February 1, 2000
 Paranoia Can
Annoy Ya

When We Worry Too
Much about What
Others Think
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I knew it spelled trouble. The woman's voice on my answering tape trembled and was clearly stressed. Her message was abrupt: "Please call me back as soon as possible." She left her name and number but no explanation why she called.

I didn't recognize her name. But the 253- prefix on her number meant she lived in Damascus near our home. This can only mean one thing, I concluded. One of our boys have gotten into trouble. This woman wants to give me an earful. They've damaged her property and she wants me to pay.

Wanting to defuse the problem as quickly as possible, I called her back immediately, even though it was already 10:00 p.m. I was surprised to get her answering tape, since she'd just phoned a half hour before. Disappointed, I left my name and number and told her to call me anytime.

When I awoke the next morning, I felt like a dark cloud was hanging over the day. I'm going to have to engage in a difficult, confrontive conversation with this woman, I mused. That thought nagged me all morning and afternoon, as I anxiously waited for her call. I couldn't understand why she was taking so long to call back.

Finally around 5:00 p.m. she phoned. I recognized her voice immediately and braced for a confrontation. To my surprise, she asked why I had phoned her. I explained I was returning her call which I assumed concerned one of my boys and mentioned their names. "I don't either of your sons or you," she replied. "I must have dialed your number by mistake."

Curious how this could have happened, I asked if she'd been looking for a pastor and picked my name at random from the phone directory. "No," she answered, "but I could sure use a pastor right now--my life is a mess!"

Since she didn't offer any detail, we ended the conversation pleasantly. I hung up the phone, stunned that I'd worried all day about a problem I'd invented. Not only was she not angry at me or anyone in my family--she hadn't been thinking about us at all! The stress in her voice on my tape had nothing to do with ill feelings toward us. It simply meant she was, well, stressed. I had misread the cues at every point. And made myself miserable in the process.

A Common Mistake

How easily we misread others' negative feelings. We've all had the experience, probably more often than we like to admit. We've sensed someone was angry or hurt, then worried ourselves sick about what they were thinking. We assumed they were angry at us, intent on confronting or hurting us. In time we found we hadn't a clue what they were really thinking. Their hostility wasn't directed at us at all but toward their own pressing problems. They may even have welcomed our encouragement and listening ear.

When it comes to imagining what others think of us, it's easy to fall into a pattern of expecting the worst. Paranoia is what we often call it lightheartedly today. This is slang, of course, for paranoia in the clinical sense is a serious psychological problem. True paranoids are pathologically suspicious of others' motives. Many suffer psychotic delusions about being watched or persecuted.

Most of us are not about to join a local militia to defend ourselves against encroaching evil forces of government. Nor do we imagine that aliens have implanted listening devices under our skin. Yet we do spend a lot of energy worrying about what others think of us. We may assume instinctively that others don't like us, even when no evidence suggests it. Such pessimistic thinking is a serious enough problem for many of us that it helps to have a word for it, even if we use it somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

The tragedy is that even this "normal" paranoia can hinder us from realizing our potential for Christ and experiencing the abundant life he promised. Our negative assumptions about what others think of us can cause us to envision failure at points where God will enable to us succeed. We may fail to recognize golden opportunities in relationships, career and other areas. We need to recognize this mentality for what it is. And we need to take steps to ensure it doesn't become a controlling factor in our life.

Paranoia in Scripture

We don't find the word paranoia or any equivalent in Scripture. Yet there are plenty of examples of it--both the extreme problem and the more common apprehensions about people we all experience. We see true paranoids: Laban, the father of Rebecca; Pharaoh, king of Egypt during the Exodus; Saul, Ahab, and other Old Testament kings; Haman, the king's friend in the book of Esther; and Herod, king of Israel at the time of Jesus' birth. False assumptions about others' motives led some of them, such as Herod, to commit murder and other heinous acts.

Yet we also see many examples of godly individuals worrying unnecessarily about being hurt or rejected by others. Moses is a prime example. When he was forty, he killed an Egyptian whom he caught abusing a fellow Israelite. Fear of retaliation from the incident led Moses to seek refuge in the desert of Midian. While his fear was justified at first, he remained in seclusion there for forty years--surely long beyond the point when he faced any real danger in Egypt.

Throughout this time in Midian he lived greatly beneath his potential, and Israelites in Egypt were deprived of his gift of passionate leadership. Inferiority set in so severely that when God finally told him explicitly through the burning bush to deliver Israel, Moses could only imagine failure and rejection. Even though he had the promise of an angel and God himself that he would succeed, he declared, "But behold, they will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say, 'The LORD did not appear to you'" (Ex 4:1 RSV).

Certain paranoid assumptions were obviously behind Moses' intense fear of rejection. He was convinced others were repelled by his hesitant speaking style and probably assumed people thought poorly of him in general. He feared some still sought his life in Egypt (Ex 4:19). And he probably believed his reputation was tarnished among Israelites and Egyptians alike because of his misdeed forty years before.

Of course when Moses did venture forth and speak to the Israelites, their response was radically different from what he anticipated. His negative expectations were shattered. It's expressed in one of the most beautifully ironic statements in Scripture: "And the people believed; and when they heard that the LORD had visited the people of Israel and that he had seen their affliction, they bowed their heads and worshiped" (Ex 4:31, RSV).

It's to Moses' credit that he found the resolve to respond to God's call in spite of the most extreme inhibitions. Yet if God hadn't spoken to him so dramatically, it's doubtful he ever would have broken the inertia. His example reminds us how easily paranoid thinking can blind us to good opportunities and keep us from the best God desires for us.

Letting Go of Paranoia

Fortunately, there is much we can do to address the problem. Clinical paranoia, to be sure, is a serious problem that requires professional help. Yet the normal fears we all experience about others being against us can usually be dealt with effectively through certain practical steps. Here are some suggestions that help.

Face your concerns honestly in prayer and reaffirm your faith in Christ. The impact of paranoid feelings can be reduced greatly through prayer. This is one of the most important lessons of the psalms--and one of their best-kept secrets.

The worries we have about others disliking or rejecting us are mild compared to the apprehensions David expresses in many of his psalms. He fills them with ruminations about the evil designs of his enemies. Of course, as the chief political leader in Israel, David had plenty of real enemies and faced legitimate threats from them. Yet in spite of his spiritual maturity, he was anything but unruffled by their plans. The psalms depict a deeply human side of David and show that he spent a lot of time and energy brooding over the malicious intentions others had toward him. For instance:

My enemies say of me in malice,
"When will he die and his name perish?"
Whenever one comes to see me,
he speaks falsely, while his heart gathers
then he goes out and spreads it abroad.
All my enemies whisper together against me;
they imagine the worst for me, saying,
"A vile disease has beset him;
he will never get up from the place where he
Even my close friend, whom I trusted,
he who shared my bread,
has lifted up his heel against me.
      (Psalm 41:5-9)

We can take comfort from David's example in this psalm that we're not psychologically imbalanced just because we're preoccupied with what others think about us. David often was, even though he was one of the most spiritually impressive personalities in Scripture. His apprehensions in this psalm go well beyond our own in most cases. We can rest assured that the fears we typically have about others being against us are normal and human.

David's example is equally encouraging in showing us the freedom we should feel to express our concerns to God in prayer. David's expression of concern in this psalm is blatant and graphic. It shows that we don't have to mince words in sharing our anxieties with God. If we fear animosity or rejection from someone, we can tell God so and tell him explicitly.

Yet David did more than just ventilate by praying in this fashion. He went an important step further and affirmed that he trusted God in spite of his fears. He concludes the psalm by declaring,

I know that you are pleased with me,
for my enemy does not triumph over me.
In my integrity you uphold me
and set me in your presence forever.
Praise be to the LORD, the God of Israel,
from everlasting to everlasting.
Amen and Amen.

Here we discover the major benefit of prayer for David. Through it he was able to regain his confidence in the Lord and put his fears in right perspective. We find David following this pattern of expressing anxiety and then reaffirming his faith in psalm after psalm.

Prayer can help us in a similar way when we fall into paranoid thinking. Following David's example, we should begin by expressing our concerns frankly to God. Yet we shouldn't stop there. In a spirit of prayer we should then reaffirm our conviction that God is protecting us and working for the best in our life. Following this process gives him the best opportunity to strengthen our faith, calm our fears, and show us where our thinking is distorted.

Scripture shows that God extends far more grace and healing to us through prayer than we normally imagine. The therapeutic value of prayer in helping us work through negative feelings is immense.

Check your thinking. Whenever we catch ourselves obsessing about others being hostile or unsupportive toward us, we should stop and check our thinking. Is there really any reasonable basis for our fear? Or is it more likely that we're giving way to paranoid thinking out of habit? It can help to recall similar situations in the past when our negative assumptions proved mistaken. The lesson of that recent phone call is one I'll not soon forget.

It's good to make a habit of examining our thinking and questioning our assumptions. If we're prone to pessimistic thinking in general, it's a good rule of thumb to assume that our conclusions are probably too negative. With practice we can learn to stay more tentative in our assumptions about what others think and not to instinctively expect the worst.

Practice optimism. It's been said that Ronald Reagan's remarkable success with people was due to his personal expectations. He always assumed that everyone he encountered liked him. When he was president, Reagan maintained surprisingly good relationships with many political enemies. His arch nemesis, Speaker of the House Thomas "Tip" O'Neill, once declared, "I find it impossible to dislike the guy."

Should we strive for such blatant positive thinking personally? Well . . . If I had to choose between the extremes--assuming everyone likes me or assuming everyone hates me--I'd choose the former. It's closer to a healthy outlook on relationships, and our expectations so often become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Such extreme positive thinking, though, simply isn't possible for most of us. Besides, it's a denial of reality. None of us, no matter how likeable, will succeed in every effort to relate to others. Rejection and difficult encounters will occur from time to time. Still, there is an outlook of optimism which is appropriate and healthy for us as Christians.

We can assume as an article of faith that God desires our very best and is working for good in countless ways behind the scenes in our lives. It's right also to assume that he desires us to enjoy significant success in relating to people and that this is an area where he extends his help and healing to us. To worry incessantly about others being against us is a denial of God's love for us and his creative power at work in others. We're on better ground to assume that encouraging developments are occurring in the situations we cannot see and to maintain reasonable hope for positive outcomes.

We can also be confident that if a difficult encounter with someone does occur, God will give us the grace to handle it. Since we can never predict exactly how God will provide grace until it happens, it's pointless to worry ourselves sick about how he will do it. We can simply trust that grace will be given at the moment we need it.

Another important principle of optimism is learning to see bad experiences as aberrations and not the norm--a point Martin Seligman stresses in his excellent book Learned Optimism.* Too often we do the opposite. When someone treats us unkindly, for instance, the experience can be unsettling. In our discouraged frame of mind it's easy to begin imagining others being equally insensitive. We may even conclude that God is punishing us through this person's unkindness and that he'll continue to do so in the way others treat us. We reason from the specific to the general in a way that is completely unjustified.

If a clear lesson can be gained from a discouraging experience with someone, we should learn it and benefit from it. But apart from strong evidence, we shouldn't assume that the experience indicates how others will treat us. In all likelihood the event is isolated. And in no case should we think that the hand of God has turned against us. To the contrary, we should call to mind promises of Scripture which assure us that God gives special grace to his people in difficult times. "You are my fortress, my refuge in times of trouble" (Ps 59:16; see also Ps 9:9, 27:5, 32:7, 41:1, 46:1, 50:15, 91:15, 107:6, 138:7).

With time and practice we can learn to focus our thinking in such optimistic directions. We should remind ourselves of these principles often and call them to mind whenever we're inclined to worry that someone is ill-disposed toward us.

Sharpen your people skills. There is a further point to remember which helps greatly to reduce feelings of paranoia. We each have far more ability to defuse negative feelings others have toward us than we usually assume. What if we're right?--someone is angry or frustrated with us. That doesn't mean we're powerless to do anything to improve the situation. This person may be more open to dialogue with us than we think. A sensitive, affirming response to them may do wonders to change their feelings and resolve the problem.

Anything we do to improve our skills with people can reduce our tendency to worry about what they think, for we'll be more confident we can handle problems that arise. It's the belief that we're helpless in dealing with people that makes us prone to paranoid thinking. Taking a seminar or reading a book on how to better relate to people can help; getting professional counsel can benefit us as well. We should take whatever steps we can to reduce any sense of being a victim--in relating to people or in any area of life.

Move ahead in spite of your fears. During my years of resource ministry I've spoken on many conferences for Christian groups whose theological convictions differ from mine at certain points. In the early years of this ministry I felt awkward going into these retreats, fearing that confrontational situations would arise. Yet in over twenty years of conference speaking this has rarely happened. In most cases people have been gracious, the conference has gone well, and what unites us has prevailed over what divides us.

These retreat experiences have been so rewarding that I've gradually grown comfortable speaking to diverse groups, and now am more inclined to expect the best than the worst. Yet it's taken time and--especially--experience to reach this point. No amount of study or reflecting could have taught me the lessons I've learned by walking these through experiences I expected to be difficult.

Phobia experts Manuel Zane and Harry Milt note that the most common fallacy people have about conquering fear is that we must overcome our apprehensions first before facing situations we dread. It never works this way, they observe. Some progress can be made by working on our thinking. Yet the point always comes when we must have some hands-on experience doing what we fear. Only then do we prove our fears to be the strawmen they really are.*

This principle applies not only to conquering phobias but to overcoming any inhibitions that hold us back--including paranoid assumptions about people. Stepping into social situations that we fear will be uncomfortable is essential to putting unreasonable apprehensions to rest.

We spend far too much of our life's energy worrying about negative reactions from people which never occur. Far too often our gloomy expectations keep us from taking important steps of faith. Through prayer and careful reflection we can begin to change our patterns of thinking and reshape our expectations into more optimistic ones. God may give us special healing as well. Yet we shouldn't assume that all apprehensions must vanish before we take difficult steps. Moving forward even with some inhibitions will be necessary, to realize our potential for Christ and to change our outlook as well.

I'm speaking of practical steps such as:

Phoning for the date

Requesting the job interview

Seeking an improvement in our job

Asking for forgiveness

Sharing our faith with someone who needs to hear about Christ

Throwing the party at our home

Asking someone to help us with a special need

Visiting the church or Sunday School class

Through the strength Christ gives us we can find the courage to take steps like these in spite of our inhibitions--and open ourselves to the fullest blessings of God.

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