If you’re involved with a narcissist in any kind of relationship, you’ve likely experienced hoovering. If you haven’t yet, you will, and it’s important to understand what this behavior is like, why narcissists do it, and how to respond to it. Whenever you’re dealing with a narcissist, the key to getting the best outcome is understanding, so how should you respond to hoovering?
There are several important tactics to employ when a narcissist is hoovering you. Among these are to stay grounded in reality, don’t get drawn into their drama, and prioritize your own feelings. You can be compassionate and still maintain strong boundaries to avoid being emotionally abused.
To really avoid being drawn back into the drama a narcissist creates, you need to understand the behavior, learn to recognize it, and then implement several tactics to respond to it. Let’s explore these concepts and examine several effective techniques you can use to avoid hoovering.
What is Hoovering?
Let’s begin with the basics – what exactly is hoovering? This is a term that refers to the behaviors a narcissist will use to try to draw you back into their world, to get you to re-engage with them. The term comes from the Hoover vacuum cleaner because, like the vacuum, the narcissist will try to suck you in.
Hoovering is yet another manipulation tactic, and narcissists typically will ‘hoover you’ when they realize they might be at risk of losing you or when they have lost you. Most narcissists will come back into your life even after you’ve broken off all contact with them.
They will find a way to coincidentally run into you at the store or some other place they know you frequent. That’s when the hoovering begins, but if you are still in your relationship with a narcissist, you might experience hoovering if they feel they have pushed you to the brink and you may leave them.
They know they’re on the verge of losing control over you, and they will begin hoovering to get you back under their thumb. In either case, the narcissist is seeking to restore their narcissistic supply – that’s the unending adulation they need to prop up their self-esteem. To get you back under their control, the narcissist will do or say just about anything.
There are several tactics the narcissist uses when hoovering, and some are positive while others are negative. When hoovering, the narcissist can engage in obsessive behavior, and in fact, they will use any tactic that catches your attention. It’s vital to understand the various tactics they might use when hoovering so that you can recognize it when it happens.
What are the Hoovering Tactics a Narcissist Will Use?
Hoovering tactics can generally be divided into positive and negative manipulation techniques. Make no mistake about it, they are manipulating you or trying to, even if they are doing or saying something positive. It’s also important to remember they can be very charming when they want to, and so, you have to be on guard even if they are saying or doing things that you like.
Positive Hoovering Tactics
The positive hoovering tactics a narcissist will use involve telling you the things you want to hear or doing things for you. They often employ a tactic called love-bombing which is something you might have seen in the beginning of your relationship.
Love-bombing involves showering you with love, attention, support, and affection. Narcissists often do this when they are first attracted to people and are trying to draw them in. They will praise you for your every move and tell you frequently how much you mean to them.
This is basically the idealization stage of a relationship all over again. The idealization stage for a narcissist is usually at the beginning of a relationship where they set you up on a pedestal. You can seemingly do no wrong, but of course, the expectations of a narcissist are too high for anyone to meet.
When you can’t meet those high expectations, the relationship passes into the devaluation stage where the narcissist begins to criticize you in often harsh terms and almost constantly. From there, it’s common for either the victim or the narcissist to discard the other person.
If the narcissist fears a discard is coming or after either you’ve broken off contact or they have, they will then begin a re-idealization stage and start hoovering again. They may newly declare their love for you and might say they have just realized how much you mean to them. They might also shower you with gifts – they will say ‘no strings attached,’ but don’t you believe it.
They might also tell you how they have changed, but that’s unlikely given that it takes years of intense psychotherapy for a narcissist to truly change. It’s during this stage, the narcissist will remember important dates to you and use special occasions to make contact.
Negative Hoovering Tactics
Many people think of hoovering as involving positive behaviors related to trying to convince you the narcissist really loves you or has changed, but there are also negative hoovering tactics. These involve behaviors that exploit your vulnerabilities, your compassion, or even your negative emotions to try to re-engage with you.
The types of negative hoovering behaviors a narcissist uses are similar to what they likely did in the devaluation stage of your relationship with them. They might try to shame you or make you feel guilty. They can even use silence as a manipulation tactic to get you to ask them what’s wrong or to get you to cave in to their demands.
They can also try to exploit your compassion by telling you they’ve changed and you’re the only one who can truly help them. They may claim they’re all alone and need you, but don’t fall for that because they will always have someone else from whom they’re getting that all-important narcissistic supply.
Narcissists will also stoop to such tactics as faking injuries or claiming they’re depressed and having suicidal thoughts. They can also try to get you angry enough to re-engage with them by making accusations against you or by initiating a smear campaign among your family, friends, or coworkers. They will also use anything they know about you against you to draw you back into their drama.
Narcissists may also use mutual acquaintances or friends to reach out to you. These are colloquially called ‘flying monkeys’ and are used to put pressure on you to get in contact with them. A narcissist is also not above stalking you, and they can sometimes become dangerous.
Miscellaneous Hoovering Tactics
These are the kinds of tricks a narcissist will use that might seem small and meaningless, but they are very calculated attempts to get back in contact with you. Narcissists frequently wait a long period of time before reaching out to you, and then, they might reach out with a random text message or email.
They will usually say something like, “It’s been a long time. How are you?” They might also claim they heard your favorite song on the radio and thought about you or that they just simply miss you. They will then usually ask some kind of seemingly innocent question like, “What was the name of that restaurant on 6th St. that we liked so much?”
You might also get an accidental call from the narcissist. They will claim it was just a ‘butt dial,’ but you should know that’s likely a lie. They’re looking for a reason to re-engage with you, and once you let them get a foot in the door, it’s hard to keep them out of your life.
Negative Effects of Narcissistic Hoovering
When a narcissist starts hoovering you, you can’t be fooled into thinking that it’s about you. They will claim they truly love you or they realized how much they miss you, but they are looking for something for themselves. You can be sure that getting it will be at your own expense. If you let them back into your life, they will begin abusing you all over again.
The hoovering attempts used by narcissists are often very personal. They use your weaknesses against you, and they usually leave you with low self-esteem. Even if they are love-bombing you, they aren’t doing it because they really believe the nice things they’re saying; they’re just trying to get you to believe that’s their reason.
When you are exposed to such insincerity and when you see that the words of a narcissist are just empty promises, it can have a devastating effect on your own mental state. It can destroy your ability to trust other people, and it’s possible the narcissist has isolated you from the people in your life who truly love you. No matter what the narcissist says, the emotional abuse will begin again if you let them back in.
Moreover, the narcissist knows what your triggers are, and they will exploit those triggers. This can be very challenging for you since it affects you on such a raw, emotional level. You can be left feeling anxious, ashamed, worthless, or like all hope is lost. Even worse, you might feel obligated to stay in a relationship with the narcissist.
Hoovering will go on as long as you allow it, but breaking free can be difficult to do. You have to first understand that the narcissist is playing a game of manipulation. You have to opt-out of that game to truly be free.
How Should You Respond to Narcissistic Hoovering?
Hoovering can be very seductive because you remember when you first met the narcissist. They were so charming you might have thought they were your soulmate, and it can be very hard to let go of that desire. It’s easy to convince yourself that they really have changed or that you can maintain control this time.
The reality is that narcissists are experts at manipulation. They’ve been doing it most of their life, and they know how to play the game very well. You likely want very much to believe them and have that charming, supportive, loving, and attentive person back. Who wouldn’t want that?
The problem is that person isn’t real. It’s a figment of the narcissist’s imagination, a facade they created just to lure people into their dramatic web of lies. To respond to this kind of manipulation, it would likely be best if you could go no-contact and stay no-contact.
If that’s a possibility, you should block the narcissist from every part of your life. Block their phone, block them on social media, and let your friends and family know you never want to hear from them again. Depending on the situation, you might even need a restraining order or to move someplace where they won’t find you.
The unfortunate reality is, however, that many people can’t or won’t go no-contact. This may be because they share children with the narcissist, the narcissist is an elderly parent or disabled family member and must have care, or simply because they still feel they love that person and don’t want to stop all contact. If that’s the case, you’ll need some effective tactics to avoid the manipulation that comes with hoovering.
Don’t Buy Into Their Reality
If you can’t get away from the narcissist, then at least stay grounded in your reality instead of theirs. Narcissists are famous for shifting blame, lying, gaslighting, and using any trick in the book to make you doubt your perceptions of reality.
You might not want to start an argument with the narcissist because it’s exhausting, but if you don’t enforce your boundaries every time they violate them, it will encourage them to keep up that behavior. If you don’t agree with them, don’t say you do, and don’t stay silent either.
Instead, try being respectful by saying something like, “Hmm, I saw that differently.” Then present your reality. Don’t embellish – just stick to the facts, and don’t accuse them of anything. Of course, it’s likely that your disagreement or lack of support will upset them, but that will discourage them from asking for your opinion or involving you in the future.
Remember the Real Culprit
You always have to remind yourself that you are not at fault for the narcissist’s behavior. They will frequently try to shift the blame onto you even if you weren’t involved in the first place. They might claim, for example, that your failure to stop them (even if you didn’t know they were doing it) is why they behaved the way they did.
That’s a combination of projection and gaslighting, and you shouldn’t fall for it. It’s not your fault. Of course, there are times when you might have done something wrong, but it won’t help you to explain your actions or defend yourself. If you admit you did something wrong, the narcissist will use that against you for the remainder of your relationship.
It’s best to remember that the narcissist’s behavior has nothing at all to do with you. They act the way they do because of the experiences they had in their own childhood. That affected their internal identity mechanisms, most notably their ego. If they are trying to blame you for something, you have to take a few deep breaths and use positive affirmations to remind yourself of who is really at fault.
Don’t Get Drawn Into Their Drama
Narcissists are always full of drama, and it is utterly exhausting to deal with their constant complaining. It’s also difficult to have to put up with their frequent criticism of you, but if you either join in with their complaining or try to defend yourself, they will have you right where they want you.
They want a reaction out of you, and if you give them that satisfaction, they will use it against you every time. Instead of being drawn into their drama, try just responding with something like, “I’m sorry that’s happening to you,” or “I’m sorry you feel that way,” and then walk away without saying anything else.
When they don’t get what they’re looking for, they’ll stop using that tactic. It’s part of the Grey Rock technique that involves making yourself as uninteresting to the narcissist as you can. They get bored and move on to trying to get someone else to react.
I know this feels selfish to you, but the reality is that the narcissist will not make you a priority. You must take care of yourself, and if you’re going to be around a narcissist on a regular basis, that self-care has to be a priority.
You deserve to be treated with respect, but narcissists are rarely capable of that, and so you have to be the one who insists on it. You can’t risk your own well-being for the narcissist because nothing you ever do for them will be enough to fill the hole created in their psyche.
Healthy relationships are about giving and taking, but the narcissist just takes. If you’re going to be exposed to that kind of self-centered behavior, you will need sufficient emotional energy to be able to take care of yourself.
Monitor How the Narcissist Makes You Feel
If you can better be aware of how the toxic behavior of the narcissist is making you feel, you can improve your interactions with them by setting appropriate boundaries. The first step in that process is recognizing the effects of the abusive behavior.
If most of your interactions with them involve emotional abuse, verbal abuse, or even physical abuse, you have to pay attention to how it affects you. You should never have to put up with abuse of any kind. Once you begin to see how they are affecting you, you can then identify and set boundaries to prevent further abuse.
Talk to the Narcissist
You may be left with no choice but to confront the narcissist with their behavior and let them know that you will no longer accept it. Confrontation is always uncomfortable for anyone, but there are simple ways you can get your message across.
Be clear and concise in describing the behaviors you won’t tolerate. Make a list so you don’t forget anything, and on that list, write down the consequences for violations. Give the narcissist a copy.
Don’t let them distract you from staying on topic and getting your message across. If they try to get you off on another topic, say something like, “That’s a discussion for another day. Right now, we’re discussing these behaviors.”
Use neutral wording and “I statements” since these are less accusatory. It’s best to avoid accusations at all costs since that will force the narcissist to defend themselves. Don’t explain yourself, don’t defend yourself, and don’t back down.
If all else fails, hand the narcissist your list of unacceptable behaviors and the consequences they will face, and then simply walk away. That’s better than engaging with them in an argument that you can’t win.
Limit Your Exposure
One of the most effective techniques to avoid hoovering and emotional abuse is to simply limit the amount of time you spend with the narcissist. Set the day and time you will get together with them and put a limit on how much time you spend with them.
You don’t have to respond every time they want to get together with you. You can simply let them know that you don’t have the time right now to give them your full attention. Then you can set a time that will work for you.
It’s also acceptable to determine the topics you’re willing to talk about. If they try to engage you on some topic you don’t wish to talk about, simply say you have to go now and leave. As licensed therapist Kelly Von Houser explains, “If you have children with a narcissist, I would only discuss the children with them. Any other comments or inquiries will go unanswered.”
Be Compassionate, but Don’t Try to Fix a Narcissist
You can certainly be compassionate to the problems a narcissist faces. Their personality disorder is the result of abuse in their own childhood, and that’s a tragedy. But you can’t fix them. Only they can choose to get help, and to do that, they will most likely have to commit to intense, long-term psychotherapy.
Compassion is a good quality and you can model it for the narcissist, but don’t fool yourself into thinking that if you just love them hard enough or long enough, they will change. That’s just not supported by reality. In this case, it will take more than love to help a narcissist change.
Just Walk Away
It’s important to understand that you always have this option. It might be difficult and you might not relish the thought, but sometimes it’s better to just walk away than to continue to take the abuse. Even when a narcissist is using positive hoovering, it’s not sincere, and you shouldn’t put up with it. Insist on sincerity and honesty, and if you don’t get it, consider leaving.
Even if you don’t want to leave them permanently, there are many times when walking away is the better option. It can help avoid scenes, and it can defuse their emotional outburst. It’s also a great way to reinforce your boundaries.
A Few Other Strategies
A few other strategies that are helpful when you can’t avoid the narcissist include encouraging them to seek psychotherapy, always ensuring you have an exit strategy when you are around them, changing your routine so they don’t always know where you might be, and avoiding getting too personal.
It’s also a good idea to consider getting therapy for yourself so that you can avoid becoming codependent. A therapist can give you some good ideas for setting and maintaining boundaries, staying calm even when the narcissist provokes you, and maintaining your own reality.
When a narcissist is hoovering or using their many other manipulation tactics to try and control you, your best bet is to go no-contact, but if that’s not a possibility, you have to look out for your own interests. You will need to set and maintain strong boundaries, prioritize your own self-care, and stay focused on what you know is real.
These strategies can sometimes be difficult to implement and maintain, but they are critical for living with a narcissist. The nature of their personality disorder prevents them from considering the needs of others, and that’s not acceptable, but if you understand that and can take care of yourself, you can improve your interactions with the narcissist.
If you are experiencing hoovering and considering re-engaging with a narcissist, it’s vital to understand what it takes to live happily with them in your life. You need to read this article about whether that’s even a possibility or not. It has some great advice for living your best life even with a narcissist in it.
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