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March 2017
Psychology
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STALKING: RECOGNISING IT AND DEFENDING YOURSELF



Some behaviour, like making calls, sending texts or email, surprise visits and even sending flowers or presents, can be welcomed signs of affection, however, sometimes, they can become real forms of persecution which can limit the freedom of someone’s life and violate his/her privacy, even going so far as scaring the person who is the victim of stalking.
An obsessive harasser or stalker can be someone you know, with whom you have a sort of relationship, or it can be someone you do not know and whose path you have crossed by chance, for example, at work.

Following, harassment, persecution

Following, harassment and persecution can take many forms. They can be sporadic or they can be insistent demonstrations of a psychological and social phenomenon called stalking, also known as obsessive following. The word stalking was coined to symbolically represent the behaviour of someone who lies in wait and continually harasses someone. A stalker shows signs of complex types of behaviour which are summarised very well by the words ‘keeping a look-out’, which involves waiting, following and collecting information on the victim and his/her movements, behaviour which is almost always typical of all stalkers, despite differences from one case to another.

Some studies on this phenomenon have shown that there are two distinct behaviour categories through which one can carry out stalking.

  • The first type consists of intrusive communication and it includes all types of behaviour aimed at sending messages about their (the stalkers’) emotions, needs, impulses, desires or intentions, which can be related to affection (even if it is forced or addictive) or hatred, resentment or revenge. The persecution methods used involve using a communication tool, such as mobile phone, letters, text messages, emails or even graffiti or murals.
  • The second type of stalking behaviour is made up of contact, which can take the form of directly checking on the victim’s behaviour, by shadowing them or monitoring them, or directly confronting the victim by turning up at his/her work or house and making threats or assaults. Usually there are not two completely separate types of stalkers, in fact stalkers have features from both categories, showing signs of the first category to begin with and then doing things common to the second category.

Stalking behaviour has been outlined in all its specifics so as to be able to distinguish it from other, similar types of behaviour. More precisely, there are three particular features which must be present if you want to talk about stalking:

  1. the stalker acts towards a person, who is called a victim, in virtue of an ideal and emotional investment which is based on a relational situation which may be real or partially/completely imagined (depending on the personality of the stalker and the level of contact they keep with reality);
  2. the stalking occurs through behaviour based on communication and/or contact, but in every case it connotes repetition, insistence and intrusiveness;
  3. the psychological pressure, related to the stalker’s coercive behaviour and psychological terrorism carried out, puts the stalking victim in a state of alert, emergency and psychological stress. These psychological experiences can be related to the perception of the persecutory behaviour, considered to be unwelcome, intrusive and annoying, and the victim may also worry and be anxious because of fear for his/her safety. 

The identikit of a stalker

The coercion which connotes stalking behaviour, and which allows it to be outlined in legal terms, has led to the hypothesis that this problem is a form of an obsessive disorder. However, as has been observed, pathological obsessive disorders are connoted by egodystonic experiences related to previously carried out behaviour and, consequently, by feeling bad because of ideas, thoughts, mental images and obsessive impulses connected to persecution. These feelings of discomfort and intrusion are not usually found in stalkers, rather they tend to get pleasure from persecuting their victim.

It is also very important to underline that stalking is not a uniform phenomenon, therefore it is difficult to place stalkers in a precise, diagnostic category or always identify the presence of an actual mental disease. Stalkers are not always people with a mental disorder and, even if there are some forms of persecution which are psychopathic, this is not always present in every case, just like substance abuse is not always present in cases of stalking.

What is important to understand is that very different reasons can be hidden behind similar types of stalking behaviour. This conclusion was reached following studies which examined the psychological profile of numerous stalkers and, on the basis of these, five types of stalkers were identified, which are categorised according to the needs and desires which motivate them.

  1. The first type of insistent stalker has been called the bitter stalker. His/her behaviour is driven by a desire to take revenge on some kind of damage or loss previously experienced. This is quite a dangerous category which can initially damage the image of the person and then the person him/herself. The most serious problem is related to the stalker’s non-existent analysis of reality; the resentment the stalker feels justifies his/her behaviour which, by creating feelings of being in control of life, then tends to reinforce the behaviour.
  2. The second type of stalker has been referred to as ‘in need of affection’, and these stalkers are searching for a relationship and attention which can take the form of a friendship or a relationship. The victim is usually considered as the ideal friend/lover due to a generalisation of his/her characteristics, which can be superficial, and the stalker believes the victim can help him/her to fill this affectionate hole by means of a relationship/friendship. Quite often, the victim’s refusal is denied by the stalker and he/she reinterprets it by convincing him/herself that the victim needs to free him/herself and overcome some kind of psychological or concrete difficulty. This category includes erotomania and this involves the stalker ‘seeing’,  a desire in the victim’s responses which he/she is resisting. The idea of refusal, as an intolerable attack on the stalker him/herself, is pushed away and, in turn, a form of defence is created so as to distance him/herself from the victim’s real perception of the stalker, the victim’s reactions and the actual relationship they have, which is replaced with an imaginary one.
  3. A third type of stalker is called an incompetent suitor whose behaviour is fuelled by his/her lack of relationship capabilities, which translates into oppressive, explicit and, when the stalker cannot obtain the results he/she desires, aggressive and rude behaviour. This type of stalking does not usually last very long as these stalkers tend to change their victim regularly. 
  4. There is also the rejected stalker, who is persecutor who has become like this because of a refusal. It is usually an ex who wants to get back with the ex-partner of take revenge of the ex-partner because he/she broke up with him/her. The stalker’s feelings often oscillate between these two things and the persecuting can last a long time as the stalker does not let him/herself be intimidated by the victim’s negative reactions. In fact, the persecution represents a type of relationship which means the stalker does not completely lose the victim, which is an unacceptable idea. In the psychology of this type of stalking, what plays an important role is the attachment developed to the victim, which is a type of insecurity which can cause feelings of anxiety related to abandonment and which creates tendencies within the stalker, which are more or less conscious, to consider the absence of the victim as a threat of obliteration or annulment of him/her.

  5. The final category to have been defined is that of the predator and this category consists of a stalker who wants to have sexual relations with the victim, who the stalker may follow, chase and scar. The fear felt by the victim actually excites this type of stalker and he/she feels a sense of power when organising an assault. This type of stalking can also affect children and can be done by people who suffer from sexual disorders like paedophilia and fetishism.

The victim and the link to his/her stalker

Many people who are stalked are women aged between 18-24. However, some types of persecution, for example those related to resentment and fear of losing a relationship after being rejected, mainly happen to women aged 35-44 years.

Some research into this phenomenon have shown interesting results which can be used to further reflect on the characteristics of victims of stalking and on the importance of the relationship which, often just in the stalker’s mind, can be as influential as a real relationship. In this regard, it was found that there is a social group at risk of stalking represented by all members of the so-called "helping professions", such as doctors, psychologists, nurses, and any kind of "helper". There seem to be two explanations why this is: on the one hand, these professionals come into contact with people's deep needs for help and these people can easily become victims of projections of affection and internalised relationships; one the other hand, the excessive hopes of some patients can be betrayed by daily professionalism and stalking becomes a demand for attention or an attempt to take revenge for the attribution of responsibility on the patient’s health, life or his/her loved ones, aspects which are never fully in the hands of just one person.

Anti-stalking techniques

Since not every case of stalking is the same, it is not possible to generalise defence techniques which must be used in situations of stalking and with various types of persecutors.

However, there are some useful rules to follow:

  • First and foremost, denying the problem does not help. Quite often, because nobody wants to consider themselves a victim, people tend  to avoid recognising the danger but ending up underestimating the risk and thus helping the stalker. The first step is always to admit there is a problem and to take more exaggerated precautions compared to what somebody without a stalker problem would normally take. It is also important to read-up about the problem and understand what the real risks are, and behaving in a such a way as to discourage the stalker when possible.
  • If the stalking consists of starting or asking to rekindle a relationship, be firm when saying NO, saying it just once and in a very clear way. Doing anything else to get rid of a stalker, like suggesting they need professional help or treatment, will be read as reactions to his/her behaviour, and therefore as reinforcements and attention. Even giving back an unwelcomed present, an angry phone call or a negative response to a letter are signs of attention which reinforce the stalking.
  • Very useful behaviour for defending oneself from the risk of attacks is being prudent, not going out at the same time every day, going out during busy times and not going to isolated places and maybe even take a dog as a form of defence, which has been seen to be very useful as an actual form of defence, as well as making the victim feel safer. 
  • If the stalking goes on via telephones, do not change number because the frustration felt by the stalker will only increase the reasons to talk the victim. It is best to try to get a second phone line, letting the old one become a line that the stalker can still ring but which you hang up immediately and then gradually respond less and less often.
  • In order to get proof for the police, do not let yourself get caught up in the anger or fear of the situation; write down the dates of the stalking/episodes.
  • It is always a good idea to have a spare mobile phone with you in case of emergency.
  • If you think you are in danger or are being followed, never run home or to a friend’s house; go to the police.

The consequences of stalking

Unfortunately, and because of legal norms limiting preventative actions in emergency situations, stalking can happen for a long time with negative psychological consequences mainly for the victim, but also for the stalker, and sometimes those who observe it.

The victim can carry the scars of the stalking with him/her forever, in spite of how long the persecution lasted. The consequences for the stalker are often different and they last for a very long time, becoming chronic. Depending on the type of act carried out and the emotions experienced, the victim can suffer from anxiety attacks, sleep problems, nightmares, flashbacks and may even show signs of post traumatic stress disorder.

The stalker tends to go with want he/she wants and denies the reality, consequently damaging his/her mental health and the quality of his/her social life, which deteriorates with the intensity of the persecution.

The audience of the stalking incidents may be restricted to a family audience who, by identifying with the victim empathetically, can develop concern for the loved one or vicarious forms of fear and anxiety. However, the audience, in a wider sense, and thanks to the important role played by mass media, is society, where tolerated violations of privacy can represent a behavioural model which fuels new phenomena because the stalking of people in the public eye is often justified (or partially justified) with ‘moments of madness’ or ‘loving the victim too much’.

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