I’m not paranoid – I’m just isolated: coaching reflections on how our thoughts can mask facing up to the real issue

paranoiaTake Away Line

All of us have these little annoying loops that go round in our minds. They can sometimes appear almost paranoid. But can we think of them as purposeful in anyway? Sometimes they can mask a bigger concern, distracting us from tackling that bigger concern. Here’s a coaching tale of working with these little annoying loops.

I know it’s tripe, but…I’m paranoid

Recently, I’ve started to get paranoid. Just a little bit. It’s about the mail. I have this little loop that goes off in my mind, when I open the letterbox  that something bad will be there. I scour through them looking for the ‘Bad Thing’ somewhat anxiously. What could it be? Oh, I don’t know – a huge bill I haven’t budgeted for, a summons to a court hearing for a crime I’ve not committed, that kind of thing. All tripe (as we Yorkies were once fond of saying…ah, tripe) but a tape that runs and I hear it run. Can’t stop it really.

Some of my work with organisations is with international development NGOs, or charities in UK parlance. The leaders of these organisations’ country programmes can feel isolated, especially if they are expatriate. On a bad day, perhaps not quite feeling that they connect with the local staff, and so far away from their international headquarters, whose leaders often (particularly on the bad days) don’t really seem to appreciate the issues they are grappling with, a similar negative loop can play out in their minds. As one country director put it to me not so long ago, ‘I feel like the meat in a vegetarian sandwich: squeezed and invisible. In fact, not really there. Indeed, sometimes, I think they are almost deliberately trying to make life difficult’ Dig a little deeper and you hear these similar slightly paranoid fantasies.

So, are they, and indeed am I, mad?

Could paranoia serve a purpose?

Let’s leave me aside for a moment and think about paranoia. What’s its function, assuming we don’t in fact have a serious mental health diagnosis, but like everyone else at different times, have these little tapes that play out in our minds. Annoying little beasts, but do they serve a purpose?

Stephen Grosz’s book, mentioned in another blog post, called An Examined Life: How we Lose and Find Ourselves (Vintage, 2013) reminds us that ‘paranoia’ does indeed serve a purpose.

Paranoia, the irrational fantasy of being betrayed or harmed or attacked or harshly criticised, etc is more likely to pop up if we are feeling insecure, disconnected or alone. ‘Above all, paranoid fantasies are a response to the feeling that we are being treated with indifference.’ So, such fantasies may not be nice but they are a defence against something else, which may be even harder to bear. They are like a smoke screen to hide the real action.

And the ‘real action’ is the fear of isolation, loneliness or indifference. What would be worse that receiving a huge and unexpected bill in my mail box, in my case? Nothing would be worse – no letters at all, total indifference from ‘the world’. So my little tape is a defence against feeling that way. Better a mild bit of ‘madness’ than an empty mailbox, it seems. Ouch!

Oddly, with age, as Grosz makes clear, we are much less likely to suffer from mental ill health, but much more likely to suffer from feelings of paranoia, coming from the ability or inability to handle isolation. It’s much easier to think that (say a nurse in hospital) wants to kill me than to consider the prospect of the hospital’s staff’s utter indifference to my existence, whatever the facts of the matter may be.

Taking time to listen to the little loops in our minds

So, when it comes to my clients who feel this way, who have these tapes in their heads, it may just, quite unconsciously, be the case that the slightly paranoid fantasy is getting themselves through a fundamental sense of isolation, which is too hard to contemplate. The idea that ‘they’ are out to ‘get’ me seems to be easier to deal with, rather than the fact that the level of attention I’m getting is not meeting my needs.

It’s worth sometimes blowing through the smoke screen to see what needs we may have that are not being met well enough.  and out ‘paranoid’ loops can sometimes be a key.

Debating Points

  1. Do you have any annoying little ‘paranoid’ loops going round your head?
  2. If you do, what could they be defending? What might be going on behind them?
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About transformingtales

What you do is what you do, isn't it? Nothing special there. What I do is work mainly with civil society organisations, but also some public and corporate sector outfits, to help them change. For the better. For good. If you provide a list of the things you do, the services you offer, like strategic planning, leadership development, corporate governance, culture change and performance management, they are just words. And tricky sounding words too that put you off and imply more questions than they answer. So, this blog is about the stories, the joys and the woes of making tranformative change happen (on a good day) and when and why it doesn't (on a bad day). And it's dedicated to my daughter who asked the question a few years ago: 'What do you do again, Dad?'
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One Response to I’m not paranoid – I’m just isolated: coaching reflections on how our thoughts can mask facing up to the real issue

  1. Renate says:

    Wonderful food for thought, John! Definitely not revealing the details of MY “paranoid loops” here, but grateful to have some new perspective on them and a name for them (previously just thought of them as “things that bothered me quite often”! 🙂

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