Paranoia: A Heightened Sense of Awareness
Is someone spying on your phone? Are you being followed? Is your lover about to leave you?
Would you consider yourself crazy for thinking these thoughts?
Most of us have accepted the traditional notion that “paranoid” means “crazy.” An alternate viewpoint emerged with the work of British psychiatrist R.D. Laing.
He observed that the English language uses the word “paranoia” to describe situations in which individuals incorrectly imagine that others are “out to get them.”
However, he noted, we lack a word for the much more common occurrence; when people are “out to get us” and we don’t realize it.
Noted psychologist Claude Steiner took the matter further when he said, “Paranoia is a heightened state of awareness.”
The notion of a heightened state of awareness is a very respectful way of looking at our experience of reality. It suggests that we are smart, intuitive and creative.
In our daily lives, when we lack information, we use our intuition and imagination to fill in the missing details. We try to figure things out. What we don’t know, we invent.
When our imagination and intuition suggest that something negative is occurring, our thoughts are called “paranoid.” These paranoid thoughts may not accurately explain the situation, but there is something we are striving to understand when we fill in the gaps. There is always at least a grain of truth.
Suppose you suspect (are paranoid) your best friend doesn’t like you anymore. You can assume you are right. You can get angry about it and start withdrawing your affection. But remember, you only suspect something is happening. You don’t know it to be a fact. It might not be correct.
You can go to the opposite extreme and assume that your “paranoia” is wrong. You can rationalize by thinking: “I’m silly to be suspicious. There’s no solid evidence. He/she says nice things to me.”
The problem with this approach is that paranoias do not readily disappear. There is always at least a grain of truth. If brushed aside, there would always be lingering doubt.
In fact, the discounting process in which paranoias are brushed aside seems to be the link between “normal” paranoia and tremendously distorted paranoia.
The more that we -- and others around us – discount our intuitions, the larger and more elaborate they become. We may try to ignore them, but something inside shouts out: “I know I’m onto something.”
Fortunately, there is a middle ground, a way to take paranoias seriously without getting carried away by them. You can “check them out.” With this communication method, you can say “I want to check out my paranoia” and your partner would be tasked with actively looking for the truth or grain of truth in your intuition. To be clear. this only works in loving or other types of cooperative relationships in which people are committed to emotional honesty, and mutually accept the idea that “paranoias” are intuitions that have a grain of truth. (Otherwise, you’d be pegged as crazy for checking out paranoias.)
Returning to our example, you say to your friend: “I have a paranoia that I’d like to check out. My paranoia is that you don’t like me anymore.”
If it is true, get ready for bad news.
Often, it is not entirely true. The other person may be tempted to brush it aside by saying: “Of course, I like you. Nothing has changed. Why would you think that I don’t like you?”
Although reassuring, this well-meaning statement won’t do the trick. Something inspired the suspicion in the first place. Until that something is identified the suspicion will linger in its original form, or morph into a troubling new version. There is at the very minimum, a grain of truth. Sometimes, people have to dig deep to try to offer validation.
The validation could be for example, “You know I haven’t called you in quite a while. I’ve been super busy and withdrawn from most of my friends. Maybe this explains what you’re feeling.”
It could be: “You know I’ve been angry about something that happened and haven’t told you about it. That’s probably why you’re feeling this way. Let’s talk and try to work things out.”
It’s amazing how relationships improve when people who care about each other have a way to check out their paranoias.
Remember, however, the recipient of a paranoia has to have a commitment to honesty. Certainly, this limits the number of people with whom you can check them out.
On the other hand, if you can’t get a commitment to honesty, small wonder that you might be paranoid!
For 8 years, Robert Schwebel Ph.D. wrote a weekly psychology column for the Sunday edition of the Arizona Daily Star. This article is one of many.