It’s been a while since we considered a case study, and this one is a little mysterious. Lotus got in touch with me about her situation, but using an apparently fake or dead email address. That has made it hard for me to follow up for more info, so we’re going to have to work with what we have.
Anyway, cloak and dagger limitations aside, the question is a good one: how to deal with limerence for a mentor.
Lotus sets the scene about a limerence dynamic that comes up on the blog and in the comments quite frequently:
Typically the limerent (a guy) is an accomplished senior leader at work and LO is an attractive, younger, extrovert, junior woman full of effusive praise for the leader. How do you resist that?!
She is on the other side of this scenario:
I am a woman… limerent for my boss. He hired me. Is attractive, extrovert and vivacious. He is really into promoting female talent in our field. He likes my work, and of course I work extra hard to make him happy, which further leads to very public praise and also private face-to-face positive feedback, and the cycle continues.”
It’s really nice to get praise, but of course, limerence has to come along and spoil everything.
He is also a huge advocate and mentor for me and has taken me under his wing, pulling me often into whatever he is doing. He is super professional with me (as I am with him). I know this is nothing but my little ego getting inflated by all this. I know this rationally, but every time I start slipping off LE chains, his public agreeing with me, supporting me, giving me kudos happens… and I fall in the ring of fire again!
Lotus needs to find a way to break this cycle. Neither she nor her boss are free to pursue a romantic relationship, even if they wanted to. So, what can be done?
Well, a good starting point is to analyse some of the psychological factors in play here, and see if that uncovers what might be going on beneath the surface.
1. The power of praise
The first thing to note is that the direct trigger for limerent feelings in Lotus is praise from her boss. That is a very common trigger. It’s emotional validation, professional recognition, ego-fluffing, and self-esteem boosting all rolled into one. A rewarding stew.
For limerents who are struggling to find emotional sustenance elsewhere, this can be a potent trigger for the glimmer. Someone in a position of authority praises you, values you, and pays attention to you. They see you, and that makes them seem marvellous.
From a neurochemical perspective, this is the rush of victory – a mix of dopamine reward and serotonin mood enhancement. A taste of that becomes desirable, then motivating, then addictive.
To add extra spice, this scenario also results in good outcomes. When working hard to impress an LO, you achieve more. If your work is good, you can add the satisfaction of career success and advancement to the simple pleasure of worthwhile labour.
All in all, it’s quite a feedback loop: This person makes me feel good about myself. When I try to please them, I get a hit of bliss and I make progress in my working life. By continuing in this cycle, I accomplish more and feel even better about myself.
Not hard to see how this can lead to limerent reinforcement.
2. The authority figure archetype
Another factor to consider is the prevalence of the “mentor” archetype amongst limerent objects. These are people who sort of have some idealisation already built into them. They are people who have accomplished enough to have status, and they can help you grow as a person (or, at least, a professional).
I’ve talked before about the idea of a limerence avatar – a blueprint that most limerents have for the kind of people we tend to become limerent for. If your avatar is “the mentor”, then you will obviously be prone to become limerent for bosses, professors, doctors, and so on.
Why this sort of person causes the glimmer for you will be hidden somewhere in your personal history. An obvious theory is that it is linked into the emotional background of your family of origin – in disparaging terms “Mummy or Daddy issues”. For those who subscribe to the idea that limerence is caused by attachment problems, this is the go-to explanation. But it is worth going beyond the obvious explanation and looking at other possibilities.
3. The seduction of power
Powerful people can be impressive. They can be intelligent, charming – dazzling even – and they generally have a lot of social and financial resources at their disposal. This can make them alluring company, especially for younger people who have not yet built those capabilities.
Lotus describes her LO as attractive, extrovert and vivacious. That may be adding another dimension to the limerence, as the reward of being praised is overlaid by the excitement of being favoured by someone so charismatic. Sometimes people rise to positions of influence because they have a sort of glamour – in the old fashioned sense of being bewitching or enchanting.
Becoming addicted to such people may not be as simple as trying to please the ghost of a distant parent, it may be a more visceral attraction to a genuinely fascinating person. Limerence will do the work of turning that glimmer of magnetic appeal into an irresistible intoxication.
4. Mutual ego amplification
The next factor to consider is what LO is bringing to this limerence party. While I repeatedly emphasise that limerence is happening in our heads and that is where the solution lies, it is also important to consider how their behaviour is affecting the dynamics of the limerent experience.
Most mentors get pleasure and satisfaction from helping others to thrive. Although it can be a generous act, it isn’t entirely selfless – there is emotional reward in it for the mentor too. When you find someone who responds to your experience with appreciation, you feel good about yourself as a mentor too. If that mentee then puts your advice into practice and succeeds, you feel even better.
In its purest form, this relationship is overwhelmingly positive. Untainted by erotic or romantic desire, “true” mentorship is a wonderful force for mutual benefit. Unfortunately, from the perspective of the mentor, the idea of helping someone who excites their ego in other ways too is much more seductive.
There is a reason why a senior person bringing wealth and experience, and a junior person bringing youth and sex appeal, is so combustible a mix. Each has something the other desires, each benefits from the mutual ego gratification, and each becomes energised by the frisson of excitement that comes from playing on the edge of respectability.
Things go wrong, of course, when it turns out they weren’t playing the same game or by the same rules.
5. Narcissistic mentors
One obvious danger in this scenario is the temptation for the mentor to abuse their power. The senior manager who pays particular and disproportionate attention to attractive, young proteges is a cliché for a reason. Predatory narcissists who cultivate the hero-worship of impressionable young people know exactly how to use praise, advocacy and recognition to manipulate.
Limerence for such a mentor can go badly when idealisation of the LO makes the limerent blind to the pattern of favouritism by the mentor, and the inevitable workplace rumours that accumulate around such people. Narcissists tend to cycle through proteges as they use up their narcissistic supply, always looking for new targets to impress (among the people that don’t know them well enough yet). If you’ve become limerent for that kind of boss, the discard can be devastating.
Finally, it may be uncharitable of me, but my (anecdotal) professional experience has been that those men most vocal in their determination to “promote female talent” are the biggest narcissists. Genuine mentors seem more reflective – they respond to the people who approach them as individuals, not as abstract representatives of a demographic class. Narcissists pay attention to institutional concerns about representation and pander to them, in order to make themselves look good.
Cynical, I know, and it is always possible that some good would come regardless of the motives of the pandering narcissist. But as an individual seeking support, I’d advise caution about the overtures of a mentor who sees you as a cause rather than a person.
6. Risky business
Those are some of the main psychological factors that should be considered in this case. As ever, trying to analyse the situation dispassionately can help clarify what’s really going on and understand your own impulses and desires. It is possible to benefit from mentorship even if you are limerent, if you are able to regulate your addictive urges well enough to remain on the right side of professional decorum. But it’s a gamble, as every jolt of euphoria makes you a bit more giddy and disinhibited.
For all the self-analysis, it’s also important to soberly face the practical downsides. Workplace dalliances can go catastrophically wrong. Senior people playing favourites often breeds resentment in other colleagues. Gossip can turn nasty. Sometimes a little flirtation from either party can be taken as licence to push at boundaries, and somebody crosses a professional line. HR or personnel departments can then get involved, leading to legal and career-destroying consequences.
Behaviour that seemed titillating and exciting during limerence can look plainly inappropriate in the cold light of day – once the mental fog has cleared. Trying to ride the limerent wave can lead to ever greater risk taking. When you are seeking the praise and validation of an LO like a junkie seeks a hit, you are dependent on your boss for mood regulation. That’s not a stable state to live in for very long.
So, that’s a lot of words spent in dissecting the situation, but what can be done? The ideal outcome for Lotus would be for her to continue to benefit from the mentorship of her boss, but stop the limerence reaction that it causes from escalating. No contact is not really an option (except for the extreme scenario of quitting), so what would work better?
It will be no surprise to regular readers that purposeful living is my answer. Lotus needs to find a way to expand the scope of her working life beyond the local goal of pleasing her boss, and into a larger goal of developing an independent career. You don’t want to stay tethered to this man forever; at some point you need to grow beyond him. I don’t mean surpassing his achievements, necessarily, I mean becoming self-sufficient and directing your own career and no longer needing his patronage.
Genuine mentors will be delighted by this, hungry narcissists will not. So, this could also be a way of finding out which class your LO falls into.
In the meantime, there is the problem of escaping the limerent reinforcement during times of praise and recognition. As the situation does not seem critical at the moment (no professional lines have been crossed, and no damage beyond the internal distress for Lotus), a slow cooling off seems a good plan. Reframing what’s happening now you are aware of your limerent triggers would go a long way.
When you feel a rush of pride, enjoy it, but remind yourself this is your limerent response to your buttons being pushed. It isn’t a sign of romantic interest from your boss. He is not the source of those good feelings, you conjured them within yourself. You are responding to his cues, he is not gifting you magical emotional delights. And, most importantly, remind yourself that you do not know his motives. He may well be highly impressed by your abilities, but his decision to promote them so publicly is part of his own agenda.
That little tweak in mindset can make a big difference. You do not know his motives. They may not be noble. You may just be a vehicle for his ego-boosting performance as White Knight. He might be attracted to you too, and so favouring you for sleazy reasons. You don’t know, and it doesn’t actually matter.
You do know that you don’t want a relationship with this man. You know that you need to grow beyond him. Securing his praise isn’t the goal – doing praiseworthy work is.
Reframe this time as a period where you helped each other professionally, you benefited from his mentorship regardless of his motives, and you learned something important about your own emotional triggers.
Then look beyond it to a purposeful future where you are in charge of your own professional fate.