It began with a simple email to a colleague. We’d never met before as he worked in a different state, but I needed to reach out with a question related to work. Our email exchange was surprisingly pleasant as we shared a similar background, but I didn’t really think much of it at the time. It wasn’t until I arrived at my desk the next morning to see an email from him that I felt a shift in our dynamic. In the 12 hours since our previous correspondence, he’d Googled me and discovered some facts about my life and career. He was apparently quite in awe of what he’d learned.
I was flattered by his note. Reading the words, “You are amazing, why haven’t you taken over the world yet?” made my heart race a little. Finally, I thought, someone sees my value. I thanked him and went on to describe all the ways in which world domination had eluded me thus far. My tone was sarcastic and self-deprecating. I thought we were joking around.
His response was unapologetically earnest: “I can fix that.” But he didn’t stop there. “You are the most incredible person I’ve ever met and together we are going to get you everything you want.” This wasn’t a normal Tuesday for me. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, this was the start of a process called Love Bombing.
According to Psychology Today, love bombing is the practice of “overwhelming someone with signs of adoration and attraction. It’s texts that increase in frequency as they increase in romantic fervor. All designed to manipulate you into spending more time with the bomber — and, not coincidentally, less time with others, or on your own.”
In my case, soon after the emails, the phone calls began. I went from not knowing this person at all to speaking to him on the way to work. Texts and emails from him dominated my day, sometimes receiving as many as 50+ interactions in a 24 hour period.
When I didn’t respond for a day due to illness, I returned to work to find an email with the subject “Drums fingers on table.” He was very put off that I hadn’t immediately replied or explained my absence. But I was “the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen in his life,” so I felt that maybe he just missed me.
All of this was intoxicating at first, almost like a high, until it wasn’t. As Heather Z. Lyons, PhD explained, “You might find yourself cast as a lead in their play before you even knew you had auditioned for the part.” Such is the whirlwind nature of love bombing.
According to Teagin Maddox, a Domestic Violence Training & Advocate, “Red flags can be downplayed or dismissed because we don’t want to judge too soon or too harshly, or, worst of all, they can be very curiosity-inducing. So instead of heeding caution, we become more intrigued when we see them.”
For a narcissist, it’s not enough to be liked or appreciated by any old person, though. It only counts when the other person has status or highly valued qualities, such as wealth, beauty, special talents, power, influence or celebrity. Narcissists idealize prospective partners to augment their own lack of self-esteem. I doubt he was in love with me, but rather with his own perception of me. Sharon Rubinstein, best-selling author and seminar leader, said, “Narcissists can never really love you. They only love how you make them feel about themselves.”
While I may be attractive to certain people, “the most beautiful woman in the world” is a bit of a stretch (I doubt even my own mother would agree to that one). The narcissist thinks that, if they can win over a person of standing (real or imagined) then they must be worth something.
Narcissists are skilled manipulators. They may use flattery and constant attention as tools to build themselves up to be seen as the perfect partner. They use it to better gain your trust, affection and, of course, your adoration in return. “Don’t be confused by all their pleasantries, compliments, and excessive flirting,” advises Sharon Rubenstein. “These moves are not aimed to make you feel great, that’s just a by-product. Their real goal is to make both of you quickly come to the same conclusion about them which is: they are the greatest.”
Narcissists need this to feel better about themselves and to prop up their ever-expanding egos.
Once they have convinced you of what a great couple you are, a narcissist will try to shape your role in the relationship into a member of their fan club, a supporting role or possibly their emotional punching bag. Narcissists move quickly to avoid detection, so the more someone tries to flatter you into submission, the more diligently you need to explore their motives.
After the love bombing
Now they have you where they want you. You are hooked on the high you feel from all the daily flattery. You believe the lies they spin about building an empire together, or running away into the sunset. That’s when the switch happens, because, alas, reality will always come into play. You will do something that doesn’t quite align with the narcissist’s ideal image of you and they won’t be able to handle it. When the luster fades, they are no longer provided with a satisfactory object to boost their self-esteem. At this point they discard their prey and look elsewhere for a new source of narcissistic supply, or simply return to a former partner and restart the process.
That is exactly what happened to me. One day I was the world’s most beautiful woman, the next I was abruptly ditched by email. Classy. Though it was bewildering, I got out just in time and learned a valuable lesson. For some people, however, this can be the starting point for coercive control or even domestic violence.
If you’re concerned that you may be the victim of a narcissist, take a look at the signs below. Love at first sight can happen and I do not wish to discount that, but if you see any of the warnings listed here it may be time to stop and reassess.
1. Moving quickly
The majority of healthy relationships begin with a flurry of strong feelings and romantic gestures. This is perfectly normal, but it does make the line between a person who is really smitten and the narcissist very blurry. The distinction here can be found in the speed at which a relationship progresses. Narcissists will move quickly, to ensnare you as soon as possible before you have time to think and consider them rationally. It’s almost like a scammer who forces you to “act quickly to avoid paying an extra fine.” By applying pressure and moving at breakneck speed, you barely have time to think. Watch out for a person who may talk marriage or love within the first few months.
2. They really need you
It’s great to feel needed, especially if you’re an empathetic person — the narcissists’ top choice of partner — but be careful if you feel you are being relied upon to prop up the other person’s sense of self-worth. Also be cautious if they are displaying sexual jealousy around your previous partners — a common trait among domestic abusers. Belying their bravado is seriously low self-esteem. A person who is comfortable in their own skin does not rely on outside factors to dictate their worth. Self-confidence is an inside job.
3. The “what are we” dance
There comes a point in most relationships where you are ready to define yourselves. Perhaps as boyfriend and girlfriend, lovers, partners, or whatever you’re happy with. A narcissist may want you to behave like their partner (seeking sexual exclusivity for example), but they are usually reluctant to define your relationship as such for fear that they may miss out on someone else who can provide them more of what they crave. If your partner is telling you that you’re “the one” but won’t make your relationship official, or delays your coming out together, this is a red flag.
4. They don’t have close friends
Most narcissists won’t have deep and current friendships. They may have a couple of old friends that they meet up with now and then, or some casual acquaintances. But true friends who they see regularly are in not in the narcissist’s wheelhouse. This is because they cannot keep the mask up for an extended length of time. Friendships require give and take and narcissist only knows how to take.
5. They have little to no sense of humor
While it’s wonderful to talk frankly and fantasize about the future with your new love interest, if they can’t joke around about their flaws and yours, be concerned. Jokes are built on a shared experiences of things going wrong (like past relationships), the unexpected happening, or simply embarrassment. If you can’t share these experiences with your lover, then with whom? But a narcissist is not interested in seeing your shortcomings or theirs. They are “perfect” and they want you to be “perfect” too. If you’re not laughing in your relationship it may be time to consider why this is.
The term “gaslighting” comes from the 1944 movie Gaslight, where a husband attempts to drive his wife insane by lowering the gaslight by an imperceptible amount every night. These days the expression refers to behavior that is manipulative and may even make you question your own sanity. Narcissists distort reality to make you fall in line with what they want. If they are telling you that you misremembered something when you’re sure you didn’t, this may be the beginning of gaslighting.
7. Too much information
During the love bombing stage, it may seem like you are the one being asked to open up. This may appear like they are really taking an interest in you, but Lisa Concepcion, a dating and relationship expert, explained there’s another reason the narcissist may be asking so many questions.
“Narcissists want to know everything about you so they can use it against you at a later time. When they ask you about your childhood and parents, you think it’s because they want to bond with you. This is not the case. They are gathering data to use when the devaluing stage and high manipulation begins. They’ll ask about finances because narcissists will try to obliterate you financially. They’ll steal, manipulate, lie. Never give any money to a narcissist.” Be careful if you are being presented with a laundry list of questions very early on.
Leaving the narcissist
Narcissists don’t have relationships, they take hostages. Extricating yourself from a relationship with a narcissist can go one of two ways. Either they will dump you, disappear and you’ll never hear from them again, or you will have to find a way to leave.
All of the love bombing combined with their gaslighting or broken promises can create cognitive dissonance within you. While you know you need to leave, you’re addicted to the high of the times when they turned on the love-faucet. By this point, you have found yourself doing and allowing things you wouldn’t have imagined when you first met. As your shame increases, your self-esteem withers. You wonder what happened to the self-respecting, self-confident person you once were. You lose your sense of identity.
Narcissists are co-dependent. If you initiate the break-up, they will do all they can to reel you back in and “win.” Being left is a major humiliation to them and blow to their fragile self-image. In order to leave successfully, you need to turn your attention back to yourself. You will be forced to rebuild yourself from the ground up. Try to re-establish relationships with friends and family and find activities and hobbies to occupy yourself. A narcissist absorbs so much of your time and energy, you will need to refocus how you think and live. Create strong boundaries and stick to them.
It took me a while to recover from my experience with a narcissist. I had allowed my identity to be shaped by him. He laid out plans for the future and I felt like I was being saved, saved from having to make choices about my life by myself. When he disappeared, he took all of those plans with him and I was back to figuring my life out on my own.
I had to tell friends and loved ones about what had happened, which felt humiliating, I couldn’t believe I had been so stupid as to fall for such grandiose statements from a person I hardly knew. But I came to realize that no one thought I was an idiot. In fact, friends rallied around me in a way I couldn’t have imagined. I started to redesign my life step by step. I learned that no one is coming to save me. I have to save myself.
The reason the narcissist was drawn to me was because of my strength and daring. He, on the other hand, was a coward. Remember, no one defines your worth but you. Your worst day free to be yourself is better than your best day with a narcissist.
If you feel you need help with this issue, contact a therapist who deals with narcissism. You will find that you are not alone in this.