I’ve been teaching safety and self-defense for over 25 years, and if I had a dime for every student who in some way labeled themselves “paranoid,” even in a semi-joking sort of way, I’d now be retired. In luxury.
What is being paranoid? I’m not a psychologist, and I’m not going to give a technical definition. In colloquial terms, when people say they’re “just being paranoid,” generally they mean they feel something is amiss but can’t think of a good rational reason why. So they must be paranoid, right?
It’s always been intriguing to me that when people think about taking precautions when interacting with others they don’t know all that well, it feels off. Odd. Uncomfortable. Un-natural. Unreasonable. Even pathological. Like we SHOULD just trust other people, and there’s something wrong with us if we don’t.
In fact, most of the time we do just that, we trust others. We pass people on the street all the time, and rarely does anything odd, let along bad, happen. We go into stores, cafes, and offices, and the vast majority of the time it’s just another routine day. Maybe we say hi to the cashier at the grocery store, or we chat with our neighbors when we get home. Another familiar typical day.
Familiarity does lead us to a sort of complacency, a set of expectations that it’s the same as it ever was.
Think back to a time when you sensed something amiss, and did nothing. What happened? Were you OK with the outcome?
Think back to a time when you sensed something amiss, and did something to change that interaction’s trajectory. What happened? Were you OK with the outcome?
Gavin De Becker’s whole premise in his book The Gift of Fear, is that we should listen to these feelings! They are telling us something important. De Becker lists several “feelings” that he calls messengers of intuition: nagging feelings, persistent thoughts, humor, wonder, anxiety, curiosity, hunches, gut feelings, doubt, hesitation, suspicion, apprehension, and fear (p. 74 of the NY: Dell Publishing, 1997 edition).
Interpreting those messages can be a challenge: are we facing someone who is looking to exploit us, are we misunderstanding someone else’s sense of appropriate, are we caving in to stereotypes and prejudice? De Becker also lists seven “survival signals,” specific behaviors that should cause concern: 1) forced teaming, 2) charm and niceness, 3) too many details, 4) typecasting, 5) emotional loansharking, 6) unsolicited promises, and 7) ignoring your NO. This is Chapter 4.
Several of my students talked about their processes in tackling that challenge.
One was just finishing college and about to travel. Over the summers she’d return home to Seattle, and to earn money she worked at Pike Place Market selling cherries. Most people wandering through the market that time of year were tourists, who may not have NEEDED cherries but could be persuaded. She found herself on the front side of the counter, and quickly learned by peoples’ body language and tone of voice which might be interested in cherries and which might be more interested in just chatting, or getting free cherries, or hooking up.
Another’s job was literally online, she created the backend of user interfaces. She could work from anywhere in the world, as long as there was a high speed internet connection. So she lived in various European countries for months at a time, in Bali, in eastern Africa, India, Malaysia, all over. First, though, she laid groundwork. She spent a lot of time on mass transit, cafes, and in public venues. She eavesdropped and people-watched. She looked for body language in interactions, tones of voice, distances between bodies in different situations, and the trajectory of the interactions. As the great American sage Yogi Berra is said to have said, you can observe a lot just by watching. And she got good at identifying “red flags” and feeling confident in choosing appropriate actions.
These two did not feel in the least paranoid. Because they prepared for being more active participants in living on their own terms.
Stay safe, live life.