We all experience mistrust sometimes, and for good reason – we’re wired for survival. Mild suspicion of people we don’t know well and interpersonal sensitivity are exceedingly common experiences while out and out paranoia, or the unrealistic “belief that another person is, or is planning, to intentionally cause one harm” (Kingston et. al., 2019) is rarer. Yet, even in its milder forms, chronic social mistrust and discomfort is correlated with greater isolation, loneliness, depression and anxiety. It can result in a pattern of defensiveness, difficulty relaxing, and reluctance to forgive.
While social discomfort is a common source of suffering for individuals, it also has major implications for society at large. Trust is an essential element of social capital, which is a key contributor to collective wellbeing measured in various ways by think tanks such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Pew Research Center, and the World Values Survey. Research indicates social capital is currently at an all time low in many places in the world. According to metrics, Americans’ trust in the US government and one another is in decline. Fortunately, the inner and outer work of mindfulness can help us clarify our experience and course correct. The beneficial consequences of these insights decrease our own suffering and ripple out into our relationships. Now, thanks to technology, these ripple effects have the potential to be further reaching and more rapidly proliferating in their contributions to the greater good.
Fear of Rejection
Because we’re social creatures dependent on an interconnected support network, concerns about rejection are understandable – there was a time when rejection from community meant certain death. Many of us consider ourselves “conflict avoidant” because of a fear of disappointing others or being disliked. A fair number of us have a hard time reaching out to get to know people unless we feel pretty confident we’ll be welcomed and accepted. It can be especially hard for people who have been deeply harmed by others to open up and make themselves vulnerable, even with those they know well. People who struggle with intimacy often feel lonely, disconnected, unseen and unheard, or at odds with others.
This fear of rejection can make it less likely that we’ll step outside our comfort zones, connect across difference, and encounter new perspectives and ways of being. Avoidance of the unfamiliar causes us to miss out on the richness and fullness of the human experience, limiting opportunities for learning, and further entrenching a false sense of separation that lies at the root of many of the world most challenging problems.
Fear of Being Judged
Some folks worry quite a bit about being scrutinized or judged in social situations. In a culture that elevates competition and individual exceptionalism, everyone becomes a potential foe. And when we suspect we might be on the losing side of life’s competition, the resulting shame or embarrassment magnifies this worry in a sort of feedback loop.
The “spotlight effect”, a psychological term that describes our tendency to vastly overestimate how much others notice and think about us, can make us overly self-conscious. Since we use our own experience as an anchor for meaning making (self-referencing), we tend to believe others are aware of our inner experience or share our perspective much more often than they actually do. This can place a false sense of pressure on us to perform and to make ourselves “beyond reproach”, making social interactions a lot of work.
When feelings of being judged and scrutinized are very distressing or disabling, we call it Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD). The World Mental Health Survey Initiative found that SAD is most prevalent in high income countries, with the US having the highest lifetime prevalence. Perhaps this is because we have a habit of making social comparisons within the context of competitiveness and a relatively high level of social inequality. Fearing being judged, we may confine ourselves to our familiar home base, wear a mask to disguise our feeling of inadequacy, or develop a prickly exterior to keep people at a distance.
Fear of Being Harmed
We are hard wired to detect and avoid or subdue threats to our survival. A negativity bias ensures that the unexamined mind will preference data that indicates potential problems or danger over data that is neutral or positive.
An abundance of exposure to bad news or a history of being misused or abused (even across generations) can contribute to cynicism about human nature and wariness of other people’s intentions. We may get the sense that we have to perpetually stay on the alert for potential mistreatment, making it a habit to hold our cards close lest others use them against us. We may even begin to see ourselves as a target for others’ self-dealing purposes.
Complex trauma, negative ideas about self and others, anxiety, and depression, are known risk factors for paranoid thinking (Fowler et al., 2006; Freeman, 2007). For those who have been historically marginalized, terrorized and even exterminated by groups of people, or who are surviving within dangerous contexts, can carry personal and/or intergenerational trauma that makes distrust of members of the threatening or offending group a rational and necessary response.
Collective Social Fear
Paranoia, like other human emotions and experiences, can be contagious. Wikipedia offers a list of cases of “mass hysteria” since the Middle Ages that’s very interesting to explore. When paranoid ideation happens en masse, some incredibly harmful behavior can result. Some more recent examples in history include the Salem Witch Trials of the 1600s and the Red and Lavender Scare of the 1950s. The so called Satanic Panic of the 1980s resulted in thousands of allegations of ritual abuse and the longest and most expensive criminal case of its kind at the time in the US – yet, there has been no substantiation to date of the existence of well-organized satanic cults abusing children in the US. Some feel that QAnon conspiracy theories are just another iteration of this age old example of social contagion.
How Mindfulness Can Help
A well-examined mind can choose a reasoned response to fear over instinct and impulse when appropriate. Through the dedicated practice of mindfulness we can increase wise social trust and decrease unnecessary social anxiety in a number of ways:
- being mindful of our emotions and body sensations as they arise helps us attend to them skillfully before they spiral out of control
- mindfulness and self-compassion are correlated – research suggests people high in self-compassion tend to have lower rates of social anxiety (Werner, et. al. 2012)
- mindfulness is correlated with better emotional regulation, including the self-conscious emotions (such as shame-proneness) that tend to contribute to social anxiety
- trust is one of the interdependent fundamental attitudes cultivated through mindfulness according to Jon Kabat-Zinn
- neuropsychological research indicates brain processes associated with self-referential thinking are attenuated through mindfulness practice (Goldin, Ramel, & Gross, 2009)
- mindfulness is correlated with increased compassion, which equalizes self and other and helps expand our caring and kindness beyond their typical boundaries
- mindfulness is correlated with decreased stress and reactivity – we build a wider window of tolerance and greater resilience to stressful experiences
Even between you and me, even there, the lines are only of our own making. – Donella Meadows, Lines in the Mind, Not in the World
Bebbington, P., McBride, O., Steel, C. et al. (2013). The structure of paranoia in the general population. British Journal of Psychiatry, 202(6), 419-427.
Freeman, D. (2007). Suspicious minds: The psychology of persecutory delusions. Clinical Psychology Review 27; 425–457.
Goldin, P., Ramel, W., & Gross, J. (2009). Mindfulness Meditation Training and Self-Referential Processing in Social Anxiety Disorder: Behavioral and Neural Effects. Journal of cognitive psychotherapy, 23(3), 242–257.
Kingston, J., Lassman, F., Matias, C. et al. (2019). Mindfulness and Paranoia: A Cross-Sectional, Longitudinal and Experimental Analysis. Mindfulness 10, 2038–2045.
Werner, K. H., Jazaieri, H., Goldin, P. R., Ziv, M., Heimberg, R. G., & Gross, J. J. (2012). Self-compassion and social anxiety disorder. Anxiety, stress, and coping, 25(5), 543–558.