“Hoovering” is British slang for vacuuming, and the word is based on the name of the Hoover brand of vacuum cleaner. What do vacuum cleaners do? They suck stuff up, they suck stuff in…and when your narcissist starts trying to suck you back into contact or communication, when your narcissist tries to pull you closer as you are trying to separate or set boundaries, it’s called “hoovering.”
I’ve read quite a bit on hoovering, some of it very enlightening. But I had an ignoring NM, a mother who was very clear that she didn’t want me and who ignored me to the greatest extent possible. In fact, once I was an adult and out of her house, she sometimes ignored me for years at a time! And yet, I have been hoovered, both in the classic sense and in the peculiar way ignoring NMs seem to have, a way few of my resources acknowledge.
I get letters from people asking me what is up with an emotionally abusive narcissist who has suddenly become unaccountably nice. This, of course, is the classic form of hoovering: sensing that you are pulling away or that you are no longer as tightly bound to her as before, the narcissist begins a campaign to win you back. What they do is offer you what they know you want: attention, validation, love. They also offer you fake guilt and pseudo-remorse: either they are sorry for being such a bad mother or they play the “pathetic” card so that you feel guilty for wanting to distance yourself from them. The “pathetic” card can come in a wide variety of forms, from sickness (real or feigned) to “poor me, nobody loves me, everybody leaves me,” to guilt-trips (“oh, how much I have sacrificed for you…”) to outright pleading for your attention.
Narcissists are shameless in getting what they want, but one writer on the subject cautions against jumping to the conclusion that the Narcissist’s promises of better future treatment are conscious lies. According to Out of the Fog, “Many abusers and personality-disordered people really are sincere and really are trying when they also are hoovering. People who are hoovering you may not be consciously trying to manipulate you or deceive you. They may sincerely be trying, even hoping, to make it “better this time”. They may not be consciously lying when they make promises of change and put them into practice. They may be so convincing because they are so convinced, at least right now.”
But that doesn’t mean you have to swallow it hook, line, and sinker. And their sincerity-of-the-moment is really immaterial. Yes, she may mean it right now…but the minute it becomes inconvenient, is she going to keep her word? The minute a better offer comes along, will she ditch you again? Whatever it is she has to say, remember that the past is prologue: her history is your greatest guide to her future behaviour.
When you go No Contact or Low Contact, when you set boundaries or simply refuse some demand of your narcissist’s…outrageous or otherwise…hoovering is one reaction your NM may employ.
What is behind hoovering?
Loss of control. Narcissists think only of themselves and getting their own needs met. If your needs get in the way of meeting their own, you lose. And in any situation in which you don’t lose, then she resents your having prevailed over her…no matter how legitimate your “win” (they see everything in competitive terms). You see, losing control of a situation or a person is very threatening to a Narcissist because only if they are in control can they feel assured that their needs will be met. So the minute you take control out of your NM’s hands by going NC, LC, or laying down boundaries she cannot control, she feels threatened and she has to take some kind of action.
Classic hoovering, as discussed above, involves her trying to bring you back into the fold, to relinquish control and give it back to her. The tools she will use, if you successfully resist, can be extensive. She will appeal to your sentimentality or try to find you at a weak moment and exploit it. She will not only attempt to guilt trip or lure you back into her web herself, she will employ other people: parents, siblings, ex-boyfriends, family friends, grandparents and other extended family members, even your own best friend. “I am so worried about Sarah…I don’t know what has come over her, but she has stopped speaking to me and it is just breaking my heart. I sent her the most beautiful cashmere sweater for her birthday and it came back “undeliverable” from the Post Office. I am beside myself, I don’t know what to do. I am so worried, and you know my heart and my blood pressure just can’t take this…” What normal, compassionate person who doesn’t know they are being conned and manipulated won’t feel sorry for her and offer to intercede?
Don’t expect your friends and family members to be on your side when they help your NM’s hoovering efforts. They already think ill of you for treating your poor mother so badly, they aren’t likely to listen to your side of the story with any real empathy…they are already in her camp and have been turned by her into flying monkeys. You might want to resist the urge to defend or explain yourself because you can be guaranteed that your NM will hear every detail when the flying monkey reports back to her. This, of course, just gives your NM the information she needs to refine her campaign to bring you back under her control.
Ignoring NMs will leave you alone until they want something from you. You may think you are NC, but the silence exists only because it serves her purposes for the moment. When I was 14 I went to visit my father for the summer. As the summer drew to a close, we didn’t even know where NM was…she had taken off on a road trip with her boyfriend and I had not heard from her for several months. On the weekend before school started she sent a telegram saying I should enrol from my father’s house.
For the next year I barely heard from her. Then, nearing the end of the summer, she showed up at the door late in the evening and asked if I would come for a ride with her in the car. To my surprise, we got into the backseat and when I looked at the driver, I saw it was my old singing teacher, whom I had adored…but hadn’t seen in five or more years. We drove around for a couple of hours while my NM and her flying monkey, the singing teacher, worked on me. Every ploy was used on me from “a girl belongs with her mother” to “I’ve missed you so much” to even telling me she loved me (first and last time I ever heard the words from her) and eventually I was worn down. I went back to her house and it was just about the worst mistake in my life. Not only did it alienate my father and stepmother…who had always been there when I needed them, unlike my mother…the idyllic mother-daughter relationship I had expected never materialized. In fact, no relationship materialized at all. She put me on a cot in the kitchen instead of giving me a bedroom, expected me to keep the house clean, and pretty much ignored me except to take my pay checks and raid my closet. I was only 15 years old and she and her flying monkey, the singing teacher, hoovered me back into being her household servant, source of income (child support plus my pay checks), and general scapegoat.
She didn’t ignore me, however, when I tried to set some boundaries. To keep her hands off my pay, I tried cashing my checks at the bank but she thwarted me by saying she would rescind permission for my work permit and I would lose my job: since the job kept me out of the house and away from her, I didn't want that. I worked in the summer while at my grandparents and to keep her hands off my earnings, my grandmother took me shopping the weekend before my mother was due to pick me up. NM demanded the receipts so she could return the clothes, but grandmother told her they had already been burned. My few allies and I had to think up ways to get around NM’s predations because setting a limit enraged her. “How dare you?” was her stock phrase.
But when she thought it would work for her, she was not above melodrama. When I tried to argue against her taking my pay checks my senior year of high school, she literally put her hands over her heart and said to me, with a sad, pathetic look on her face “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is /To have a thankless child!” (From King Lear, Shakespeare.) Whaaa? Until that moment I had always considered that I was entitled, like all children, to a roof and food and clothing and medical care—now she was implying that I owed her gratitude and payback??
But she was an ignoring NM who had long-ago convinced herself that I was the source of all of her problems, so the moments of subtle manipulation and gentle persuasion were infrequent. Mostly, her form of hoovering was intimidation and bombast. She would do her best to scare me into compliance by threatening me and even hitting me. A long-time friend of mine has recently begun setting boundaries with her mother the most recent response was for one of her sisters to take on Flying Monkey status, insult my friend and question her mental health…as if saying “no,” at the age of 49, to one of her mother’s hare-brained schemes means she is mentally ill—a scheme, I might add, that the FM sister doesn’t want to take part in, but who quite implacably insists my friend must!
This, then, is the other aspect of hoovering: browbeating, demanding, insulting, threatening, bullying, intimidating, shaming, and/or manipulating you to get you back into your assigned place in the family structure so that the Narcissist has his/her needs met, regardless of how others feel or are affected.
In a nutshell, hoovering is all about keeping the Nsupply resources close at hand and under control. In times when the N has a particular need for his or her cup to be filled, like around holidays or special occasions, expect additional demands. If your NM is especially fixated on how she looks to others, for example, she may want to put on the “happy, devoted family” act for observers during these times. Charlie’s mother was a good example of this: after we walked out on the family Christmas dinner six months before we were married due to his mother’s outrageous, insulting behaviour, she ignored us for the next 11 months: no birthday greetings, no acknowledgement of our wedding, nothing. And then, just before Thanksgiving she called to invite us as if we had not just spent the last 11 months ignoring each other. It simply would not do to have us boycott Thanksgiving dinner…what would she tell her friends?? She was sweet and cheery and chirpy on the phone, as if she had not called Charlie those awful names, as if I had not stood up to her and backed her down, as if we had not gotten up and walked out the door in the middle of the meal. She hoovered us back into the fold with gaslighting: we all pretended the altercation at the previous family dinner simply didn’t happen and went on as if it hadn’t.
Regardless of your N’s sincerity, regardless of your N’s method of hoovering, all hoovering attempts have this in common: they are for the wellbeing of the Narcissist and not you. The better you are at enforcing your boundaries, the more desperate—and creative—the hoovering may become. I have heard of an NM sending or giving back decades old momentoes: your bronzed baby shoes, baby pics, graduation portrait, wedding pictures; I have heard of them having a family member call to say the NM has been diagnosed with cancer (when it’s not true); I have heard of the NM going to the ER with a simple headache, then insisting that the ER staff call one kid to tell of the NM’s presence there; I have heard of NMs booking holidays, cruises, hotels and including the adult child who wants to be NC “But you have to come with us to Timbuktu, Phyllis! The tickets are non-refundable and I already paid for yours!” I have heard of them boycotting weddings and christenings, and crashing weddings and funerals they were not invited to. Then there are NMs who show up at daughter’s weddings dressed in white and hogging all the attention to themselves…anything, just anything to get your attention and to get you to talk to them so they can suck you back in.
The good news is, after a year or so, they tend to get bored with trying to batter down your defences and go elsewhere for their Nsupply. The bad news is that, periodically, they will sneak up on you and try again. And whether they use sneak attack gifts and cards and declarations of love or whether they use the “How dare you turn your back on me, you little bitch!” approach, it all comes from the same place: they are angling to force you back into the role they created in the family for you, the role in which you did your NM’s bidding, gave her the Nsupply she wanted and ignored your own needs in the process.
Don’t fall for it.
For more information about hoovering, I recommend you check the following sites:
It is difficult to deal with a narcissist when you are a grown, independent, fully functioning adult. The children of narcissists have an especially difficult burden, for they lack the knowledge, power, and resources to deal with their narcissistic parents without becoming their victims. Whether cast into the role of Scapegoat or Golden Child, the Narcissist's Child never truly receives that to which all children are entitled: a parent's unconditional love. Start by reading the 46 memories--it all began there.