Paranoia is when someone experiences an external threat that is not based on reality. Such a person could in a very extreme case believe that a terrorist is out to kill them by poisoning their food, but it can also take on a much milder form like believing that your partner is attracted to another person (when this is not the truth). A person must be very cautious when deciding that someone is paranoid and make sure that their experience of external threat is not perhaps realistic. It is possible that someone is being followed or targeted. Paranoid people do not easily trust strangers. They are also very vulnerable to envy, but handle it by believing that others are envious of them. This is typical of how they disown their own negative feelings (in this case envy) and then believe that others feel that feeling (e.g. envy). Paranoid people do have the capacity to love and they form strong attachments.
The very essence of paranoia is a mechanism called projection. This means that paranoid people are not conscious of their own negative feelings (envy, aggression, lust), their own unacceptable (yet, very normal) feelings are experienced as belonging to another person. A paranoid person projects his/her negative feelings (envy, aggression, lust) onto others. They experience the source of threat to be outside themselves (disowning their own impulses or feelings). An example of this mechanism is a man who has fantasies of infidelity and ends up believing that his wife is very attracted to other men. Another example is a person who cannot own his/her own aggression and believes that someone will hurt them in some way. Paranoid people tend to have high levels of unacknowledged guilt – they unconsciously feel they are bad, but they project this (their own sense of guilt about their own feeling of badness) and then believe that others will be very critical and will humiliate them. Clearly they do not know that the negative feelings they assume others to feel are really their own feelings. These people make use of a high level of denial of their own destructive feelings to the level where they are not aware of these feelings in themselves and believe that others are feeling these feelings.
In some families where children later become paranoid, one of the parents are domineering, hard and rigid. Often these people experience childhoods where their parents are not easily pleased, tend to be critical and these children experience feeling humiliated and ridiculed for normal feelings and weaknesses. Another experience that is typical in families where people tend to be paranoid is that their normal emotional reactions to reality were never confirmed. In the light of this, the paranoid person’s struggle to figure out what is really going on can be understood.
Paranoid people can be very perceptive about the emotional states and feelings of others, but often misunderstand the meaning of what they experience. They tend to interpret the other person’s emotions as very personal, e.g. when someone is irritated when serving them in a shop they might not consider that the person is just having a bad day (instead they could feel personally attacked). At their core their self-esteem tends to be fragile.
What makes paranoia so difficult to deal with is that the person is truly not conscious of their own destructive feelings (anger, lust, hate, greed, envy) and truly believes that another person feels this in a way that will threaten the paranoid person. The real difficulty for these people is to become conscious of their own negative feelings and to own them.