By Benjamin Deu, MA, LMHC
Seattle Christian Counseling
Part 1 of a 3-Part Series
References “Psychoanalytic Diagnosis” by Nancy McWilliams, Ph.D
This is the first in a three-part series about paranoia. This article explores possible causes and symptoms of paranoia. The second delves into why people develop paranoia.
Paranoia is not always tin foil hats and rambling about alien abductions. At all points of the spectrum, paranoia involves “experiencing what is inside as if it were outside the self.” (214) People with paranoid personality disorders project uncomfortable emotions outward as a means of coping. For example, a sufferer who struggles with hostility will, rather than accept that they feel hostile, interpret the exterior environment as hostile, “They are out to get me.”
What Causes Paranoia?
People with paranoia typically grew up in emotionally abusive situations. They were often overpowered and humiliated, which damaged their strength of will. Their caregivers were usually critical, unpredictable, and impossible to please. (220)
People with paranoia disorders often grew up in abusive homes where they were taught paranoia by example. Paranoid parents teach their children they can only trust their family. Hyper-anxious parents steer children into paranoia by unconsciously teaching their children feelings are dangerous and powerful. For example, when a child goes to their anxious parent with a problem, the parent exaggerates the importance by turning them away because hearing about their problem makes them even more nervous. Or the parent may respond dramatically to the problem by exaggerating the severity.
Often, 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. (220-221)
Underneath the Accusations
Paranoid thought processes are the mind’s defense against uncomfortable or unwanted desires and emotions. Sufferers struggle between two selves: one powerless and despised, the other grandiose and vindicated. “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.” (223)
Also, as many paranoid people suffered so much humiliation and subjugation, they often look for ways to build up their self-esteem by influencing others. Powerful people are ideal targets. Opportunities for vindication and triumph temporarily prop up the paranoid person with a sense of safety and righteousness. (224)
Consider the example of the Pharisees. They may not have spent their lives watching over their shoulders out of fear of a government plot, but they certainly pursued safety and righteousness through religious hierarchy. That is why they so fervently persecuted Jesus. The church leaders were terrified of the threat he posed to their power and luxury. They craved power, so they assumed Jesus did also, even though that was not the point of his earthy ministry. Although he was critical of church leadership, he did not make it his mission to dismantle it. Rather, he pointed people toward the security of a personal relationship with God.
Although they may project harmful perspectives onto others, paranoid people still long for relationships. “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.” (223) McWilliams cites other researchers who say that underneath all this projection, the paranoid person feels emotionally isolated and longs for validation from others.
What does Paranoia look like?
Like all personality disorders, paranoia is a spectrum. Sometimes it is as mild as people projecting their own experiences onto others. For example, a woman was discussing with her mother a disagreement she had with her husband. The mother could not help but project her own experiences in an abusive relationship onto her daughter, even though her daughter’s husband had never been violent. The mother fearfully urged her daughter not to upset her husband, lest he attack or abandon her.
Toward the psychotic end of the spectrum, projections become more grandiose and unrealistic. McWilliams cites the example of billionaire Howard Hughes who obsessed over the dangers of atomic testing in Nevada. While we now know exposure to radioactive substances can cause many health issues, knowledge during Hughes’ time was too rudimentary to give credence to his beliefs. “The eventual vindications of his point of view do not make his psychology less paranoid; the events of his later life speak for the extent to which his own projections were the source of his suffering.” (216)
Paranoid people often share common emotions: guilt, anxiety, lack of shame, and hostility.
- Guilt – Paranoid people are terrified that, once others get to know them, they will be shocked by what an awful person they are. This is because they have been so often beaten down and humiliated.
- “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.” (She’s does not like me; he is out to get me) (218)
- Shame – Sometimes paranoid people are so adept at denying and projecting their emotions that they no longer feel shame. They spend their time combating anyone they think might attempt to humiliate them. (217)
- Aggression – Some researchers propose that many paranoid adults were aggressive, angry children who could not figure out how to process their feelings in a healthy way. Their caregivers may have struggled to deal with a challenging child, and their negative reactions reinforce the child’s perception that others are out to get them. (216)
- Fear – One of their most overwhelming emotions. “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.” (217)
Individual Christian Counseling for people struggling with Paranoia
Paranoia burdens everyone in the sufferer’s life. They try to defend themselves against their inner demons, but only succeed in making their environment more hostile and frightening. Their loved ones struggle to maintain a relationship with them in spite of hurtful accusations and erratic behavior. They will use therapeutic techniques help the paranoid person understand why they react to life this way. The Christian counselor will also use the hope of the Gospel to speak peace and strength into a world of disorder.
Am-I-Paranoid Flickr user ElwardPhotography
How-to-deal-with-paranoia Flickr user sagetherapy