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Is Remote Working Making You Paranoid? 

January 20, 2022, 5-min. read
Is remote working making you paranoid?

"The online meeting with my boss in which I’m supposed to be presenting a project plan is starting soon. Yesterday afternoon, I sent an email to my colleague, asking her to send important inputs. This morning I reminded her again that I needed them urgently for the meeting. But I still haven’t gotten anything. Is she kidding me? I bet she’s doing this on purpose! She’s been undermining me from the start. I bet she will be taking the project apart at the meeting.

Finally, the email’s here… But wait… it’s a cancellation of my invite to the project plan meeting?! Well, at least I’ll have time to work it up properly. But why did they send a cancellation and not a notification that the meeting time and date changed? That’s strange, they don’t usually do it that way. Another email… The colleague is writing that she will send me what I need after her meeting with the boss. Oh! So the meeting wasn’t canceled, they’ve just not invited me. Or they canceled it so they could meet behind my back? Oh god, I hope they don’t want to sack me?"

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Does this seem familiar to you? Or a bit paranoid instead? Are you thinking that the seemingly disobliging colleague might be swamped with other tasks and that the called-off and newly scheduled meetings with the boss might be related to thousands of other topics? You’re right. Unfortunately, remote working is an environment where paranoia thrives. It usually starts very inconspicuously, in the form of mild worry or isolated thoughts. But gradually, we may fall deeper and deeper into a state where we interpret the actions and motivations of other people incorrectly as intentional or threatening toward us and we start building a parallel, fictitious reality in our heads.

Why is it easier to become paranoid while working remotely?

Of course, paranoid thoughts might cross our minds while working in the office too. However, remote work creates a lot more opportunities for this.

While isolated in our homes, we are cut off from contact with our colleagues, limited by the small number of inputs and information that can reach us. We lack opportunities for easy clarifications if we don’t know something or we aren’t sure whether we are interpreting things the right way. We don’t have the corrective experience from meeting other members of the team and normal team communication. In written communication, we might read much more between the lines or something different than the author intended. And we can even interpret the fact that we don’t have certain information the wrong way. Why and to what purpose has it been withheld from us?

Human nature tends to fill in the missing places. This helps us get our bearings in a complex world and see the big picture. But it becomes problematic if we are missing essential information. Then we tend to come up with our own conjectures instead of facts; we try to assign them meaning and intention – and very rarely of the positive kind.

At the same time, we lack feedback while working remotely. Even when we’re getting it, it’s not as rich and frequent as it is during in-person interactions.

Remote Work Paranoia

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And again. We have an impulse to fill in whatever is not said. On top of that, as soon as our thoughts give rise to some sort of negative suspicion, we selectively focus only on information that supports our suspicion and ignore the rest.

Who are the most at risk?

People with lower self-esteem give in to paranoid thoughts the most. Much sooner and faster, they start thinking that they failed and that they are incompetent and that sooner rather than later, it will all fall apart. These thoughts even have a name – the so-called impostor syndrome which we’ve already written about in our article Feeling Like a Fraud? 5+1 Steps to Overcome the Impostor Syndrome.

People who view their own status as very important and who might feel that they could lose it if they were not in the center of action might also form this sort of suspicion more easily. They quickly fall victim to thoughts that others are meeting behind their back, plotting about them and changing what was previously agreed upon. And that’s another problem with remote work. If one part of the team works remotely and another part is in the office, then the colleagues in the office truly do meet and change things without the knowledge of their remote counterparts, even if it’s not intentional or malicious. Actually, each innocuous conversation over coffee, at the copy machine, or during lunch could mean a shift in a shared project, albeit a tiny one; and it happens outside the control of others.

What also tend to accelerate paranoid thoughts are exhaustion, tiredness, and stress. And there’s plenty of that going around when working remotely – see our articles about burnout or video call exhaustion.

How can you defend yourself against suspicious thoughts?

The best prevention is diminishing the room for your own theories and opinions as much as possible. This means not supposing anything, not filling in the unknowns, but instead asking questions, verifying, and discussing things. You can even state your worries and feelings as an explanation to others, for example: “When you don’t react to my email, I wonder if it’s intentional on your side or if you’re simply swamped with work”.

The best prevention is diminishing the room for your own theories and opinions as much as possible.

If you still have worries and suspicions, try to examine them for a moment. Get them out of your head, for example, write them down on a piece of paper, and then try to figure out where they came from. What are they telling you about yourself, your needs, and your state of being? What other reasons can you think of regarding the actions and behavior of others? Try to put yourself in their shoes for a little while. Perhaps you will suddenly realize that your colleagues or boss are dealing with a lot of other things unrelated to you and that you are interpreting their comments or behavior in an unnecessarily personal way.

And as soon as you examine your worries, try to free yourself of them. Focus on your tasks and constructive actions, but also on things that strengthen your mental well-being. Concentrate on self-care and on building up your ability to handle potentially difficult situations. Look for things you did well that day and what you feel good about.

And as much as possible, leave your remote-work bubble and meet up with “actual” people.

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