The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


The room goes quiet as you enter. Schoolkids at the bus stop laugh as you go past. That important envelope has been opened. There are strange clicks on the phone. The heart thumps, the palms sweat and the world shifts a gear. Someone is out to get you.

Or are they?

Everyone, at one time or another, has suspected they’re being undermined, or that some innocent comment has a veiled meaning. When we speak of feeling (rather than being) paranoid, it’s this double uncertainty we’re trying to capture. It’s not just that we might feel suspicious of other people’s motives. We’re not sure whether we can trust our own either.*

The word “paranoia” first came into medical literature in the fifth century BCE, when the Greek physician Hippocrates noted that patients suffering from fever often became delirious. He used the word—from the Greek para (beside) nous (the mind)—to describe their outbursts. In the mid-eighteenth century, as the old diagnosis of melancholia faded away, doctors revived paranoia to describe the misperceptions and hallucinations of an “alienated mind” (see: MELANCHOLY). It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that paranoia took on its modern meaning, which linked it to frequently ingenious persecutory fantasies. Inspired in part by the memoirs of a German judge named Daniel Schreber, who believed that God, in league with his psychiatrist, was trying to turn him into a woman using special rays emanating from the walls, a new generation of psychiatrists recategorized paranoia from a temporary neurotic (or emotional) illness to a permanent psychotic disorder characterized by severe delusions.

Many words originally used to describe extreme psychiatric conditions have made their way into our workaday emotional vocabulary: we talk of our feelings of depression or ANXIETY or CLAUSTROPHOBIA. Within a few decades of its invention as an illness connected with fantasies of persecution, the word “paranoia” began to be used more widely. Those who were unduly suspicious, or quick to assume others were trying to undermine or humiliate them, were called paranoid. Some writers thought it evidence of a suffocated and conventional mind: “There is nothing,” wrote Vladimir Nabokov in 1957, “more banal and more bourgeois than paranoia” (see also: JEALOUSY). As tensions between America and the Soviet Union escalated into the Cold War, it became common to speak of paranoia exacerbating hostility on a global scale. In newspapers, leaders were characterized as twitchy and defensive, their emotions obscuring reason and making them quick to oppress or attack. Paranoia might have seemed petty and suburban to Nabokov, but at one stage it looked like it might be responsible for blowing up the entire world.

Today, paranoia is believed to be on the rise. We live in one of the least dangerous epochs in human history, far less likely to die from being bludgeoned by a neighbor or eaten by an animal than our ancestors. Yet we appear to be more suspicious than ever that others are out to hurt us. The psychologist Daniel Freeman, who has studied the rise in paranoia among passengers on the London underground since the bombings of July 2005, believes our “fear culture” has contributed to an unjustified nervousness about threat (see: FEAR). He’s probably right. But does reminding oneself that you’re being irrational and deluded always soothe paranoid thoughts? Sometimes it makes them worse, eroding our ability to trust in other people and ourselves. What would happen if we took the content of our paranoid fantasies not less seriously, but more?

The two illnesses now most associated with paranoia are schizophrenia and dementia. It might, however, be rather too simple to dismiss patients’ reports of persecution as merely the disordered efflorescence of a diseased mind. Psychoanalysts tend to credit paranoiac fantasies with more meaning, often seeing them as a way of managing aspects of our own lives that we cannot tolerate. If you’re aging and live alone, and your children rarely visit, it may in fact be preferable to believe the FBI is screening your phone calls than the alternative—that no one cares very much about you at all (see: LONELINESS). Perhaps it’s more bearable to think that someone at work is deliberately holding you back than that your efforts aren’t good enough, or easier on you to believe your partner is having an affair than confront the loss of intimacy in your relationship. Instead of reproaching ourselves, and each other, for “just being paranoid,” taking our fears seriously might help us tease out what’s really bothering us.

This more open attitude toward paranoia has been embraced in a range of pioneering medical treatments. If your grandmother confides in you that the nurses are stealing her photographs, it might simply be that her hearing aid is broken. Most of us feel more paranoid when we can’t quite understand what is being said, for example in a foreign country where we don’t speak the language. But sometimes there might be something more complex going on. Penny Garner, who became interested in dementia after caring for her own mother, has argued that some of the apparently paranoid stories people experiencing dementia relay to their carers are better understood as the patient’s attempt to use past experiences to make sense of their disorienting present ones. Garner suggests entering into the spirit of some of these stories rather than disputing them, in order to create a gentler, more supportive experience for both patients and their carers.

To be suffering from the early stages of dementia is to experience frequently alarming confusion. But all of us have to deal with ambiguity in our daily lives, and this is where suspicion really thrives (see: UNCERTAINTY). Perhaps our tendency to flesh out half-heard whispers with double meanings and malign intentions is evidence of a poor self-image. But perhaps paranoid feelings most remind us of the continual challenge that we all face living in a world that won’t always reveal itself clearly (“only the paranoid survive”). This, and one of the most extraordinary aspects of human imagination: apophenia—being able to see meaningful connections where there are none, as when a person can make links between random words, or sees weeping faces in the clouds.