Introvert limerents

When in a thoughtful mood, one of the more absorbing aspects of limerence in my opinion is the potential for intersection with other psychological traits and mental disorders. A notion that has been occupying me recently is that the tendency to become limerent may relate strongly to where someone lies on the introvert-extravert spectrum. Given that limerence can be seen as person addiction, the key personality trait that determines how interactions with other people play out is likely to have a significant impact on limerence experiences.

I’m an introvert, so have limited experience of what life is like for extraverts. Nevertheless, it does seem that certain tendencies of the introvert brain make it especially vulnerable to limerence capture.

1) Most people are a drain, LOs are a supercharger

A defining feature of introversion is that interactions with other people – even if positive – are energy sapping, and can only be managed in regulated doses. Alone time is needed to recharge and recover. In contrast, extraverts thrive in the company of others, and become restless and weary during time alone.

Given that difference in temperament, it’s quite a surprise for an introvert when they encounter an LO. Instead of the usual fatigue, the company of this new person is invigorating, exciting, stimulating – all the things that aren’t normally associated with extended time with other people. It’s a categorical difference, even from very familiar friends whose company is welcome and enjoyable. LOs give introverts a taste of extravert energy; of how electric the company of others can be.

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I’ve always thought this is an impressively unambiguous sign

Eventually, of course, even the company of LO becomes wearisome, but even the short-term energising boost of limerent supercharging can be an exciting and novel experience for an introvert. That, of course, adds to the sense that LO is someone especially special and wonderful, and/or that cosmic powers must be at play. “Nobody’s ever made me feel like this before,” can be literally true after an introvert meets an LO for the first time.

2) Rumination comes naturally

Another defining feature of introversion is the centrality of the internal world in contrast to the real, external world. Introverts live more consistently within their imaginations than in the material world. The external world is a source of stimulation that can be explored, before retreating to the internal world to make sense of the experiences encountered. To extraverts, the external world is more real, and the proper location for experiencing life. Rumination and reflection are helpful, but only inasmuch as they can direct one to better action in the real world.

It’s no real surprise, therefore, that limerent rumination comes so easily and naturally to introverts. Obsessive, intrusive, relentless thoughts about LO. Detailed fantasies about past or future encounters with them. So much of the introvert life is defined by replaying and analysing experiences or ideas, and rehearsing future scenarios, that limerent rumination is simply an extension of this core habit. It’s how we make sense of the world; limerence is a just massive amplification of this general tendency until it becomes uncontrollable.

Another thought (but not one that is easily verified), is that the hole into which limerents sink could be deeper for introverts. More of an introvert’s attention is captured by thoughts and memories. Being trapped in a more vivid and expansive internal world could be worse than being trapped in an internal world that is subordinate to the external world.

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That blue sky seems a long way off

3) Escape is harder

When faced with a threat, the natural impulse of any animal is to retreat to safety. For extraverts, this comfort zone is the company of friends and society – which are actually very useful distractions from the thoughts of LO churning around in their mind.

For introverts, in contrast, LO has taken up residence in the dead centre of their comfort zone. Normally, stressed introverts will retreat to isolation to recuperate. But that is where the threat is located.

In some respects, this is a balancing of threats. For extraverts it will be harder to escape LO’s company if they are out socialising in the world. For introverts, it will be harder to escape rumination about LO if they have retreated to their internal landscape. Frankly, it’s hard to escape LO regardless, as they exist as a centre of gravity in both internal and external worlds, but extraversion does offer the opportunity to seek alternative company to distract from LO, while introversion cannot offer alternative isolation. You’re stuck with your own mind.

4) Transference is harder

One possible method for eliminating limerence for an inappropriate LO is to look for a new one. Limerence does seem to be a serial experience: it is not possible to become limerent for more than one person at a time. This tactic is obviously counterproductive  if you are trying to get rid of limerence while in a relationship, but if the limerent is single, then seeking an alternative, healthier, LO is a feasible option.

Given the tendency of introverts to avoid company, it is likely to be considerably harder to find alternative LOs. Especially as the process of seeking and socialising with new people is going to be debilitating, rather than a useful and energising distraction. Introverts generally have a smaller social network than extraverts, so it is also harder to make new connections, even if you pluck up the courage to reach out.

Nowadays, there are technological fixes, but again, extraverts generally have the advantage when it comes to casual encounters. Introverts tend to overthink them.

 

Boo-hoo gloom? 

I promised cat videos in the last post, but appear to have instead written about deep pits of despair. Whoopsie!

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Here’s a kitten who seems to have bad intentions towards some daisies

To end on a more positive note, whilst there seems to be a good case that introverts would be more vulnerable to limerence than extraverts, the counterpoint is that many introvert traits can also be a positive force for recovery. The key principles for managing limerence are self-awareness, self-discipline, and the desire to live a more purposeful life. Introverts are likely to be more adept at the self-reflection needed to recognise how their own choices and decisions led them into the limerence briar patch. They are also better practiced at marshalling their internal narrative – telling themselves the story of who they are and what they want to achieve. The “reprogramming” needed to break the mental connection between LO and pleasure/reward is also likely to come more easily to introverts, being based around playing out scenarios for what can go wrong if they give in to the limerence drive.

So, while the short-term distraction tactics are more accessible to extraverts, the long-term strategy for mastering limerence and subsuming it into your life should be more accessible to introverts.

So, those are my thoughts. Extraverts with a different view are most welcome in the comments…

Why is it so hard to kick the limerence habit?

Easy answer: because deep down you don’t want to.

I like the idea of defining limerence as “person addiction”, and one of the reasons that definition seems so apt is because addicts are driven by a central dissonance: I know this thing is bad for me, but I crave it so strongly that I want to carry on regardless. Or, perhaps more subtly, I want to quit, but I hope I fail so I can have more. It almost feels like some part of you is smiling at your deluded self in your efforts to Do The Right Thing, when they know deep down that you are doomed to fail.

There were times in my last limerence episode where I could see with certainty that all roads ahead with LO on them led to bad outcomes, but despite that clarity, a deep part of me hoped that LO would throw herself at me. I wasn’t totally sure I could resist a full frontal assault, so part of me wanted her to attack.

Overcoming this “two minds” problem is one of the hardest challenges in limerence mastery. The internal conflict between your rational self and your irrational self is also a big part of the emotional pain and self-disgust that toxic limerence brings. How to resolve this conflict is not always clear, and certainly never easy. It’s slippery stuff, so I’m going to try and think my way through it by the use of an extended (possibly tortured) metaphor.

 

The deep down you is not You

An important first step is to recognise that the strength of the deep-down feelings is not an indication of their importance. Deep-down you is a simple creature, and driven by straightforward urges.

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Want!!!

There is no sophistication about its primal drives. No foresight. No concern for consequences. Deep-down you is basically a toddler with poor impulse control.

When coupled to the power and deviousness of an adult, this can be quite a destructive force. Fortunately, most of us learn to act as a responsible parent to the deep-down child within us, enforce boundaries, and keeping a watchful eye on what it’s getting up to.

But the desire to sometimes give in to those selfish demands can be seductive. Indulging the deep-down child can feel really good. Guilty good. It can feel as if you are satisfying a fundamental part of yourself, because in a way you are, but it’s important to recognise that, while it is fundamental, it is also very primitive. It’s not the part of yourself that should be in control of your life. There’s a reason that we don’t let children drive: it’s mad dangerous.

You are the you that knows best

Like all children, the deep down part of yourself needs care. It doesn’t understand why all its whims shouldn’t be catered to. It doesn’t like to hear “No”. It needs constraints to stay safe, but it also needs love. Despite the potential for destruction, toddlers are adorable and lovable in their guilelessness. You do not want to be in conflict with your deep-down self; you want it to be able to indulge itself within the healthy constraints that will allow it (and you) to thrive. The child should be nurtured and kept emotionally and physically safe, but the responsible parent is the part of you that must be in charge.

From this perspective, the responsible parent is You at your most essential level. It’s also the definition of what makes us human. The ability to override our base urges, the ability to look into the future and make sacrifices now that lead to a better life, the ability to delay gratification for better outcomes. I don’t think it’s too hyperbolic to say that this uniquely-human trait was vital for the emergence of civilisation.

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So don’t mess around with it, or you know what will happen

All the best things in life come from the purposeful part of ourselves that knows what’s best and tries to do it. The people we admire the most are those who are guided by integrity, because we know that living like that is better than fighting to get whatever you can in a desperate attempt to sate the deep down urges of our basic selves.

The point at which my metaphor breaks down and things get dark

Here’s the hard part: the You that is in charge must be nurtured just as assiduously as the deep down child, or you can succumb to cynicism and resentment. Sometimes you can feel like peevishly letting the child grab the wheel for a while, to swerve all over the road, mowing down innocent bystanders.

Corralling the fundamental but primitive part of yourself is an ongoing effort, and reaching a healthy balance between restraining and indulging it requires self-awareness and patience. It also requires discipline and conscientiousness. Sometimes we can’t manage it.

Because – and this is where we leave the metaphor behind – sex is a central part of limerence too, and this makes it significantly different from other drives. Without wanting to get too grim, there are evolutionary reasons why a drive to reproduce can be stronger than the drive to self-protect. From a gene-centric perspective, once we’ve made children (and propagated our genes) it doesn’t matter if our lives are rich and healthy and full of self-actualisation. Those things matter a lot to us, but mathematically, they have a trivial impact on the success of our genes in replicating themselves. Limerence pushes with the force of millennia of evolutionary history, not “just” our own short lives.

The urgency of sexual desire coupled to pair-bonding, with a dash of compulsive addiction, may be about the most challenging deep-down behaviour that our wiser selves ever have to discipline. It feels less like a spoilt child wanting cake, and more like a predatory satyr that wants to dominate, or like willing prey that wants to utterly surrender and be possessed. And here’s another difficult bit: as well as embracing the deep-down child, you also have to embrace the dark and animalistic part of yourself too. But without letting it take over.

We are legion

At this point, sceptical readers may be forgiven for thinking I’ve gone off the deep end with this “multiple selves” stuff, so I’ll try to bring it back to something more practical. For your rational mind to stand a chance of overruling the compulsive limerent urge to pair-bond, you really have to understand and accept all the deep drives acting in opposition to your own best interests. They are part of you, part of your personal history, and part of your ancestral history.

But you have a unique advantage: a You that can see further, think harder, and has a firm grip on the steering wheel. You can accept your limerent feelings, experience them, and decide, ultimately, not to act on them. Even when you really want to, deep down. Even when the devil in you whispers “go on!” Even when you are tired and stressed and resentful of the expectation that you always have to be responsible. Even then, your wiser self can prevail. In the face of long odds, the human will to be better can win the day.

Civilisation depends on it.

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And you thought you just had a crush on a co-worker…

 

Phew! Made it to the end.

Next week, cat videos.

Kicking the limerence habit

Reader Vincent suggests “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg as a useful perspective on limerence.

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

It’s a great book. I really enjoyed it, and there are some fascinating insights. One of the episodes that really stayed with me was a man who had suffered a stroke that severely damaged the region of his brain that is needed for retention of new memories. He was therefore stuck in a strange world where he couldn’t lay down new memories. Despite this, he was able to learn new things. After moving to a new house with his wife, he could not explain where the kitchen was to an interviewer, but when he was hungry he would get up and walk into it to make himself some food.

That anecdote illustrates the core principle of the book: habits become ingrained at a deep level of the brain – not at the high “executive function” level. A great deal of our day-to-day behaviour is driven by habits, not by thinking. The implications for limerence are clear.

1) Limerence is a deep rooted drive

Not a hard one for a limerent to accept this, but it shows that the impulse to seek LO is not being driven consciously. It’s an urge driven by the subcortical parts of the brain to initiate reward-seeking behaviour. In Duhigg’s model, habits are composed of a three step process:

Cue → Routine → Reward

The cue is the trigger that activates the habit “circuitry” and starts the routine. It’s a little slippery what exactly the cue can be. It could be a fundamental urge like hunger that initiates food-seeking behaviour, leading to reward when you’ve successfully made and eaten a bacon sandwich. Or, it could be more subtle – a time of day or event that recurs and has become associated with a habit. Like always wanting a cigarette after lunch, or making a cup of tea as soon as you get home from work.

For limerence, the concept of an identifiable cue is the part of the model that is least useful for me. First, there is the problem that LO is such a dominant part of your mental landscape that everything is a cue. Life is basically one giant hyper-cue for LO. Thoughts of LO can be triggered by a song, an idea in a book, a similar-looking person, a smell, a room where you once met them, social media, the work environment, etc. etc. Added to this is the even slipperier concept of emotional cues: when you feel sad, or happy, or lonely, or fearful, it can trigger thoughts of LO as a (ultimately counterproductive) self-medicating pleasure. So, the problem in identifying a specific cue that triggers limerence-reinforcement is that almost everything can be a cue.

The next two stages of the model are more straightforward. The “routines” most limerents fall into are rumination and/or LO-seeking. The myriad cues all trigger the urge to contact LO either in person or in your imagination. The “reward” of course, is the big old surge of dopamine (plus other neuromodulators) that make you feel all vibrant and giddy and alive. I’d also suggest that limerence constitutes a hyper-reward. I can’t think of many other life experiences that come close to the euphoria experienced during the early stages of limerence. Chocolate doesn’t quite measure up.

2) Once the habit is ingrained, it is difficult to shift

Once the pattern of neural activity that encodes the habit is reinforced, it becomes effortless to execute. No cognitive strain needs to be exerted to initiate the routine. In fact, the routine often begins before the conscious awareness that you are doing it AGAIN catches up.

I’ve touched on this before in relation to rationalisation, we often act-then-justify, rather than think-then-act. It’s a psychological truism that we are cognitive misers – we won’t expend energy on thinking through a problem if we can instead follow an effortless intuition or ingrained behaviour. That reality is a major part of why it is hard to break a habit. You have to not only exert willpower to intervene when “autopilot mode” has kicked in, but to make the intervention last, you also have to weaken the established patterns of neuronal activity in the brain. And it can take longer for an executive-based behaviour to be learned than something as instinctive as pair bonding (i.e. “I’m not going to do this anymore because it is disrupting my life goals” is less weighty than “must mate with super-attractive person”).

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Hardly a close call

3) Changing the habit may be possible…

Despite recognising the difficulty of kicking a bad habit, Duhigg does offer hope for a strategy for changing. It is based around identifying the details of the cue → routine → reward pattern, and substituting a new routine and/or reward for the old one. He gives the example of breaking his own habit of snacking on cookies. His suggestion is that analysis of the cue is the starting point for fixing the habit. If the routine is to interrupt your work and get up from your desk go to the cafe and grab a snack or drink, he suggests looking beyond the simple explanation. Perhaps the cue is not hunger, but boredom. The urge to go to the cafe is not for food, but for company. In this scenario, the actual reward is spending time socialising with colleagues, not food. Once the true cue is recognised, you can substitute the routine to get the same reward. In his case, you would go to a colleague’s office, or the cafe, just to chat. Same cue, same reward, but zero calories.

Whether or not you find this example persuasive, the central thesis is that switching the dysfunctional routine for a superior one is the best bet for changing a habit. You’ll still want the reward. You’ll still experience the cue that triggers desire. The key is finding a new routine that satisfies it.

That’s the point where I think limerents will struggle. What can you substitute as a routine that will give a limerent reward without either involving LO or ruminating about them? Transference to another LO is possible, but also fraught with problems, of course. It could be a failure of imagination for me, but the reward being sought is so specific and so linked to LO that it is hard to devise a way to redirect it onto a different routine.

4) Can the habit be broken?

So is there no hope?

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Ah c’mon! Don’t be defeatist.

There’s always hope. I think the message of Duhigg’s book is powerful – that more of our lives are governed by habit than we realise – but it is possible to override old habits with training and determination. The executive centres of the brain do have ultimate control. We can regulate our impulses. It’s not easy, but I’ve spoken before about possible strategies.

The key thing for me is that we all have habits that we have fallen out of, so we know it’s possible. I used to have the habit of taking a walk every lunchtime, which was rewarding, restorative and enjoyable. But I took on more responsibilities at work, time pressures crowded in, and I just… stopped. I didn’t exactly make a decision, I just missed a few days, then missed more days than I took, and then I just wasn’t doing it anymore. I’m sure if I went for a walk next week I would find it rewarding. I even think it was a good habit that I should probably have continued. Nevertheless, a change in my schedule (shortening lunch to fit more work in) was enough of a disruption to override the old habit.

Now, obviously, skipping a midday walk is a different order of magnitude to overcoming limerence. But, for me, the route to mastering limerence was not in repurposing the habit loop, it was in over-writing the whole routine with a new mental association: LO = reward, was superseded with LO = risk.

 

A wider perspective on this is that it is very valuable to understand exactly what is rewarding about LO, and why you might be seeking it. With the usual reservations, it may well be worth exploring your emotional drives with a therapist of some sort, to try and identify both the reward that you are getting and why you are seeking it now. Also, I really do like the idea of deeply analysing the cues that trigger the habit cycle. All knowledge is useful in the project of understanding yourself and deciding to take control over your life and fate.

I recommend the book. It’s worth a try, and at the very least, you’ll learn a lot of interesting stuff about how people work.