Paranoia is one of the most stigmatized symptoms of complex trauma. It is often viewed as a sign of a serious mental illness. But the reality of paranoia is different. It is everywhere. I believe childhood trauma makes it a guarantee.
Paranoia can be so many things. It can be as simple as “waiting for the other shoe to drop”. It can be as intense as expecting abusers to come around the corner at any second. It can be as unrealistic as waiting for a lightning strike. But no matter the manifestation, it is debilitating. It holds us back from our purpose because we don’t feel safe or free to pursue what we want.
Paranoia is so confusing because it rarely exists on a conscious level. Our adult self will often have a mature enough understanding to have left most paranoid thoughts behind (although not always). But the paranoid thoughts exist in the unconscious with the inner parts who needed to create explanations for unusual and traumatic experiences. And as they linger there, they can make life very uncomfortable with strong anxiety, panic and hypervigilance as the manifestations. But why does it happen? Why do we suffer from paranoia in the first place?
- Kids are prone to magical thinking. When we are kids, we are creative. We have the ability to come up with all sorts of amazing stories. And we are told amazing stories. Many children believe in a magical fat man who travels the world in one night and a bunny delivering candy eggs. The line between reality and fantasy is very fine. My own children are still hoping for their Hogwarts letters on their 11th birthday (which they will receive of course). Magical thinking can lead to beliefs in dark and evil forces (beyond human evil acts). It has even been known to create a sense of dark magical capabilities within the self. “I am so unworthy, I can create horrible things in my life.” When I first discovered my own karma kid, I realized that she attributed weather patterns to my severe unluckiness.
- Abusers use their control to create the largest power differential possible. When abusers are attempting to control a child, they will stop at nothing to ensure a child doesn’t fight back. This will usually involve portraying themselves as unrealistically powerful. They will trick the child by pretending to know far more than they can know. They may snoop in on the child’s relationships with friends, or as the child gets older, read their journals. But somehow, they know things they should not know. Even the most well-meaning of parents can convince their children “they have eyes in the back of their head”. I have been known to figure things out before my children act on them. And while it is simply based on experience, my kids have wondered how I did it. This can lead to beliefs about others knowing far more than they can know. “If I read this book or write this journal or heal myself in any way, my abuser will know.”
- Everything kept going wrong. Let’s face it. A traumatic childhood is not filled with beautiful experiences. I know they exist, but not on a large scale. The more bad things that happen to us, the more proof to our theory that “someone or something is out to get us”. As a child, it might be the only message that makes sense. How can I possibly be this randomly unlucky? We don’t have an understanding about unconscious patterns. And we don’t understand that many of these instances were set up by our abusers. When I first started to get my memories back, I wondered how I could be so unlucky to meet so many pedophiles over the course of my childhood. Once I discovered that my father was selling and trading me, it made so much more sense. But my inner parts were sure it was something bigger than that.
- Nothing good seemed to last. Sometimes good things would happen. I would meet an awesome person. I would get accepted by a group at school and have some friends. I would get straight A’s at school and get some positive attention for it. And for a few moments, everything would seem okay. Maybe the curse had been lifted. Maybe things were going to turn around. I was too young to understand the temporary nature of everything. (Honestly, the bad didn’t seem very temporary.) But I also didn’t have a true sense of how my family was thwarting the good things either … not entirely. So my inner parts decided that I wasn’t good enough for the good things. And when something good did happen, I would pretend I wasn’t happy or look over my shoulder for how it would be ruined.
- Everyone lied. It is hard to trust that everything is going to be okay when everyone around you is telling lies. Reality gets fuzzy and it rarely makes sense. It gets to the point where those telling the truth cannot be trusted either. For a child, this is very confusing. “What do I believe? Who can I trust? Is everyone out to get me?” This can lead to mistrust in the entire human race, as well as the universe. I remember telling my therapist that I believed every statement from every person had a double meaning. She was a bit dumbfounded. She asked, “Everyone?” I said, “Of course. How in the world would I know who’s telling the truth?”
So the next time you hear someone describe paranoia as an extreme symptom of trauma, tell them to think again. We all have it. It might show up as mistrust or giving too much power to an abuser. But it is there. It is our job to work with our inner parts to help them determine what is realistic and what is not. Our abusers were not as powerful as we think. And we are not the target of all the evil in the world. I know it feels this way, but if we can punch some holes in this thinking, we can move toward freedom. And it is our time for freedom.
Written By Elisabeth Corey, MSW