With the holiday season upon us, this is a prime time for malignant narcissists to engage in what we call “hoovering” – the gift none of us want, but one that keeps on giving. Hoovering is when, like a Hoover vacuum, the narcissist comes back around to suck their previous victims back into the toxic vortex of their abuse. As therapist Andrea Schneider, LCSW, notes, “When the cycle of “idealize, devalue, discard” is complete, a person with narcissistic qualities will often return to prior sources of narcissistic supply to see if he or she can tap such individuals for more ego-fueling attention, emotional reaction, sex, money, business advantages, a place to live, or other affirmations of his or her existence. The “Hoover maneuver” was coined after the name of a popular vacuum cleaner, alluding to the fact abusers often attempt to suction up narcissistic supply from prior sources.”
Narcissists may Hoover in a number of ways: by provoking the victim, waxing poetically about how they’ve changed, or even more sadistically, flaunting a new partner to their previous one after a particularly callous silent treatment or discard. Here are some of the most common ways they Hoover, and how to spot the signs you have been the victim of this manipulation:
1. The “I miss you,” or “I want to be friends,” Hoover.
This type of Hoover normally occurs when the narcissist has already drained his or her current sources of narcissistic supply or wants to tap into the resources of a prior victim. In order to regain control over the previous victim, the narcissist will claim that they “miss” and “love” you, that they simply cannot live without you, or that they need your help with something (usually a manufactured emergency or fabricated illness).
Some narcissists will even suggest that you remain “friends” with them just to preserve the relationship and keep you as part of their harem and ongoing rotation cycle. Beware: this, too, is a form of manipulation. A recent research study conducted by Mogilski and Welling (2017) showed that those who had darker personality traits such as narcissism, psychopathy, and duplicity tended to stay friends with their exes out of pragmatism, sex and access to resources.
When encountering this type of Hoover, remind yourself, “They don’t miss me. They miss controlling me. And I don’t miss them either – I miss the fantasy of who I thought they were.” If you get stuck reminiscing over the loving moments in your relationship with this partner, be sure to write down incidents of abuse and mistreatment to ground yourself in the reality of what it was truly like. Go through the list with a trauma-informed counselor if you can, so you can work through the cognitive dissonance that is sure to arise from such gaslighting.
2. Flaunting a new partner Hoover.
The most sadistic of narcissists will go out of their way to use their Hoover to inflict even more cruelty and damage on their former victims, especially if they see those victims start to move forward with their lives or these victims “discarded” them first by leaving the narcissist. They do this by flaunting their latest partner to the previous victim, proclaiming how “happy” they are to be with this new person.
They may disguise their true malice by claiming that they’re just trying to give you an “update” on their life, or to get you to “move on” and not “mislead you” (even though you were already moving on and they know this). As Dr. George Simon notes, “A rationalization is the excuse an aggressor makes for engaging in what they know is an inappropriate or harmful behavior. It can be an effective tactic, especially when the explanation or justification the aggressor offers makes just enough sense that any reasonably conscientious person is likely to fall for it. It’s a powerful tactic because it not only serves to remove any internal resistance the aggressor might have about doing what they want to do (quieting any qualms of conscience they might have) but also to keep others off their back. If the aggressor can convince you they’re justified in whatever they’re doing, then they’re freer to pursue their goals without interference.”
The truth is, this type of Hoover is a way for the narcissist to get under your skin and prevent you from moving forward. It serves to manufacture a love triangle (also known as triangulation) and get you to compete for the narcissist’s attention. It also instills in you a sense of feeling less than so you endlessly compare yourself to the new victim and what they may be receiving from the narcissist that you never received. It entertains the narcissist and gives them an ego stroke to depict you – no matter how attractive, desirable, intelligent, successful or powerful you may be – as someone who longs for them. It gaslights you into believing that if only you had been “better” in some way, you would have been “chosen” or treated better by the narcissist.
The narcissist may even speak condescendingly to you while doing this, claiming they are “concerned” for your welfare as they pretend that you are obsessed with them, even though they are the ones tracking your every move and reaching out to you months later to drop a provocative bombshell. This is a form of gaslighting and ambient abuse. As therapist Sheri Heller notes, “The ambient abuser ostensibly only wants the best for the target. The ambient abuser behaves altruistically, concealing the underlying motive to get the upper hand. The ambient abusers’ appearance of benevolence, honesty and generosity is seductive and disorients the target and assists in ensuring the necessary leverage needed to ‘manage’ the target and diminish her self worth.”
Don’t fall for this. Know that the new target will be mistreated just like you and that you are simply witnessing the love bombing and honeymoon phase. No matter what the narcissist appears to “give” to their latest victim, their lack of empathy and excessive sense of entitlement will never change. They are just as self-absorbed as they always were. They have simply found another person to believe in their false mask. Be sure to ask yourself, “If someone was truly happy in their new relationship, would they waste any energy telling a former partner who has already moved forward about it?” You are the lucky one to have gotten away.
3. The “changed man or woman” Hoover.
In this Hoover, the narcissistic or sociopathic individual appears to have turned a whole new corner. They now “repent” their sins and everything they’ve done to you. They cry crocodile tears and show compelling displays of remorse for having abused you. They may even claim to have found God again. If you have encountered a long-standing pattern of abuse from this person, you can be sure that this is simply another manipulation tactic used to ensnare you back into the relationship. They have not changed, and likely never will.
As Dr. Martha Stout notes, sociopaths rely on pity ploys to win over empathic people. She writes, “Pity is another socially valuable response, and it should be reserved for innocent people who are in genuine pain or who have fallen on misfortune. If, instead, you find yourself often pitying someone who consistently hurts you or other people, and who actively campaigns for your sympathy, the chances are close to 100 percent that you are dealing with a sociopath.”
4. Holiday Hoovering.
Any one of these types of Hoovers can also take place during the holidays, but Holiday Hoovering is a special type of monstrosity in the impact it can take on a victim due to its timing alone. After all, holidays are especially memorable and memories of a cruel discard, a horrific silent treatment, or a particularly callous Hoover can take an even more enormous toll on a victim who is simply trying to enjoy themselves, as they deserve. It can “anchor” that event in the victim’s mind with even more ferocity, causing them to associate what should be a joyful, celebratory and happy time with the abusive treatment of a former partner. Thanksgiving, Christmas, or even special occasions like Birthdays are all fair game in a narcissist’s mind to swoop in and sabotage as they play the Grinch. When they are no longer with you, they will still attempt to rent space inside your head by sending a provocative text under the guise of wishing you a Happy Holiday, flaunting their new relationship so you feel an exaggerated sense of loneliness, or attempting to restart the relationship during a time you may be feeling a heightened sense of romanticism and nostalgia, thus more susceptible to their mind games.
5. The indirect or social media Hoover.
A narcissist can also indirectly Hoover you without directly contacting you. They may send a “messenger” (also known as a flying monkey) to pass on hearsay about their new life or relationship; or, in a more lazy manner, they may use social media to brag about their new relationship or write status updates they know will provoke you into responding. They may even drop by places they know you frequent or your house and pretend it was a “coincidence.” That’s why it’s best to have the narcissist blocked on all social media platforms as well as on your phone, and to document cases of stalking and harassment. Don’t leave any door or window open for them to enter. And if they do enter in any way, block them from trespassing again. You deserve freedom from the mind games of a malignant narcissist.
Heller, S. (2016, September 26). Identifying ambient abuse. Retrieved December 27, 2019, from https://pro.psychcentral.com/identifying-ambient-abuse/
Mogilski, J. K., & Welling, L. L. (2017). Staying friends with an ex: Sex and dark personality traits predict motivations for post-relationship friendship. Personality and Individual Differences, 115, 114-119. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2016.04.016
Schneider, A. (2017, October 19). ‘Hoover maneuver’: The dirty secret of emotional abuse. Retrieved December 27, 2019, from https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/hoover-maneuver-the-dirty-secret-of-emotional-abuse-0219154
Simon G. (2016). In sheep’s clothing: Understanding and dealing with manipulative people. Marion, MI: Parkhurst Brothers,.
Stout, M. (2004). The sociopath next door: How to recognize and defeat the ruthless in everyday life. New York: Broadway Books.