The word “paranoia” often conjures up images of people ranting about alien abductions or wearing tin foil hats. However, paranoia is on a spectrum. A common feature is “experiencing what is inside as if it were outside the self.” As a way of coping, those with paranoid personality disorders project their emotional disquietude outward. If a paranoid person feels hostile, they will decide that the world outside of them is hostile. Instead of embracing their own internal hostility, they will conclude that people around them are “out to get them.”
Causes of Paranoia
In many cases, those who struggle with paranoia experienced emotional abuse in their childhood. They were frequently found powerless and humiliated by their caregivers who were difficult to please, disparaging, and unpredictable, resulting in a damaged sense of willpower.
Often individuals with paranoia disorders grew up with caretakers who modeled paranoid behavior. Paranoid parents may teach their children that family are the only ones who can be trusted. When hyper-anxious parents warn their children that feelings are dangerous and powerful, they are inadvertently steering their children toward paranoia. For example, an anxious parent might respond to a child’s problem with exaggerated severity or turn the child away because hearing the problem invokes anxiety in the parent.
In most instances, children who grow up to be paranoid are the “sin-eaters” of the family. Everyone else projects their own despised characteristics onto them. The family members may, for example, gang up on one child and deride him or her as weak or cowardly.
What Does Paranoia Look Like?
It is helpful to understand that paranoia operates on a spectrum, like all personality disorders. It can be as mild as a person projecting their own experiences into another’s situation. A mother who has been in an abusive relationship may be unable to separate herself from her experience when giving advice to her daughter on a marital conflict. Though her son-in-law may never have displayed any violent tendencies, she may fearfully warn her daughter against upsetting her husband, in order to avoid him attacking or abandoning her.
On the opposite end of the paranoia spectrum, projections become more elaborate, unfathomable, and unrealistic.
Regardless of position on the spectrum, paranoid people share a common set of emotions, including:
People with paranoia are burdened with the fear that as others grow closer to them, they will discover what a terrible person they really are. These fears are rooted in the ridicule and humiliation they have so often endured. “They are chronically warding off this humiliation, transforming any sense of culpability in the self into dangers that threaten from outside. They unconsciously expect to be found out, and they transform this fear into constant, exhausting efforts to discern the ‘real’ evil intent behind anyone else’s behavior toward them.”
Paranoid people are, at times, so skillful at projecting and denying their emotions, they no longer feel shame. They battle against anyone they perceive might humiliate them.
Research suggests that some paranoid adults began as aggressive, angry children who struggled to process their feelings in healthy and productive ways. As caregivers grappled with managing a challenging child, negative responses to the behavior solidified the child’s perception that people are out to get them.
Fear can be one of the most debilitating emotions a paranoid person contends with. “Analysts have long referred to the kind of fear suffered by paranoid clients as ‘annihilation anxiety;’ that is, the terror of falling apart, being destroyed, disappearing from the earth.”
What is Underneath the Accusations?Paranoid thought processes are one way the mind defends itself against uncomfortable or unwelcome emotions and desires. It is a battle between two selves: the powerless, despised self, and the other, grandiose and vindicated. In her book, “Psychoanalytic Diagnosis,” Dr. Nancy McWilliams writes, “Cruelly, neither position affords any solace: a terror of abuse and contempt goes with the weak side of the polarity, whereas the strong side brings with it the inevitable side effect of psychological power, a crushing guilt.”
Paranoid people often seek ways of building their self-esteem by influencing others to counter the humiliation and subjugation they have suffered. The ideal targets are powerful people. When moments of vindication and triumph present themselves, the paranoid person can be temporarily bolstered by a sense of safety and righteousness.
In the Bible, the Pharisees offer a good example of this. While they may not have been furtively looking over their shoulders in fear of a government plot, they certainly sought safety and righteousness by establishing religious hierarchy. This drove their fervent persecution of Jesus, as he posed a threat to the power and luxury the church leaders enjoyed. Despite an earthly ministry that was contrary to this, they assumed Jesus craved the same power that they did. While he rebuked church leadership, he was not looking to dismantle it. Rather, he was pointing people toward the security that could be found in a personal relationship with God.
Despite projecting harmful perspectives onto others, paranoid people long for relationships. According to Dr. McWilliams, “Even though they may be terrified by their own dependent needs and wracked with suspicion about the motives and intentions of those they care about, paranoid individuals are capable of deep attachment and protracted loyalty.” McWilliams cites researchers who argue that beneath the projection, many who struggle with paranoia experience emotional isolation and long for validation from those with whom they are in relationship.
If you know someone who is affected by a paranoid personality disorder, consider reaching out to a trained Christian counselor in Spokane. Everyone in the life of a paranoid person feels its impact. Attempts to combat and defend against themselves only create a hostile and frightening environment for the person. People who love them are challenged to keep the relationship going amidst their erratic behavior and hurtful accusations. A Christian counselor in Spokane, however, can offer hope through the gospel, which speaks strength and peace into disorder. Also, the counselor can incorporate therapeutic techniques that guide the paranoid person in understanding their own reactions to the people and environments around them.
“Psychoanalytic Diagnosis” by Nancy McWilliams, Ph.DPhotos
“Suitcase Wonderings,” courtesy of Lizzie Guilbert, unsplash.com, CC0 Public Domain License; “Crowd Pondering,” courtesy of Clem Onojeghuo, unsplash.com, CC0 Public Domain License