July 1, 2010
 Paranoia Can
Annoy Ya

When We Worry
Too Much About
What Others Think
    
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I knew it spelled trouble. Her voice trembled and was clearly stressed. Her message on my answering tape 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 phone number meant she lived near us in Damascus. She didn’t know Evie or me personally, it appeared, since she didn’t ask for either of us by name. This can only mean one thing, I concluded: One of our boys has gotten into trouble, and she 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 phoned her back immediately, even though it was now 10:00 p.m. This time I got her answering machine. 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 conversation with this woman, I mused. That thought nagged me all morning, and then all afternoon, as I anxiously awaited her call. Why was she 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 was returning your message,” I explained, “which I assume concerns one of my boys,” and I mentioned their names. “I don’t know 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 had been looking for a pastor in the phone directory, and picked my name at random. “No,” she answered, “but I could sure use a pastor right now--my life is a mess!”

Oh.

In just several minutes, my perception of this woman and why she had phoned me turned completely around. She not only wasn’t angry with me or anyone in my family--but hadn’t been thinking about us at all! And far from wanting to scold me, she was immersed in her own problems and wanted encouragement. I had misread the cues at every point.

Although the incident took place some years ago, I well remember how I let an imaginary problem ruin my day. I could cite so many examples like it, where I found that my suspicions of what someone was thinking contrasted strongly with reality. My guess is that you can supply plenty of examples of your own. We so easily misinterpret others’ negative feelings, and make ourselves miserable in the process.

A Common Mistake

We’ve all had the experience, probably more often than we like to admit. We’ve sensed that someone was angry or hurt, then worried ourselves sick about what they were thinking. We assumed they were angry at us, intent on confronting us or hurting us. In time, we found that we hadn’t a clue about what they were really thinking. Their anguish 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 our popular adaptation of the psychiatric term, of course. Clinical paranoia 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 “the encroaching evil forces of government.” Nor do we imagine that aliens have implanted listening devices in our ears. Yet we do spend considerable energy worrying about what others think of us. We may instinctively assume that others don’t like us, even when no evidence suggests this is true. Harboring such suspicions is a serious enough problem for many of us, that it helps us to have a word for it--even if we use that term somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

The tragedy is that even this “normal” paranoia can hinder us from realizing our potential for Christ and experiencing his abundant life. Our negative assumptions about what others think can cause us to expect failure at points where God intends us to succeed. We may fail to recognize golden opportunities he’s presenting to us, in relationships, career and other areas. We need to recognize this mentality for what it is. And we need to take steps to ensure that 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, both of the extreme problem and of the more common apprehensions 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. Each of these men worried pathologically about others’ motives and intentions. Paranoiac obsession led some of them to commit heinous acts. Fear that Jesus would dethrone him, for example, impelled Herod to order all babies in Bethlehem murdered, in a frantic effort to find and kill the newborn Jesus.

Yet we also see many examples in the Bible 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 Jew. 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--long beyond the point when he likely faced any real danger in Egypt.

Throughout his time in Midian, Moses lived greatly beneath his potential, and the Israelites in Egypt were deprived of his gift of passionate leadership. He developed such deep inferiority that when God finally appeared to him in a burning bush, and told him explicitly to deliver Israel, Moses could only imagine failure and rejection. Even though God assured him emphatically that he would succeed, Moses 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).

In addition to his dread of being killed if he returned to Egypt, Moses feared that others would be repelled by his speaking style, which he perceived to be hesitant and stuttering. He was certain also that the Jews would regard him as an impostor, and not find his account of God’s appearing to him credible. These assumptions would have kept him locked in place, were it not for God’s going to exceptional lengths to prod him forward.

When Moses did venture forth and speak to the Israelites, of course, their response was radically different than 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 is to Moses’ credit that he found the resolve to respond to God’s call and return to Egypt, in spite of his extreme inhibitions. Yet if God hadn’t confronted him so dramatically, he never would have broken the inertia. We’re reminded 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 debilitating condition that always requires professional help. Yet the normal fears we all experience, about others not liking us or wanting to harm us, are a different story. They can often be dealt with through certain practical steps to change our outlook. Here are some suggestions that can 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.

Our worries about others not liking us 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--sometimes even of his friends. As Israel’s chief political leader, of course, David had many real enemies and faced plenty of 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 considerable time and energy brooding about the malicious intentions of others. 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
         slander;
     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
         lies.”
Even my close friend, whom I trusted,
     he who shared my bread,
     has lifted up his heel against me.
             (Psalm 41:5-9)

It is comforting to find this psalm revealing David’s humanity so graphically. We can take heart from his example that we’re not psychologically imbalanced just because we’re preoccupied with what others think about us. David often was, even though his relationship with God was strong, and he is one of Scripture’s most impressive role models. The apprehensions he expresses in this psalm are also more intense than those we often experience. We may rest assured that our typical fears about others mistreating 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 honestly in prayer. David states his frustrations pointedly to God in this psalm, clearly feeling comfortable doing so. He shows that we don’t have to mince words when voicing our anxieties to God. If we fear animosity from someone, we can tell God so and tell him explicitly, no matter how far-fetched our apprehensions may be.

Yet David did more than simply ventilate by praying in this fashion. He went a vital step further, affirming that he trusted God in spite of his fears. He concludes his 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 aggravation, then reaffirming his faith, in psalm after psalm.

Prayer can help us similarly when we fall into paranoid thinking. Following David’s example, we should begin by detailing our concerns frankly to God. Yet we shouldn’t stop there. We should then call to mind those facts about God and his care for us that bring us greatest comfort. We should remind ourselves of his promises--to protect us, to provide for us abundantly, and to work out an ideal plan for our life. We should dwell on assurances like these, and then in prayer, reaffirm our convictions about them. Following this approach gives God the best opportunity to strengthen our faith, calm our fears, and help us understand where our anxieties are misplaced.

Christ extends far more grace and healing to us through this process of prayer than we normally imagine. Its therapeutic value in helping us break the grip of fear is immense.

Check your thinking. Whenever we catch ourselves worrying about others being against 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 us to recall similar situations in the past when our suspicions proved mistaken. The lesson of that phone call is one I've never forgotten.

We will benefit greatly by making a habit of examining our thinking and questioning our negative assumptions. If we tend to be pessimistic in general, it’s a good rule of thumb that our conclusions are too gloomy--and we can take encouragement from knowing that! With practice, we can learn to stay more tentative in what we assume others are thinking about us, and not instinctively to 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 would like him. As president, Reagan maintained surprisingly good relationships with many political enemies.

Should we strive for such unshakable confidence personally? Well . . . if I had to choose between the extremes--between assuming everyone likes me or everyone hates me--I’d choose the former. It’s closer to a healthy attitude about relationships, and our expectations so often become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Most of us, though, simply aren’t capable of such extreme positive thinking. Besides, it’s a denial of reality. None of us, no matter how likable, will succeed in every effort we make to relate to others. We’ll experience rejection and difficult encounters from time to time. Still, there is an outlook of optimism that’s appropriate for us as Christians, and that will contribute to our success with people.

We may be confident that God desires the very best for us, and is working for our good in countless ways “behind the scenes.” We may also be assured that he desires us to enjoy significant success with people, and that he is extending his help and healing to us in this area. To worry incessantly that others are against us is a denial both of God’s love for us and of his redemptive influence in others’ lives. We’re on better ground to assume that he is bringing about encouraging developments in the situations that concern us, and to stay hopeful for happy outcomes.

We may be certain, too, that if we do have a difficult encounter with someone, God will provide us the grace to handle it. Since we can never predict exactly how God will extend grace before it happens, it’s pointless to worry ourselves sick about the specifics. We can simply trust that he will help us at the moment we need it, and help us substantially.

Another important principle of optimism is to strive to view bad experiences as aberrations rather than the norm. Too often we do the opposite. In our discouragement over someone’s insensitivity, we assume that others are equally upset with us and will also be treating us unkindly. As our anxieties fester, we begin imagining that God is angry with us, and punishing us by arousing others against us. Such is the way our ruminations grow, as we reason “from the specific to the general.”

If an unwelcome encounter with someone offers clear lessons, we should learn and benefit from it. But we shouldn’t assume it signifies a pattern of fallout in our other relationships. And in no case should we conclude that God’s hand has turned against us. To the contrary, we should call to mind promises of Scripture which assure us that God gives special grace to us 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 our worries about others’ intentions get out of hand.

Sharpen your people skills. There is a further step that 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. This doesn’t mean that we’re powerless to do anything to change the situation. This person may be more open to talking things through 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 will reduce our tendency to worry about what they think, for we’ll be confident we can handle problems that arise. It’s the belief that we’re helpless in dealing with people that makes us prone to obsess about difficult encounters occurring. Taking a seminar or reading a book on sharpening social skills can help; counseling may benefit us as well. As our confidence with people increases, our anxieties concerning them will diminish--in some cases dramatically.

Move ahead in spite of your fears. In my work with Nehemiah Ministries, I’ve often spoken to Christian groups whose theological convictions differ from mine at certain points. In the early period of this ministry, I dreaded these situations, fearing that confrontations would occur. They seldom did. In fact, in more than twenty-five years of conference speaking and lecturing, I’ve usually found that those who disagree with me are gracious, not mean-spirited. Time and again, I’ve also found that speaking events which I’ve expected to be the most challenging have been the ones where ministry most obviously seems to have occurred.

Through these events, I’ve grown comfortable speaking to diverse groups, and now am inclined to expect the best and not the worst. Yet it’s taken time and--especially--experience to reach this point. No amount of study or reflection would have changed my perspective, without my encountering these situations that I feared would be difficult.

The most common fallacy people have about conquering fear, phobia experts note, is that we can overcome our apprehensions just by changing our outlook--in advance, before we actually do the thing that frightens us. It never works that way. We can make some progress by working on our thinking. Yet facing the situation we fear is essential to finally putting our anxieties to rest.

This principle applies not only to conquering phobias but to overcoming any inhibition. Paranoid assumptions that trouble us are not likely to disappear fully until we step into the social situations we fear, and discover first-hand that our concerns are unfounded.

We spend far too much energy imagining unpleasant encounters that never occur. 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 extend special healing to us as well. Yet we shouldn’t assume that all apprehension must vanish before we go ahead and do what is challenging to us. Moving forward in spite of our inhibitions will be necessary, both to realize our potential for Christ and to master our fears.

I’m speaking of such practical steps 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 stare fear down and take steps like these--and open ourselves to the fullest blessings of God.
          

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