction of blame: they assume that they are bad for having been found bad and that the lack of love they are receiving is an honest and fair consequence of a genuine unworthiness in them. They idealise the very people who denigrate them. What wisdom in their caregivers for finding them awful; how much their elders must know in order to dislike them. It is as if it were more bearable to imagine that they deserved the punishment and hatred they received than that they were being brought up by – and were entirely at the mercy of – sadists.

With time, the process is obscured. We forget who made us feel a certain way – and are simply left with the residue of the behaviours we were subject to. What may be yet less obvious is that our sense of persecution is a consequence of a feeling we are awful people; after all, awful people surely deserve awful things. What more fitting fate for a piece of excrement than to be mocked by strangers; how natural that someone who is deep down revolting should be judged as such by hotel receptionists, bosses, customers and – in extremis – bits of scheming computer equipment. We may vainly protest against such judgements, we may at points scream at the injustice of our fate, but we lose our calm only because we so strongly suspect that our enemies are correct: that we truly are every bit as dreadful as we assume they are taking us to be.

The way out of our psychological prison is to dare to imagine that we are not, in fact, the cockroaches we suppose. We have simply been made to feel as such by caregivers we never had the courage or the clarity to know how to push back against. To begin to tease out their negative verdict, we should take a look at the following sentences:

I am an awful person

Most people hate me

I have done terrible things

I hate myself

If we readily agree (perhaps with a conviction we never knew we had) to all four statements, we should extend a compassionate arm around ourselves. These are not accurate assessments of our natures, these are internalised judgements handed down to us by very damaged caregivers. Back then, we had little option but to believe in these caregivers’ fundamentally good intentions. Now we have the distance and the strength to picture that they must themselves have been horribly harmed to have felt the need to wound us as they did. 

We are not, in fact, being persecuted at all now. People close to us almost certainly like us a lot while the world at large – with all its malfunctioning computers, missing sellotape rolls and traffic clogged roads – is merely proceeding in its normal sloppy irritating but fundamentally accidental way. It can be maddening; it isn’t a conspiracy. The catastrophe and hatred we fear will happen has – in truth already happened; we should strive to locate it firmly in the past so as to liberate us to discover a more innocent and hopeful future.

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