On paranoia

by The Editor

TheThingAboutSERIES: Paranoia seems to be part and parcel of public life – certainly politicians appear permanently gripped by it. Yet it is curious how often paranoia can infect otherwise rational people, when they are placed in constant contact with it. Today’s piece looks at the idea of paranoia in more detail, why it is problematic and some of its consequences. If you already suffer the problem, who knows, maybe this piece is about you?

On paranoia

By: Gareth van Onselen

21 May 2013

Some people, usually those harbouring some personal insecurity, are naturally prone to paranoia and the fear that others are perpetually conspiring against them. But such a state can also be induced or engendered by an environment in which paranoia already holds sway; if not, then one where gossip and moralising are prevalent.

One might think gossip alone is cause enough but its affect is amplified by moral absolutism – for then it is not merely hearsay but perceived to be evidence of ‘bad’ people mobilising to do the ‘wrong’ thing and that you – the righteous victim – suffer the consequences. And the paranoid response can therefore be quite vicious and cruel.

When fully in paranoia’s grip, threats are everywhere. The belief is that no one acts to pursue an idea for its own worth; always it is to undermine you. So paranoia also shares a close relationship with egoism: the surrounding world is reduced to a set of actions and undertakings all of which are set in motion to target you in particular. Thus, ironically, the paranoid almost always have an inflated sense of self worth – ego and insecurity, these two natural enemies, working harmoniously side-by-side to heighten hysteria.

More often than not they are wrong. While the actions of others might have consequences for them (they also might not) most likely they were pursued by a person caught up in their own universe, following their own impulses or aspirations with little regard for your specific circumstances. And, on being confronted by paranoia, they will baulk. It had simply never occurred to them.

The great threat of paranoia is how infectious it is. Sustained and close proximity to it can easily reduce otherwise rational people to conspiracy loons, no longer able to empathise with other people or their motivations, rather relentlessly untrusting and fearful. Few environments are more destructive than a paranoid one.

You would be surprised at how easily such distrust makes real an imagined threat through a fundamental insistence that it does indeed exists.

An abbreviated version of this column first appeared in the Business Day. For more columns from The Thing About series, click here.

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