On paranoia

Published on 5 February 2023 at 14:11


We are a paranoid species. And it is not difficult to see why. Our earliest experiences of suffering and agony set the stage for a paranoid view of the world, and it is only love that transcends and heals this basic stance. Yet love itself can feel fragile and fickle, we can feel that love’s illusion has shattered, and then once again we return to paranoia. Excessive paranoia is dysfunctional, but, equally, an inability to be appropriately paranoid can compromise our perception of reality.

Let us consider our origins. Winnicott (1949) wrote: “Observation of many infants in my clinic gives me the impression that a severe paranoid basis can be present immediately after birth.” (p 184). He gave the example of a dream of a patient diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, prompted by reading Otto Rank’s book The Trauma of Birth: “She dreamed that she was under a pile of gravel. Her whole body at the surface was extremely sensitive to a degree which it is hardly possible to imagine. Her skin was burned, which seemed to her to be her way of saying that it was extremely sensitive and vulnerable. She was burned all over. She knew that if anyone came and did anything at all to her, the pain would be just impossible to bear, both physical and mental pain. She knew of the danger that people would come and take the gravel off and do things to her in order to cure her, and the situation was intolerable. She emphasized that with this were intolerable feelings comparable to those which belonged to her suicide attempt. ‘You just can't bear anything any longer. It's the awfulness of having a body at all, and the mind that's just had too much.” (p 184).

As Winnicott’s patient vividly conveys, the infant is born into a world of pain and unbearable suffering. The skin is highly sensitive, and is exposed to insults of temperature, and a variety of painful impingements. At one time it was the convention to welcome the new-born with a smack in order to provoke crying and stimulate breathing. The infant will in some primitive way process this entry into pain as in some way a betrayal, a sudden withdrawal of the womb of protection that previously prevailed. Being conceived and born may be perceived as an act of malice. We see this regularly in the way that slightly older children will convey an expectation that it is the parents’ responsibility to protect them from pain – and moreover that it is within their capacity to do so. “Why didn’t you catch me?”, a five-year-old yelled reproachfully at her father. If something is wrong, it is the parents’ fault. Therefore, a child will always feel betrayed by the mother (and, to a lesser extent, the father), and may hold a long-term grievance against her, because the baby is born into this world of pain. No matter how strong and dedicated the mother’s love might be, it can never protect the child from pain. And if the mother is overprotective, the child will feel an additional later sense of betrayal through feeling unprepared for the harshness of the wider world. Moreover, because the child’s perception is egocentric, also in fantasy perceiving the parents as omnipotent, he or she will always tend to feel, unconsciously if not consciously, that the frustrations and pain of life are intended by the parents.

A child will also feel betrayed by the mother because she gives her time and affection to the father (or other partner). The child is excluded from the fantasised ‘primal scene’, in which the parents exchange endless gratifications all through the night. Thus the mother, whose body the infant once inhabited, is unfaithful, bestowing her favours on the hated rival father. And yet the father is loved and needed as the structuring and law-giving function, protecting the child from re-engulfment by the mother (Mollon, 1993). Failures in these areas of structure, law, and protection are perceived as the father’s fault. The father’s prohibition forms the basis of the internal structuring and organising function of the superego, as Freud (1924) described – but often, perhaps particularly in current societal patterns, this ‘law of the father’ function fails, is not internalised, but is feared as a foreclosed and formless menace that will in some unspecified way threaten from without (Lacan, 1977). In this way, the archetypal image of a vengeful and capricious God-the-Father is formed.

In addition, the child will realise that the parents are dishonest. They may tell ‘white lies’, such as the story of ‘Father Christmas’, or give misleading responses to enquiries about where babies come from, or unhelpfully sugar-coated answers to painful questions about loss, death, and safety. They make promises they cannot keep. And they may tell the child that something is for his or her own good when it clearly is not. In all these many and diverse ways, the child learns that the parents (the ‘government’) are not to be trusted.

Klein (1946) described the infant’s world as characterised by a struggle to make sense of the coexistence of states of pleasure and pain: sometimes feelings of being held and of life being supported, and at other times the state of disintegration and the agony of a soul torn in pieces. These contrasting experiences give rise to splitting of mental states, and also primitive fantasies of projecting and expelling the terror, rage, and pain. The world is then felt to be a horrifying mirror of the infant’s own inner state of fury and horror. From the Kleinian perspective, this state that she called the paranoid-schizoid position is fundamental and natural. It is overcome only by the presence of the mother’s love that titrates exposure to pain. The energy of love creates a holding field that facilitates the infant’s recognition and acceptance that the mother who fails in her ‘duties’ is also the one who loves and nurtures – and thus the processes of mental integration are facilitated.

However, not all mothers and fathers are loving. Some are overtly abusive. This is difficult for the child to perceive. As Jennifer Freyd (1996) argued in the excellent book Betrayal Trauma, when a potential perception of betrayal threatens a primary attachment bond, dissociative cognitive barriers will be created to ward off the dangerous perception. The child will fail to perceive the parental malevolence. This blocking of truthful perception occurs not only between a child and parents, but also in relation to later parental authorities and leaders. Severe betrayal trauma can contribute to psychosis (Gomez, et al., 2014).

Paranoia, the capacity to be suspicious, has an important evolutionary survival function – but for the reasons just described, healthy paranoia is often compromised. Most people are not equipped to detect and protect themselves from the predatory and deceptive psychopath. Partly this is because most people are not psychopaths and cannot understand the minds and motives of those who are. Psychopaths are inherently deceptive. They are often charming and skilful in evoking trust and liking. Although lacking true empathy, they can be adept at mimicking this in the service of manipulation and control of others. Their motives are usually based around predatory exploitation of others for purposes of power. These, when combined with high intelligence, make such persons well-equipped to achieve positions of power and control in organisations and government. They are capable of what others may regard as evil since they are not restrained by feelings of guilt or genuine empathy.

There is one further source of human paranoia that is important to mention. We are born into a world of culture and language that pre-exists our arrival. Language has a paranoid function in the human psyche. We must find our place in the linguistic world. In order to function in society, we must have a name, a date of birth, a nationality, and an address, and we must relate to others who are similarly linguistically and culturally coordinated. As children we learn our ‘identity’, we are given a name, and told who we are, and what and how to think and believe. This language and associated cultural programming hijack our minds like a computer virus. It determines what is acceptable to our conscious mind, as well as to the wider group. The controlling programmes of the mind are implicit rather than conscious and explicit. We are not aware of the software! When the programming is exceptionally dysfunctional, such as that found in religions that have twisted any original spiritual truth – like that, for example, in the two tribes in Northern Ireland whose religious indoctrination combines love with extreme repression and hatred of natural feelings and desires – then the inner oppression will be projectively perceived as external and located in the other group. The two groups will fight each other, each feeling the other is the source of oppression.

What can energy psychotherapy offer in relation to these problems of excessive or insufficient paranoia? All the areas described here can be targeted. In many energy psychology modalities, we use succinct words to tune the mind-body-energy system to the target issue whilst engaging the energy system to clear the errant emotional coding. Thus, we can use words and phrases such as:

  • My birth into pain
  • All the times and ways I felt betrayed by my mother/father
  • All the times and ways I felt insufficiently protected during my early life
  • All the times and ways I felt one or both parents deliberately hurt me
  • All the times and ways I felt one or both parents told me lies
  • All the times and ways I felt my father failed to provide structure, rules, and protection
  • All the times and ways I refused to accept limits, rules, and structure
  • All the times and ways I could bear to see how my parents neglected or deliberately harmed me.
  • All the times and ways I was too trusting and was hurt as a result

During the process of working through these areas, specific incidents are likely to come to mind. These can then be targeted in more detail, exploring not only what happened but all the ramifications of meaning. We can also request a ‘download’ of missing structures and functions – using modalities such as Ask and Receive or Blue Diamond Healing.

A good outcome of such work is the ability to see the world with love - and to see deception and malevolence, but still with love and compassion. For the psychopaths are in the deepest hell, even if their awareness of such is continually warded off.

Phil Mollon

Psychoanalyst and Energy Psychotherapist


Freud, S. (1924) The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud 19:171-180

Freyd, J. (1996). Betrayal Trauma: The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Gomez, J; Kaehler, L; Freyd, J. (2014). "Are Hallucinations Related to Betrayal Trauma Exposure? A Three-Study Exploration". Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. 6 (6): 675–682

Klein, M. (1946). Notes on some schizoid mechanisms. In Envy and Gratitude. The Writings of Melanie Klein, III. London. Hogarth. 1975.

Lacan, J. (1977). Ecrits. London. Tavistock.

Mollon, P. (1993). The Fragile Self. The Structure of Narcissistic Disturbance. London. Whurr.

Winnicott, D.W. (1949. Birth memories, birth trauma, and anxiety. In: Through Paediatrics to Psycho-Analysis. Published by Hogarth, London. 1975. 173-193.