A basic guide to gaslighting, love bombing, hoovering, and flying monkeys.
Psychology Today/September 2, 2019
By Elinor Greenberg, Ph.D.
When I first entered the online conversation about narcissistic personality disorder, I discovered that a number of slang terms were being used to describe narcissistic behaviors that I had never encountered in academic writing. Eventually, I deciphered their meanings.
Some of these terms are actually quite clever and capture important aspects of the experience of loving someone with narcissistic personality disorder—such as gaslighting, hoovering, and flying monkeys. However, many of these terms are being misused in much the same way that uninformed people casually label people as narcissists without any real understanding of what mental health professionals mean by that diagnosis.
So, in the interests of clarity, I have started to assemble a glossary in which I define the most frequently encountered narcissistic slang terms in ways that are consistent with both my professional knowledge of narcissistic personality disorder and also with how these terms are currently being used in blogs and online articles by non-mental health professionals. I also try, where possible, to provide the source for these terms because knowing the original context often clarifies the meaning.
Note: In this article, I am using the terms “narcissist” and “narcissistic” as shorthand ways to describe someone who qualifies for a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder.
Source: This term comes from a 1938 play called “Gaslight” and the two later 1940’s movie remakes of the play. The play and the movies are set during the late 19th century when gas lights were used for indoor lighting. The basic plot concerns a husband Gregory who is trying to convince his new wife Paula that she is going insane so he can have her committed and get her power of attorney. Unbeknownst to Paula, Gregory is also covertly searching their house for the valuable jewels that he believes are hidden there.
Gregory is a master manipulator and he heartlessly does whatever he can to make Paula doubt herself. He searches the attic causing the gas lights in the rest of the house to dim, but when Paula comments on the dimming lights, Gregory denies that it is happening and tells her that she is imagining things. He takes things, like Paula’s brooch, and then tries to convince Paula that she is losing things and that her memory is not to be trusted. Similarly, when she says that she has heard footsteps the attic, instead of Gregory admitting that he has been up there, he claims that these, like the gaslights and the missing brooch, are all figments of Paula’s disordered imagination and proof that she is going crazy.
NPD Meaning: Narcissistic gaslighting occurs when people with narcissistic personality disorder refuse to admit that they are wrong or have done something bad to their mate. Even when they are caught in the act, they will often try to convince the other person that he or she is paranoid and is imagining the whole thing.
Example—Betty and the Texts
Betty has long suspected that her husband Dan might be having an affair, but she had no real proof. He had started staying late at work and a few times had come home drunk with his clothing rumpled. One day when Dan was in the shower, she glanced at his phone and saw a series of sexy text messages from some woman.
Betty confronted Dan with the texts and asked him point-blank who this woman was and told him about her suspicions that he is having an affair. Instead of telling his wife the truth, Dan gaslights her and says: “You must be crazy. Why are you so paranoid all of a sudden? I have no idea who that woman is who texted me. She must have the wrong number.”
Dan refuses to admit that he is seeing another woman and keeps telling Betty that she is paranoid. He continues denying everything even when Betty tells him that two of her friends saw him out to dinner with a sexy blond in a short red dress. This is a classic example of narcissistic gaslighting.
Source: This term comes from the children’s book The Wizard of Oz by Frank Baum and the very popular 1939 movie based on it. The movie starred Judy Garland as Dorothy, the young heroine of the story. Dorothy and her little dog Toto are swept up by a tornado in Kansas and end up in the magical land of Oz. Dorothy’s house lands on the Wicked Witch of the East killing her. Her sister, the Wicked Witch of the West, blames Dorothy for her sister’s death and seeks revenge. The Wicked Witch has a very scary troop of flying monkeys who do her bidding. She sends them after Dorothy.
NPD Meaning: Flying monkeys are the slang term for any group of people that the narcissist enlists as allies to persecute someone that the narcissist hates. To gain their support, the narcissist makes up lies that portray the other person as evil and the narcissist as the real victim.
Example—Jon and the Lies
Jon’s wife Lisa has the exhibitionist form of narcissistic personality disorder. She is a very dramatic person and loves to be the center of attention. When she is angry with Jon, she makes up stories about how he secretly abuses her. She then calls all their friends to complain about the alleged abuse. Lisa cries on the phone and is very convincing. Many of the people she speaks with believe her. They reason: “ Who really knows what goes on behind closed doors in a marriage?”
Jon has no idea what Lisa is saying about him behind his back until he runs into some of their mutual friends and they are barely civil to him. The rumors get worse, stoked by exaggerated stories about Jon’s supposed nasty temper. Lisa’s group of flying monkeys now feel entitled to insult Jon whenever they see him. Jon tries to defend himself, but Lisa’s flying monkeys discount everything he says. He finds himself increasingly isolated as the rumors spread and he is portrayed as an abusive husband.
Going “Gray Rock”
Source: The term gray rock appears to have been first used by a blogger Skyler in her article “The Gray Rock Method of Dealing with Psychopaths.” Unfortunately, Skyler misuses the term psychopath to describe anyone that she sees as dramatic, unpleasant, attention-seeking, and malevolent. She includes narcissists in this group.
NPD Meaning: If you are involved with a narcissist whom you cannot avoid, many people advise going gray rock. This means that your manner during your interactions with the narcissist is as boring, unemotional, and neutral as you can manage. Essentially, you become as uninteresting as a gray rock.
Example: Anna and her Abusive Ex Richard
Anna divorced her narcissistic husband Richard after he started to verbally and physically abuse her. If it were just her, she might not have left, because she idealized Richard and they had a passionate and very satisfying sex life. But after their son Jake was born, Anna watched him with the baby and became afraid that one day Richard would lose his temper and hurt Jake. Richard was awarded some visitation rights as part of the divorce agreement.
Every time Richard came to pick up Jake, he tried to start a fight with Anna. He hated the idea that he could no longer control her. Getting her upset and making her cry felt like good revenge, and he knew exactly what to say to provoke her.
Anna turned to her best friend Christine for advice. Christine had gone through something similar in her divorce. Christine said that Anna was giving Richard too much satisfaction by reacting to his jibes and attempts to upset her. She needed to go gray rock. From now on, whenever she was in Richard’s presence, she should say as little as possible, ignore his insults, and be neutral, unemotional, and boring. She would literally bore him into leaving her alone.
Source: According to Wikipedia.org, the term love bombing was coined by members of Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church of the United States in the 1970s. New members of the group were showered with displays of warmth and attention. The church members say that love bombing was intended to be an expression of genuine friendship and concern. Critics of the practice saw it as a form of psychological manipulation used by cults in order to solidify the new member’s devotion to the group.
NPD Meaning: The term love bombing is now used to describe narcissists’ over-the-top courtship tactics when they are chasing someone that they are trying to seduce or make fall in love with them. It is wildly romantic behavior that includes constant praise, promises of undying love, thoughtful little gifts, late-night texts, and anything and everything that the narcissist thinks will secure the love of the person he or she has chosen. This intense positive attention is often accompanied by pressure for a quick commitment. Unfortunately, once the narcissist actually secures the person’s love, the love-bombing generally stops and is eventually replaced by devaluation or indifference.
Example—Patrick and Chad
Patrick, an exhibitionist narcissist, met Chad at a friend’s party. He invited Chad to join him for brunch the next day. Chad turned him down with some vague excuse that made it obvious that he was not really interested in pursuing a relationship with Patrick.
Instead of giving up, Patrick started love-bombing Chad. He started sending Chad little late-night texts saying how much he had enjoyed Chad’s company at the party and how special Chad was. When Chad sent him a brief polite text back, Patrick redoubled his efforts. His texts became increasingly flirty and sexual. He also started forwarding Chad emails about topics that he thought would interest him. Finally, after a couple of weeks of texting, Chad agreed to meet Patrick for a drink.
Over drinks, Patrick showered Chad with attention and asked to be given a chance to prove that they would make a great couple. Chad was not won over and decided to avoid Patrick in the future. When Patrick realized that Chad was backing off, he increased his love bombing.
He knew Chad loved the theater, but that his budget did not allow him to go very often. Patrick splurged and bought great seats to a show that he knew Chad wanted to see. Patrick then called Chad and said: “I know you are not really interested in me, but we both love the theater and I was just given two great tickets to that show you mentioned. How about if we just go as friends? No expectations.” (Notice the lies).
This continued. Patrick showered Chad with praise and presents and made lots of promises about their future together: “I can’t wait to take you to the beach house I rent every summer. I know you will love it there.”
Eventually, Chad weakened and started spending more and more time with Patrick. Chad reasoned, “Maybe I should really give this relationship a chance. Nobody has ever treated me this well or wanted me this much.” Unfortunately, once Patrick realized that he had hooked Chad, he started to lose interest in him. For Patrick, love was about the chase, not the person.
Source: The term hoovering is derived from the name of the Hoover vacuum cleaner. In Ireland and the UK, “to hoover” became synonymous with using a vacuum cleaner to suck up dirt.
NPD Meaning: The term hoovering has now been extended to refer to a narcissist’s attempts to suck a discarded mate back into a relationship by saying and doing things that the ex would find irresistible.
Example: William and Betty
When narcissistic William first met Betty, he saw her as the special woman that he had been looking for his entire adult life. Betty was beautiful, educated, and from a higher social class than William. When their relationship started, he treated her like a queen. William moved fast, asked Betty to give up her job, marry him, and move with him to another state where she knew no one.
After they had lived together for a while, William got bored and lost interest in Betty. There was no more talk of marriage. William started devaluing her and picking fights. After one particularly vicious fight in which he blamed Betty’s supposed selfishness for the death of their relationship, William packed his things, moved out, and left Betty heartbroken in a strange town with a new expensive apartment that she could not afford to keep.
Betty was stunned, deeply depressed, and had no idea what had happened to their once wonderful relationship. She cried on and off for a year, tried to contact William to get closure, but he never answered her texts, phone calls or emails. Eventually, Betty asked her family for help and went into therapy.
A year goes by.
All of a sudden Betty gets a sweet text on her birthday from William, “Thinking of you. Hope you are having a lovely day.” Betty is stunned to hear from him but decides that her best course of action is to ignore him completely.
William is determined to hoover Betty back into a relationship with him. In addition to sending her cute flirty texts every day, he has a beautiful bouquet of her favorite flowers delivered to her house. When Betty still refuses to speak to him, William’s next move is a classic hoover technique: he sends her a letter apologizing for all he has put her through.
I love you madly. I know you must hate me. I deserve every bad thing that you think about me. I was crazy to treat you the way I did. I realize now that I made the biggest mistake of my life when I let you go. (Notice how he just re-characterized his running out on her as “letting her go”). You are the only woman that I have ever loved. Please give me one more chance to prove that I have changed. I will do anything you ask to prove how much I love you. You won’t regret it. I promise.
Source: According to Wikipedia.org, the term narcissistic supply is a concept that was introduced in 1938 by the psychoanalyst Otto Fenichel to describe the various ways that we use other people to prop up our self-esteem.
NPD Meaning: The term narcissistic supplies, or supply for short, describes anything and anyone that narcissists use to regulate their self-esteem. The purpose of narcissistic supplies is to enhance the narcissist’s sense of being special.
Example: Edward the Philanthropist
Edward is what I call a “pro-social” exhibitionist narcissist. Edward is extremely wealthy and chooses to use his wealth to support his public image as someone who cares deeply about other people. This is particularly ironic because Edward totally lacks emotional empathy. There is a huge difference between the face Edward shows the public and how he behaves towards those close to him. He is known for publicly humiliating anyone he dislikes. At home, he is a tyrant and his wife and children fear him, as do the people who work for him.
Edward’s main source of narcissistic supplies is to give millions of dollars to high profile charitable causes that display his name and face. He endowed a pediatric wing of a local hospital that is now named after him and he also supports a local library. His favorite charity is public television. He loves knowing that every time someone watches one of the television shows that he sponsors, his name and face are prominently displayed on the screen in recognition of the money that he has given the show.
Narcissistic Word Salad
Source: The term word salad or its more formal name schizophasia refers to a form of disorganized and unintelligible speech that is characteristic of some forms of severe mental illness. Seemingly random phrases or words are linked together. The term word salad is often associated with the psychotic disorder called schizophrenia.
NPD Meaning: The term narcissistic word salad is essentially a misuse of an important psychological term. Instead of referring to an involuntary verbal sign of a severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia, it is being used as a slang term for a type of narcissistic speech that is purposefully confusing. Listeners find narcissistic word salad extremely frustrating because the narcissist is using circular reasoning, outright lies, denial, or mischaracterizations of past events to avoid being wrong or having to take responsibility for something.
The Narcissistic Family System—The Golden Child & The Scapegoat
In families led by a powerful parent with a narcissistic personality disorder, the children in the family are sometimes assigned specific roles and are treated quite differently from each other. This is because people with narcissistic personality disorder lack whole object relations and cannot see their children realistically as having a blend of both good and bad traits. One child may become the recipient of the narcissistic parent’s all-good projections and is seen as perfect, while one or more of the other children may be seen as all-bad. In some families, these roles are reassigned according to whomever is the parent’s favorite that day. This sometimes fosters competition among the children to please the parent and be seen as the good one.
The Golden Child: This is the term for the narcissistic parent’s favorite child. This child is idealized as perfect and special. The parent projects all the positive qualities of this golden child and brags about his or her wonderful accomplishments to anyone who will listen.
The Scapegoat: This child is the object of all the narcissistic parent’s negative projections. He or she is devalued and treated as an insignificant loser who is blamed for everything that goes wrong, including things that are clearly other people’s fault.
Example—Perry the Scapegoat
In Perry’s family, his brother David is the anointed golden child, while he is the perpetual scapegoat. When David hurt his hand while maliciously breaking one of Perry’s favorite toys, their narcissistic mother blamed Perry. “See what you did! It is your fault that your brother hurt his hand. What did you do to him?”
Punchline: A number of slang terms—gaslighting, golden child, flying monkeys, and so on—have been coined to describe people, coping mechanisms, and situations that relate to narcissistic personality disorder. Some of these terms have caught on and are now being used as catchy shorthand ways to describe narcissistic issues. However, many of the people using these terms are not very clear about what they actually mean. In order to bring some clarity to the situation, I am suggesting that we start defining these terms, provide clear examples of what we mean by them, and not make the mistake of throwing them around with careless abandon.