The relatively stable way of how we organise our thoughts, feelings, and behaviour in different situations is what we usually refer to as our personality. When our personality loses its ability to be flexible and isn’t able to adapt adequately to the context we are in, distress follows. This distress may arise from the way one perceives and relates to themselves and others, the intensity and appropriateness of the emotions experienced, as well as one’s impulse control (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). There is a variety and mixture of ‘styles’ our personality can take on when certain traits become fixed over time. This blog will focus on paranoid styles of relating.
‘Paranoia’ refers to the distrust or suspiciousness towards others or the environment, since the person fears that external elements intend to harm them. In these paranoid styles, one can find no evidence to these fears, and yet the person suspects deceit and harm from others. Paranoia may preoccupy a person to doubt their friends’ intentions and to persistently hold grudges. The fear of certain information being used against one’s self will discourage the individual from confiding in others. Paranoia is likely to have the person perceive neutral events as being threatening, and may involve angrily lashing out as a reaction to the perceived threat. Sometimes paranoia emerges in an excessive distrust of a partner as infidelity is constantly suspected without justification.
This style of relating can gradually increase in intensity and distress over time if the individual starts becoming more and more engulfed in paranoid thoughts and finds it increasingly difficult to distinguish between what is a real threat and what isn’t. It is important for individuals in such a case to seek and be supported by mental health professionals, family, and friends.
An individual with paranoid styles of relating is less likely to seek therapy since one might feel as though the therapist will manipulate them somehow. This is another instance where the person assumes that others intend to harm them.
Being vigilant and sensitive to external threats was necessary for our ancestors to survive within several life threatening environments. However, if these traits become a regular state of being while the person is not under any actual threat, that way of perceiving reality is unnecessary within the individual’s context and so, distressing consequences follow.
Considering the current viral pandemic, the situation calls for some of the caution and vigilance that paranoia provides since there is an actual threat among us. So this fear of a threat motivates us to keep a physical distance from one another, to wear a mask to protect ourselves and others, and to regularly sanitize our hands when at risk of contamination. However, paranoia comes in when one’s fear of harm is elevated and constant even when there is little to no risk. I understand that this is tricky, since some of us don’t want to make the smallest of risks if it means putting our loved and vulnerable ones in danger.
We are being challenged to adjust in a new way to the current situation. Since this style of relating encourages us to be cautious of others, paranoia also drives us to retreat into ourselves as we feel like we cannot trust anyone. In order to get through the current strange and difficult situation, we would do well to overcome this withdrawal and reach out to one another with compassion so as to establish support systems that nourish us. We are lucky to be able to do this virtually, considering the current circumstances.
Amber Tabone practices Gestalt Psychotherapy with individuals and couples at Willingness. While currently reading for a Master’s in Psychotherapy, she has developed an interest in working with relationships, gender, and sexuality thanks to her experience with families and domestic violence issues.
American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association, 2013.