Do you sometimes feel that everyone is against you? That the world has it in for you? Or that people are out to get you? You could be suffering from a persecution complex.
Those statements might sound pretty outrageous, and to most of us, they are. However, did you know that according to research, at least 10 – 15% of us regularly experience these kinds of delusions?
Of course, we all get paranoid thoughts and feelings of persecution occasionally. It’s easy to blame outside forces when things don’t go our way. But for some people, it is a pervasive way of thinking that severely disrupts their life.
So what exactly is this complex?
What is a persecution complex?
This complex arises when a person falsely believes that someone is out to cause them harm. The intensity and longevity of these feelings can differ, as can the object of the paranoia.
For example, an employee can believe the whole office staff is against her and deliberately undermining her chances of promotion. Or an individual can think they are being persecuted by government agents who are trying to frame them for crimes they did not commit.
Examples of persecution complexes:
- My husband is trying to poison me because he has a new lover and wants me out of the way.
- I know the police are tapping my phones.
- I have to go to the self-service tills because the shop assistants have been told not to serve me.
- My neighbours are stealing my washing from the line while I’m at work.
In all examples, sufferers believe that either a person, group of people or an organisation is going to cause them harm.
Sufferers from a persecution complex will typically talk in vague terms. They will say ‘They’re out to get me’ or ‘Someone’s listening to my calls’. However, when pressed further they are unable to identify the perpetrator.
So where does this delusion come from and who is likely to suffer from it?
Where does a persecution complex come from?
Sufferers share three common aspects in the way they think, feel and then act. To understand this complex further we need to examine three main human behavioural processes:
- Emotional processing
- Abnormal internal events
- Reasoning biases
1. Emotional processing
Studies show that those who suffer from this complex tend to think with more emotion when it comes to their social experiences. They view their interactions with others through an emotional lens, rather than a logical one.
As a result, sufferers get upset at everyday occurrences and react with more impulsivity. The main problem, however, with viewing everyday incidents through an emotional lens is that a sufferer will attribute greater meaning to non-events.
2. Abnormal internal events
Emotional processing is just one aspect of a persecution complex. The second is that sufferers misconstrue what is happening to them externally in the environment.
In order for them to rationalise what’s going on in their heads, they’ll fixate on something outside of them. For example, a person with anxiety might attribute their anxious state because they believe they are being watched.
Or someone who has been ill recently might believe they are being slowly poisoned. In all cases, they attribute their internal thoughts to outside events.
3. Reasoning biases
Studies have found that persecution complexes are perpetuated by cognitive biases. In other words, sufferers are likely to use biases when they think. For instance, jumping to conclusions, black and white thinking and blaming other people instead of themselves.
For example, someone who jumps to conclusions might view the black car that is driving up and down their road as a government spy. Those with normal reasoning might just assume the driver was lost.
Who is more likely to suffer?
As well as the above three common traits, there are other commonalities that sufferers may share.
Childhood trauma – Psychosis and paranoia can be linked to neglect, abuse and trauma in childhood.
Genetics – Delusional thinking is more common in those who already have a family member suffering from a psychosis such as schizophrenia.
Low self-worth – People with a low sense of self-worth, who are vulnerable to criticism and have little self-esteem are more likely to succumb to paranoid delusions.
Overly-critical of themselves – Research has shown that those who are overly critical of themselves can suffer from a persecution complex.
Worriers – Those with a persecution complex have a tendency to worry and ruminate more than the average person. They’ll also catastrophize and fantasise about implausible outcomes.
Over-sensitive – People with paranoid delusions can appear oversensitive to criticism from others. They are more likely to perceive a light-hearted comment as a personal attack on them.
Treatment of a persecution complex
Treating this delusion will vary according to the overriding symptoms and underlying causes.
- Learning to control the original anxiety can reduce the feelings of persecution.
- Recognising one’s thought patterns, such as catastrophizing and black and white thinking can increase feelings of paranoia.
- Learning to reduce time spent worrying will decrease the likelihood of a paranoid episode.
- Addressing past trauma from childhood can lead to significant reductions in symptoms.
- Cognitive-behavioural therapy can help sufferers reduce their negative thought patterns.
Living with a persecution complex is not only surprisingly common but can be extremely debilitating. However, treatments are available and you can, with professional help, learn to manage the symptoms.
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