“I’m probably being paranoid.” 

How often have you said this, as a preface to saying something you suspect will be dismissed? How often has a friend or colleague said it? And what does it mean, in our common usage of the term? 

Paranoia as many of us will know, describes  a mental condition characterized by delusions of persecution, unwarranted jealousy, or exaggerated self-importance. It is the first part of this description that we most commonly identify as paranoid, and those of us who use the phrase, “I am probably being paranoid” are often trying to preempt and negate the listener’s assumption that we are being paranoid, to distance ourselves from that assumption, from dismissal of our concerns. But in my experience, by the time someone uses this phrase, they have enough hard evidence to prove that they are absolutely not paranoid, and have been subjected to a sustained process of diminishment. 

A friend recently told me that she was “probably being paranoid,” but that the unwarranted and sudden attempted exclusion of her from a group to which she had belonged for years, had made her ruminate all night. When I asked her for the reason for the rumination, she gave several logical and supported pieces of evidence that built into a very convincing picture that she was indeed being persecuted and not just experiencing  delusions. I used an old but illustrative phrase: “if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, it is a duck.” 

Many of us have probably, at some time in January or February this year, been accused of being paranoid, or overly dramatic if we talked about the impending Covid 19 pandemic. Was it national fear of paranoia that delayed the wholesale response to the threat? Or is paranoia being used as an excuse for many other reasons for inaction? I am not sure, but then I am probably being paranoid. 

Why do we inhabit a world where we dismiss valid concerns with an unsubstantiated psychiatric diagnosis? What does this tell us of our society and the ways in which individuals function? 

Let’s look at the “I am probably being paranoid” people first. What does this preface really mean? I’d suggest it is a simple way of  saying, “please don’t dismiss my evidence out of hand, let me take the time to explain to you why I am worried, but equally if you really don’t believe me, because you cannot be bothered to listen and think, or because you are too afraid to face the truth of my assertions, we can of course just laugh them off as part of the current  pop psychology that says people who think are dangerous and probably not sane.” Maybe it’s a way of saying, “I am really concerned about this but I don’t want to lose the relationship I have with you,” or, “I know we don’t take seriously  in our world those who bring bad news, we live in an era of shooting the messenger, not the creator of evil, so I know I need to be careful here.” Whichever way we look at it, we can see that the phrase is laden with fear itself. Fear of not being believed. Fear of being accused of anarchy. Fear of ridicule. Fear of accusations of treachery. Fear of the system shutting us down. Throwing us out. Dismissing us. Diminishing us. 

And what of  the listener who agrees, “yeah, you’re paranoid.” Driven also by fear, for that is the root of ignorance, is it not. Of what are they afraid? The truth? Accusations of collaboration? Ridicule from others who cannot see the Emperors clothes either but cannot for the life of them bring themselves to admit it? Herd mentality. 

So what should we do, when someone we know, and trust says, “I am probably being paranoid?”

Listen. Ask what their concerns are. What’s the evidence? By the time we utter the now infamous phrase, we have usually assembled a dossier of data, an overwhelming case to show that we are not at all paranoid.  Questions can often be more helpful than reassurance. Ask what the issues are, how they know, who is involved, where and when details occurred. Investigate the paranoia preface, by asking, “what are you afraid of?” Help weigh up the risks and benefits of action, become a sounding board. Ask, “what if:  What if you do this? What if you do nothing?”

Most people who preface a piece of information with, “I’m probably being paranoid,” are not being paranoid. But if we ignore them, refuse to listen to what they have to say, minimise their concerns, we can easily help them to become paranoid. There are a lot of waddling, feathered, quacking creatures  out there, and if we don’t support  each other to identify the quackery, we may be its next casualty.