I spend a goodly amount of time here at LwL trying to understand the factors that make limerence more or less likely to occur. There are some repeating themes – intermittent reward, uncertainty, barriers, and psychological vulnerabilities – but one factor that I haven’t considered much is insecurity. Let’s rectify that oversight today!
First, what do I mean by insecurity? Well, I basically mean low self-esteem: a lack of confidence in your attractiveness, and an aversion to revealing your emotions for fear of negative consequences.
For some people this can be crippling. An inability to believe that anyone would be interested in them romantically. A general lack of self worth, usually originating from constant criticism, neglect, or outright abuse during childhood. That is highly likely to cause attachment issues and problems with healthy bonding. For people who have suffered this sort of persistent devaluation, insecurity is a background condition to their lives – and, unfortunately, limerence is only likely to be one of a number of problems they will face.
At the other end of the self-esteem scale are people who are confident, decisive, have a healthy amount of self-respect, and understand their value. Such people are likely to be the most resilient to limerence, the most able to resist toxic LOs, and the most likely to take decisive action if it does start to disrupt their lives.
Most of humanity falls between these bookends. Most of us have some degree of insecurity, some doubts about our attractiveness, some sense that we can’t really believe deep down that anyone would really want to bond with us. It’s probably just a matter of time till they see through the facade and realise that we’re not as cool as we were pretending to be. And even if it seems to be going well so far, we’re not going to count our chickens just yet.
Those sorts of totally normal nagging doubts put us in an exposed spot when it comes to limerence, mainly because they make us hesitate, second-guess and generally clam up around LO.
There are some particular ways that insecurity exacerbates limerence, though, so let’s get listy.
1) Fear garbles communication
Lots of problems in life are made worse by poor communication. Insecurity tends to make us stutter, backtrack, doubt, hedge, and generally garble out a highly edited and sometimes downright-misleading version of our true feelings. Romantic comedies make hay with this sort of social cringe.
“Hi, I was uh wondering if you wanted to… I mean, only if you really want… uh, I mean, I was just thinking that perhaps, we could… no, I’m being dumb, just… how are you?”
Now in Romantic Comedy World, our heroine steps in and saves the (surprisingly handsome for a shy bloke) hero from his tongue-tied hopelessness. You know, by smiling winningly and putting her finger to his lips, than taking charge of the conversational situation.
In real life, an LO is more likely to look baffled, or uncomfortable, or frustrated. They are not likely to be motivated to try and untangle exactly what you mean, and decipher your mixed messages. If you are are sensitive as well as shy, you’ll pick up on that discomfort and lose even more confidence. That leads to the next problem.
2) Indecision contributes to uncertainty
The reluctance to communicate deep feelings tends to manifest as hesitation and indecision. That feeds uncertainty, both for you and for LO. If you try some sort of coded hint about romantic interest (without risking an overt opportunity for rejection), and they give an unexpected or similarly coded response, what do you do next? Spend hours ruminating about it, of course! And hours planning what you could say next time; forms of words that might just unlock their secrets. You might also give yourself a pep-talk and resolve to be more decisive, and declare yourself for sure the next time you meet… right up until the next time you meet and you instead go to pieces. All this adds to the rumination, uncertainty and obsessive thinking that turbocharges limerence.
And if you are both limerent and both insecure, then you multiply the impact.
3) Delay makes limerence worse
As we discussed in a previous case study there’s a sweet spot for declaring yourself to an LO you want to get together with. Too soon is creepy and love-bombing, but wait too long and you move past the point where it would have seemed natural to express your feelings, and into a period where the whole “friends or more than friends?” question favours “friends”. It’s like the romantic potential sort of goes stale. It’s not irretrievable, of course, but it certainly makes it more awkward. And once a limerent gets caught in the limbo of close-friends-but-not-dating… well we all know the drawn-out agonies that follow.
Unfortunately, suffering through each of these limerence amplifiers is also likely to make the insecurity worse, in a vicious cycle of emotional pain. So, what can be done?
Confidence can be built
I’m not going to go along with the positivity movement that urges you to love yourself and value yourself as the precious and special person that you are. Not because I disagree with the fundamental concept that everyone is valuable and worthwhile and deserving of love, but because it’s always struck me as a subtly defeatist idea. The positive thinking brigade don’t always seem to realise that it isn’t enough to just declare “hey everyone has value, you should love yourself more, you’re great!” Because if you are crippled by anxiety and insecurity you actually aren’t great. You feel terrible. Your life is terrible, and it can absolutely, definitely be better. Life should be better, but it’s going to take work to get there. Not just visualisations and wishful thinking.
It’s always seemed to be more honest to admit that, yes, you are in a mess, and insecurity is not a very attractive trait in a romantic partner. While that is true, you actually can do things – difficult but constructive things – to change it. To make your life better. You can work on excavating the sources of your insecurity (a professional can help here) and understand why you are where you are. You can start to analyse patterns of behaviour that undermine you. You can look for habits that sabotage you. And then you can work on breaking them.
Confidence, basically, can be built. This is, of course, the purposeful living prescription. Figure out who you are and who you want to be. Identify small steps you can take now to get you closer to that person. Bit by bit, build small victories over your old, negative behaviours, and you’ll be surprised to find one day that you’ve laid a lot of bricks in a new wall that’s holding you up. Working on yourself, working on your insecurities, working on a purposeful life – all this activity helps with limerence. It also helps in another big way: you will actually be a more attractive person, and a better partner, if you concentrate on improving your life.
Nothing builds confidence like a sustained period of concrete, meaningful achievements. Take action. It’s the best way out of the insecurity trap.
The Grocho Marx Effect (I’m not good enough for you) :
“I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.”
The Catch 22 Effect (Anyone who’d like me has to be crazy and I don’t want anything to do with a crazy person):
“”You mean there’s a catch?”
“Sure there’s a catch,” Doc Daneeka replied. “Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.”
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.” – Joseph Heller, “Catch 22”
The Rhett Butler Effect (What you tell someone once you’ve trashed things to the point that anything you might have had is lost and they accept they’re in the Friendzone or give up on you entirely):
“Why? Maybe it’s because I’ve always had a weakness for lost causes, once they’re really lost.” – “Gone With the Wind
Thank you for not pushing the positivity movement! I have always struggled with that one.
At this point in my LE I am in need of what to DO because analyzing myself and my past has helped, but sometimes it also seems a little bit crippling when it turns into over-thinking. Thank you for all the purposeful living advice!
My LO seems to be in an avoidance phase which helps the NC effort but it also makes me overthink his motives. I am trying to focus on changing my 46th year mid-life crisis to an attitude of my 47th year (starting in December) being a year of victories- no matter how small. I am hoping one of those victories is grasping the concept that my LO and I both have our quirky anti-social moments and nothing needs to be done but to move on with the rest of the day. I need to accept that this will never be “normal”. We will never be friends and our relationship will only ever be work related. I am also working on having an attitude of gratitude for things that are often taken for granted.
So cheers for me (Go, me!) for jogging 3 times this week! (All prayers are welcome to keep my spine from shattering in this particular purposeful living effort). I have been learning an instrument and have been playing songs I want to play when I want to play them instead of sticking to a strict practice regimen. It is much more fun this way! No one ever needs to be impressed with my skill level. This is for me!
Rather than jogging, brisk walking is as effective without messing up your knees. Particularly if you incorporate light hand weights and upper body moves to elevate your heart rate. Stay hydrated!
Playing an instrument for your pleasure is a great thing to do. Double bonus points if it is a new instrument too.
My jogging is about 3 miles but I brisk walk about half of it. I am also trying to get back into some flexibility, balance, body weight, and coordination exercises from the following website:
This is a great resource for anyone who has fitness goals as part of their purposeful living agenda. There are incremental steps to learn things like handstands and cartwheels (also simpler things to deal with joint pain or flexibility struggles, etc). Exercising like this can take the mental focus away from limerence issues. The programs let people go at their own pace so achievement and progress are self-regulated. There are a lot of free tutorials to try first before purchasing a program. It is kind of like going through a second childhood to roll around on the floor and play with movements!
Welcome to the story of my life. I have been through these 3 phases so many times, I have lost count.
Reading this post, one story comes to my mind: I wouldn’t say I am an insecure person (now), but I was an extremely shy, introverted kid that wouldn’t open her mouth.
When I dated the guy I was most limerent for ever, during uni times, he was the cool kid back in high school, at the time a med student, and I was absolutely not a cool kid at all. All I could think about was why would he want to be with me? Once he sees past the facade he will not be interested anymore, he’s going to dump me, etc, so I decided to break it off. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I thought about him every second during lectures and I was so crazy about him and so fearful that he would leave me once he knew me, I had to break up. Well a friend of his told me a few weeks later that I broke his heart, that he crazy about me too. Well, bummer, wrong decision I made I guess. He went NC, and I haven’t seen him since. That was 17 years ago.
I really like your statement that confidence can be built, I can vouch for that. I realized at some point that every time you change your school, go to uni, change company or a job, you basically present yourself on a blank slate. You can be anyone you want. So I usually try to reflect how I don’t want to be seen, and make the conscious effort to try to eliminate those stupid behaviors that I don’t like about myself. Fresh start. Not saying you should be fake or someone that you’re not, but you have the chance to present yourself in a new light! Just recently I had to present at an event and host a session, and a participant that spoke to me afterwards would not believe what a shy kid I used to be (my heart used to pound like crazy if we were just asked to state our name in an introduction round in a small group of people). I’m a big believer to learn from past experiences and hopefully I can take huge lessons learnt with me from my current LE!
“All I could think about was why would he want to be with me? Once he sees past the facade he will not be interested anymore, he’s going to dump me, etc, so I decided to break it off. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I thought about him every second during lectures and I was so crazy about him and so fearful that he would leave me once he knew me, I had to break up.”
As LO #2 put it to me after our breakup but before I cut her loose.
“I can’t control you. You don’t need me. You were only with me because you wanted to be. There was nothing to bind you to me. I was afraid that one day you’d wake up and not want to be with me. If I gave myself to you and you left, I’d be devastated…You did everything I ever asked of you. The harder you tried, the more I resented you for it. I made things so hard for you.”
My response was that I didn’t need a mother, I was looking for a partner. I told LO #2 that I had a mother and I wasn’t too impressed with her. The therapist said that my ex-girlfriend would say something like that and I snapped her to my mother was very significant and we’d come back to it.
The therapist said that LO #2 made a confession. Everything I needed to know about our relationship was in that paragraph and once I understood that, everything else would fall into place. It took a few years and multiple sessions but the therapist was right. I told the therapist it took a long time to tie LO #2 to my mother. The therapist said I was wrong. She said, “You knew.” I had tied LO #2 to my mother then but since I didn’t understand my relationship to my mother, I didn’t understand my relationship to LO #2. That took things in a whole different direction.
I’ve always been shy, somewhat introverted and yet not necessarily felt unattractive to the opposite sex. It was more that I needed the opportunity for them to get to know me somehow or for them to make the first move. Although an underlying fear of rejection meant I was generally slow on the uptake! A nightclub or crowded bar where you couldn’t hear yourself speak was terrible for me, introductions to friends-of-friends typically much better. So this has meant my love life has been one of quality rather than quantity. All my SOs have been conventionally attractive and popular, extroverts – there just haven’t been that many of them!
As time has worn on though, and I’ve got progressively older than the people I’m surrounded by, self-doubt crept in. Am I still attractive to the opposite sex? Am I old, boring and washed-up? Being married of course there were very few opportunities to test this, and of course I wouldn’t go looking for them. Hitting 40 though really brought these thoughts to a crescendo, especially when combined with an assessment of career achievements and all the other ingredients to a mid-life crisis.
So when LO started to knock-down my walls it was unusual but also the antidote to my insecurities. Here was someone young and attractive and yet seemingly into me – wow! It was great to be with her and feel young again, funny, wise, attractive…
With the benefit of hindsight of course this was a total sucker punch as all it did in the end was make me focus on all my insecurities even more when the uncertainty, does she / does she not stuff started to dominate my thoughts.
With a lot of reflection I can now see how the insecurities left me open to a LE. They weren’t the only driver but it was a big part. What they did do was force me to work on myself physically and mentally. I’ve now lost weight, look better than I have in years and can now appreciate everything I’ve got: SO, kids, career. Maybe this would have all happened anyway without LO but she was the catalyst and despite 9+m NC I’m keeping up the exercise, mindfulness, self-improvement etc. Now though it’s for me, not her.
This is so inspiring. Well done Vincent. You give hope
SAME. I’ve never really been insecure and never had a LE until now. But the midlife thing hit me very hard. And I think you are exactly right on how the development of the insecurities leaves you open to a LE. I wish I could say I have the perspective you now have on the other side of it, as I am still awash in uncertainty, barriers, jealousy, insomnia, depression etc. But your take is very inspiring. Thanks.
This post was really spot on for me. It seems from the beginning of my life, I was primed to be a limerent. It certainly didn’t help that the other necessary ingredients for an LE cropped up when LO came along.
I joined this site a few weeks ago, and have been enjoying learning more about the commenters, but haven’t shared details about my LE until now. My LO works at my children’s school and last year was my younger child’s teacher. This year my child moved up to the next division in a different building than LO, so I’ve been NC since June. I recently learned that LO will now be taking over for a person on maternity leave and be working in the after-school program in my children’s division starting next month. There is a high chance I will see LO when picking up my children. I fully understand what I had was a (probably mutual) LE and have no desire to restart this. But I am feeling very insecure about how to act if I see LO again. I have even discussed with SO about doing more pick ups, but practically that’s not possible, as I work near the school and SO commutes farther in the opposite direction. I realized after reading this post, that really my fear, anxiety and insecurity are what is getting in my way. I feel as if I can sense attraction/limerence in other people and then it triggers this insecurity that sucks me into a LE, instead of being able to resist it at the onset, and act normally around these people.