The problem of confusing intuition with paranoia
Recently, a friend told me that one of his projects had turned into a nightmare. At first the client had been amiable and generous. However, over time, he had turned unfathomable and controlling – a combination my friend found vexing. He wanted to cut his losses and leave the project. “The funny thing,” he said, “is I felt something about him was off in the very first meeting. But I told myself not to be paranoid. That intuition turned out to be right after all. Why didn’t I listen to it?”
How do we differentiate between intuition and paranoia? It’s important to make the distinction. Intuition can be a very useful decision-making tool. But paranoia just clouds decision-making. And yet they both feel ‘urgent.’ For starters, let’s examine their underlying DNA.
Intuition vs. paranoia: The building blocks
The building blocks of intuition are understanding and uneasiness. The building blocks of paranoia are fear and imagination. So, intuition involves understanding something - though by instinct, and with no involvement of conscious reasoning - and hence, the uneasiness. On the other hand, paranoia is an irrational fear that is fed by the imagination. By that definition, they sound like two separate things. But, as we know, they both carry a sense of urgency that can make it hard to tell the difference. That’s where a deeper examination of feelings could help:
#1. Is it just fear (OR) fear with understanding?
Anyone who uses their intuition regularly will tell you that, underneath the urgency, intuition is accompanied by a relatively clarifying ‘flash’ of insight/understanding. This is because intuition is a rapid crystallization of relevant past experiences and knowledge, enabling us to understand the ‘essence’ of something without having to think about it too consciously. It’s similar to when you get an idea. You experience an ‘upheaval of thought.’ The difference, in the case of intuition, is that the mood surrounding the thought upheaval is anxious simply because your mind is trying to help you decide.
The anxiety needn’t deter you from the underlying message. By comparison, paranoia arrives with no clarifying insight and usually just prompts a mental carousel of anxiety-addled worst-case scenarios.
#2. Does the feeling cause you unease or engulf you?
This is probably the simplest way to tell the difference. Intuition makes you feel uneasy but your mind can still function quite well. Paranoia engulfs you in a wave of panic and muddles your ability to think. The former is like that urgent but tiny noise coming off of your car console, reminding you the seat belt is not on. The latter is like a fire alarm – shrill, continuous, and urging you to fight/flee.
#3. Is the feeling in your gut or in your mind?
Intuition can be felt in the gut, recalling the classic phrase, ‘gut instinct.’ This signal to the gut is sent by the brain after the subconscious observes two or three things about the person/situation and then tries to connect the dots – but is unable to do so just yet. As it fiddles with the dots, it sends a message to your gut: “Something’s not right here, we’re working it out, meanwhile be on your guard.” On the other hand, paranoia has no gut manifestation. It springs from your mind (the hind brain, seat of reptilian panic), throws up dreadful mental images, and sends your body into panic mode.
There are grey areas of course. If you’re an anxious person, you can read intuition as paranoia. If you’re in an emergency, you may find it hard to differentiate between the two. Perhaps the way to hone your skill is to calmly check in with our feelings. Ask yourself: What am I feeling? An incomplete, uneasy sense of understanding (OR) panic that’s sending my imagination into overdrive? Depending on your response, hopefully you can sort out whether you’re being guided by intuition or paranoia – and make a more informed decision!