by Melody Wilding, April 28, 2021
Martina paced the floor next to her desk. Chewing her fingernails, her mind raced with worries. It’s been three hours since I emailed senior leadership, and no one has responded. They must think I missed the mark on the strategy proposal. I bet they’re messaging each other mocking me.
Despite her inner turmoil, Martina had little evidence to substantiate her concerns. She had recently been promoted to vice president of her division after several glowing performance reviews.
Nevertheless, Martina found herself consumed by paranoia — a state of fear in which a person misinterprets ambiguous situations, seeing negative meanings, and potential threats. In other words, paranoia causes you to irrationally scrutinize yourself and the behavior of others. You become hypervigilant, on the lookout for disapproval or rejection that there’s no concrete proof for.
Paranoia can lead you to fill in the blanks when someone doesn’t respond to an email or message, assuming it’s because your work isn’t up to snuff. When a colleague is looped into a project, perhaps you worry they’ll take over versus welcoming teamwork. And maybe when your boss asks you not to attend a meeting, it’s because she doesn’t believe in you rather than an effort to protect your time.
Even before the pandemic, remote employees were already more likely to report feeling left out and unsupported. But now, with increased isolation, higher workloads, and more stress than ever before, it’s no wonder why paranoia continues to rise. This is especially true for those who identify as a sensitive striver — a high-achiever who processes the world more deeply. Under stress, your natural perceptiveness can morph into overthinking and self-doubt.
Specifically, it can be hard to interpret body language, facial expressions, and the nuances of feedback from a distance. And spending time alone in your home office can render you stuck in your own head, replaying mental loops. Without the reassurance and informal nods of approval you experience in an office environment, it’s easy for negativity to run rampant.
While remote work does pose difficulties, it’s entirely possible to take your power back from paranoia. Here are a few ways to stop irrational suspicion in its track and get back to what you do best — delivering results.
Make expectations explicit.
To head off erroneous assumptions and misinterpretations, proactively set expectations with your manager, colleagues, and stakeholders around communication style, how decisions will be made, and even touchy subjects like how to handle conflicts and differences of opinion.
Let’s say you and a colleague agree on when and how their input will be delivered on a project. You find out this person is very conscientious and detail oriented. You also agree that you’re looking for fine-grain comments at this stage. Because you’ve already calibrated your expectations, you’re less likely to jump to conclusions and assume you’ve done something wrong or that they’re out to get you when you get a document back with a lot of red lining.
One way to make expectations explicit is through a list of formal team working agreements that specify guidelines for positive collaboration (reply to messages within 24 hours, listen with an open mind, speak on behalf of yourself, etc.). Another tool is to complete a “user manual” that outlines factors like your work hours, how you learn best, and things you struggle with.
Beware of scope creep.
Paranoia can lead you to people-please and overextend yourself. In an effort to stay relevant and in the loop, you may say “yes” to sitting in on every meeting, even if it doesn’t require your participation. You may find yourself overly involved in initiatives to maintain an illusion of control. After all, no one can pull something past you if you’re omnipresent. But this mindset is a surefire path to burnout.
A first step to reversing this trend is auditing your schedule. Look for meetings you can eliminate or cancel. Consider delegating attendance to a direct report or collaborator who can take notes and report back to you. Cutting the cord in this way should feel uncomfortable. If it does, then you’re on the right track to improving your tolerance for ambiguity and changing your relationship with fear.
Depersonalize others’ actions.
If you’re a sensitive striver, then your empathy levels are likely off the charts. That level of emotional depth can be both a gift and a burden. On the one hand, you’re skilled at sensing others’ needs and probably have a strong pulse on morale. But on the flip side, you might take other people’s behavior too personally. You might misread a throwaway comment as an insult, for example.
The next time you find yourself gripped by paranoia, channel your empathic powers for good. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and ask what might be leading to their reaction. What’s the most generous interpretation of their behavior?
Martina used this strategy when her manager seemed upset about a lack of progress on a deliverable. Instead of getting upset, she stepped into her manager’s shoes and explored what else might be going on. She quickly realized that her manager’s reaction wasn’t because of Martina making a mistake or performing poorly. Rather, it was because her manager was drained and irritable after a long day or juggling work and parenting.
Compartmentalize your anxieties.
Without proper boundaries, paranoia can bleed into your personal hours. In fact, four out of five workers currently find it hard to “shut off” in the evenings. This statistic underscores why it’s essential to mentally disconnect and detach from worries at the end of the day.
A favorite strategy of my clients’ is one I call “the backpack.” In your mind’s eye, put stressful situations from your day into an imaginary backpack that you shrug off and leave in the corner of your home office overnight. Alternatively, if you prefer to make this exercise concrete, draw a rectangle on paper and scribble down your concerns. Tear up the paper and throw it away, symbolically disconnecting from the day as you do.
While being vigilant and attuned to goings-on at work can be a competitive advantage, if taken too far, it can devolve into paranoia and paralyze you. With the right effort, you can manage your mind more effectively, even amid the challenges remote work poses.