“I am me plus my context. If I cannot change my context, I cannot change me.” — Ortega y Gasset, Prolific Spanish political theorist and philosopher (1883-1955)
Suspicion and paranoia may not be fun to talk about. They have become alarmingly common these days and are at the heart of what leads to senseless gun violence, mass shootings and polarization between people. While most of us are not in danger of such extremes, we certainly have lesser versions of these disturbances that affect our serenity and family relationships. Many of us are on edge these days. Daily gun violence, pandemic fears, social unrest, divisiveness and trauma fill our news each day with unspeakable and senseless violence. Many of us feel powerless and edgy about the extent of the tension in our daily lives, even when we live in the land of opportunity and relative peace. Yet we can’t identify why we are so persecuted. It’s because we are at war, not generally with an external enemy, but with the enemy inside ourselves and a society that is often at war with itself.
Way too many of us are traumatized by the social unrest of our times. Our bodies are absorbing all the social malaise in the news and we become less functional and guarded even in the more tranquil social gatherings of our times. We argue with relatives, cut out people who disagree with us, and adopt a lone wolf way of being in life. Too many of us make the mistake of feeling we can’t trust anyone and that it is actually safer for us to not do so. Sometimes the enemy outside ourselves is really too much for us to deal with. Other times it is the enemy within ourselves that is the problem and we think it is outside ourselves. This dilemma is especially common for people who don’t see themselves and lack insight into who they really are. Poor self-observation is at the core of chronic suspicion. Some of us who are clinically paranoid lack the ability to tell if our demons are outside or inside ourselves and we become lost in delusional paranoia. Suspicion and persecution become such an integral part of ourselves that we don’t know what life would be like without them.
Well, I am here to tell you that there is hope. Although you may be swimming in tension there are ways to be serene and trust others. If you are willing to embrace a small degree of humility and make considerable effort with help from reliable others you can live a life with more social trust and serenity. The healing powers of caring human relationships are way more potent than all the dark forces of evil in the world.
When I got my first job after college and moved to the Twin Cities, I told myself, “Great, I am moving away from old childhood friends to the land of Minnesota Nice. How bad can that be?” Well, it wasn’t very nice. It seemed that people here say positive things to your face but secretly talk behind your back and gossip about your shortcomings. Nobody calls you up to see how you are doing even after a positive social encounter. It’s like you don’t know what you did wrong or who to trust. I got very suspicious in all my social interactions and longed for the aggressive and sometimes impolite mannerisms of my social peers in New York City. At least you always knew where you stood with bolder people. Of course, having social anxiety made it even worse for me. Since I wasn’t going to move back home, I decided to look at myself and my part in my current social scene. I can’t just blame the culture of niceness for my problems. I looked at myself. I got help from a therapist for my social anxiety. I realized I had to make more of an effort to let people know me and stop taking their reserve as a personal criticism. Afterall, how could I think that others don’t like me if I’m not letting them know me?! Gradually, over time, I began witnessing the real kindness in people around me and began asking for help from others. Actually, my go-it-alone mentality wasn’t protecting me; it was making me unhappier. So, I had to face myself more honestly.
I found I really needed friends and yet have struggled for years with inferiority. The more I admitted these things to myself, the more I decided to take risks with others in small doses and I actually started making friends. So, I went to lunch with a co-worker and had a good time. Initially I must have come across as a snob from the East Coast, like I didn’t need anybody. Deep down I was just really scared. I also found that I didn’t have to be so agreeable all the time and I found out that people liked my occasional East Coast boldness. I saw that although I may appear different from others, I actually have a lot in common with others. All of this didn’t happen overnight. I am still very much the introvert and somewhat shy. But now I don’t have to be so suspicious of others when the real problem is inside myself. I have more of a sense of control now over my life, I have a couple of good friends and life is good! I realize that I’m making it all sound too easy. In fact, it wasn’t. But it also wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. Once I started going in the right direction and being honest with myself I just kept right on going.
In the last three years I have immersed myself in social activism work. You would think that my life would be way happier because I’m working for meaningful change. Instead, I find myself arguing with others, seeing everybody as a racist, cutting off unhealthy friendships and getting arrested for violent protests. Even my long-term girlfriend doesn’t want to be around me since all I do is run around with a bunch of activists. I feel as if she can’t join me, then she is part of the problem, too. Doesn’t she understand that what I am doing is trying to save the planet? Sometimes I wish I could just sit back and enjoy the good life of white privilege. But how could I live with myself if I’m just looking out for myself. I can’t sit around just talking about this. I have to go to the next rally.
How do I know if the problem is inside me or inside others?
To reduce social alienation, we need to work on both ourselves and our relationship to othersPlease relax when trying to answer this question. You are in good company if you are confused on how to answer this question. Most of us get stumped in trying to resolve this issue. Sometimes we project our inner problems onto others when it is not warranted. We may feel that people are unfriendly to us when it is actually us that is unintentionally unfriendly to others, and we fail to see how we are alienating others from ourselves. People around us may be put off by our attitude and we don’t see our part in our own undoing. Other times, we may have gotten involved with a problematic social group and unknowingly get scapegoated or brainwashed by that group. If we are new to the group and put the blinders on, we may not see how the group members have come to dislike us. We may be shunned for simply being too friendly as we try desperately to fit in. Most of the time the problem of social alienation lies both inside ourselves and outside ourselves.
To reduce social alienation, we need to work on both ourselves and our relationship to others. Being a keen observer, both of our inner life and our relational life is necessary to heal our social alienation.
We all have ways to make things worse for ourselves. People who remain paranoid and get lost in conspiracy theories are often copping out on doing the hard work of personal healing. Without knowing themselves, they are essentially in over their head in facing real life challenges and choose to spend their time in a magical and unrealistic ego-centric fantasy world. Conspiracy theories, like science fiction, are often a somewhat intriguing and fruitless distraction from real life. For some of us it is the best we can do. Persecution by others also allows us to prop up our diminished view of ourselves. We play a God-like role because if so many people are out to get us, we must be really important. This thinking is what leads to mass shootings, particularly when there is a grudge to settle. Needless to say, most of us are not so far gone but we may not cope well with excessive suspicion and needless social distrust.
Some signs that the problem lies outside our self are:
- Other people are seeing the dysfunction that we see.
- There are many examples of other people behaving badly towards us.
- Several people stick together in gas lighting us saying that we are only imagining things to be happening.
- We feel that other people are avoiding us for no apparent reason.
- We can see no conceivable reason why people are not including us.
- There is a sense that others are not telling us the whole truth and that only they really know what is going on.
- No one makes the effort to be really honest with us about what is really going on, probably because they are scared to do so.
- We may be living in a world that is swimming out of control for us.
Obviously, we are not paranoid when people really are out to get us.
Some signals that the problem really is inside our self are:
- We occasionally have quite violent fantasies about others for no explainable reason.
- We suppress conflict inside of our self.
- We see ourselves in an overly positive light, such as virtuous and others as deficient.
- We have a strong need to be right and an almost obsessive need to be validated by others.
- We see no explanation for why we are rejected or included in social gatherings.
- We nurture envy and grudges towards others.
How do I cope with suspiciousness and be less alienated?
We play a God-like role because if so many people are out to get us, we must be really important.This problem is probably the most difficult challenge in mental health. It is often a signal that we have been emotionally damaged in our early life if it is only currently coming to light. Most people with this issue blame other people and don’t see themselves as at fault. Hence, going to a therapist seems like a waste of time. Also, going to a helper may seem futile as most helpers are not trained to treat paranoia and the distrust inherent to this disorder makes it difficult for a suspicious person to trust their helper. The customary feel good positive regard and closeness with a helper are in fact threatening to paranoid people. It’s best for suspicious people to be treated by a smart and savvy, less emotional therapist who respects a client’s point of view and need for distance. This type of person does best with someone who honestly shoots from the hip and doesn’t need to be liked. I like the MN Psychoanalytic Institute (Phone: 612-200-4141) or the Associated Clinic of Psychology (Phone: 612-925-6033). It’s best to research the helpers and use your natural skepticism to guide your choices.
The other support for this difficulty is seeing the emotional trauma in your body inherent to this disorder. Read Bessel van Der Kolk’s, The Body Keeps the Score (Penguin Books, 2015). Taking a therapeutic yoga class to recognize how hyperarousal and numbing reside in the body and need to be alleviated through informed body work will likely make a big difference. For example, many wife abusers get enormous help from yoga and meditation, and blame their wives less for their difficulties, reducing their stress. There are many good therapeutic yoga centers in the Twin Cities. I can recommend the St. Paul Yoga Center (Phone: 651-646-4656). You can go online to learn about possible instructors or call the Center. Once again use your customary skepticism to guide your choices.
The most important thing to understand about suspicion and persecution is that it rarely has to do with your present life, although it occurs presently. The second most important thing to grasp is that it is not somebody else’s fault even if you are being treated badly. It is a condition that is yours to fix. The best way to fix it is to develop enough emotional competency and body regulation to see yourself accurately and learn how to forgive yourself. As you forgive yourself and develop authentic friendships your whole view of life will be a lot more positive and you will be amazed at how less threatening the world really is. What you have survived will in fact make you stronger. You have my best wishes for your recovery.
John H. Driggs, LICSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.
Last Updated on July 13, 2021