Mind of a Stalker: Why Torment Someone?

Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005

Stalkers are lonely and lack self-esteem, yet they feel very, very important.

By Jeanie Lerche Davis
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith

It seems to be the price of celebrity: The stalker. Catherine Zeta-Jones has received threatening letters from a stalker who is infatuated with her husband. David Letterman has lived with it for years. What motivates these stalkers, and how dangerous are they?

While celebrity stalking makes the news, far more frequently it's those living normal lives -- women and men both -- who are stalked by someone they know, typically a former partner or someone they're involved with.

According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, 370,000 men are stalked annually -- one in 45 men. More than 1 million women are stalked every year; about one in every 12 women will be stalked in her lifetime.

Origins of Stalking

There's a line between the overzealous pursuer and the stalker. "Stalking is much more about inducing fear," says Brook Zitek, DO, a forensic psychiatrist at Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia. "It's repeated boxes of candy, clothing, showing up at your house, putting things through your mail slot, notes on your car -- even though you've asked them to stop," she tells WebMD.

The overwhelming majority of stalkers are men -- four to one, Zitek says. Psychiatrists have developed several stalker profiles:

  • The rejected stalker. This person was rejected in a relationship, and they perceive it as an insult, they feel wounded, and they are seeking vindication.

  • The resentful stalker. These are self-righteous, self-pitying people who may threaten, but they are the least likely to act on it.

  • The intimacy-seeking stalker. They believe they are loved or will be loved by the victim. Often they focus on someone of higher social status. This person is mentally ill and delusional.

  • The incompetent. This person is socially backward. He doesn't really understand the social rules involved in dating and romance. He doesn't mean any harm.

  • The predator. This is about sex gratification, control, and violence. The stalker doesn't necessarily know the victim. The victim may not know she is being stalked. But a predator plans their attack, rehearses it, has lots of sexual fantasies about it.

The rejected and predatory stalkers are most likely to assault their victims, says Zitek.

The Person Least Likely ...

You would never guess all this while dating the person, says John Moore, a licensed professional counselor in Chicago and author of Confusing Love With Obsession.

"They wear a mask of charm," he tells WebMD. "They're the kindest, nicest people. You wouldn't know what's really going on. You only become aware when clues of their behavior show up -- when your email provider locks you out because you've logged your password incorrectly too many times, for example."

In many scenarios, the stalking begins as a relationship is ending -- a divorce or breakup, says Moore. One partner becomes obsessed, convinced that this is their ideal partner. The stalker may believe that the victim is in love with him or her.

"The stalker is usually an isolated and shy person, one who lives alone, lacks any type of important intimate relationship -- not just sexual, but friends or family, too," Moore tells WebMD. "There's also a narcissistic personality disorder and very low self-esteem. The stalker feels that they're the most important person in the world."

Many people stalk someone they have only met briefly -- someone they don't really know, or barely know. The stalker may also focus on a celebrity, especially if they've seen him or her in person -- at a public appearance like a concert. "They develop convoluted thoughts about this person. They feel this person is the answer to their dreams," says Moore.

Stalkers write countless letters or emails to their victims, begging for attention. They make repeated phone calls, send gifts, flowers, candies, cards. They secretly follow the victim, either by car or in an insidious way -- by getting access to the victim's email.

"We've seen this in many relationships. The stalker figures out your password and reads all your email," Moore tells WebMD. "Many people use the same password for many things -- the ATM, various email accounts, and web sites. Stalkers are often smart enough figure that out and use it to get into email. They even get into the victim's bank account, find out which ATM they use, find out up to the minute where they went to eat, when they shopped."

When to Be Concerned

The red flags:

  • You immediately start getting several phone calls or emails right after meeting this person.

  • The person is clingy, controlling, or upset if you want to spend time with friends and family.

"Don't make any sudden moves," says Moore. "Don't tell them 'I don't want anything do with you.' By rejecting that person, there is a chance of violence. If you reject that person, often times they feel angry, threatened. There is the possibility of violence."

Take action:

  • Tell everyone you know that this is going on -- your employer, friends, family.

  • Gently but firmly tell the person you've decided to move on. Don't get drawn into discussions of why. Just say, "This situation isn't right for me" or "I'm not ready yet" -- whatever you need to say, but say it gently.

If this doesn't work, you may need to take legal action, Moore says. File a police report, file a restraining order, change your email and ATM passwords. "Their fantasy is that you love them. You really need to be on the offensive. There's no harm in changing passwords."

Caution: "Never, ever underestimate a threat. Don't take it lightly, even if it's in an email. Take it to the authorities. Ignore it at your own peril. It will only get worse," he says.

He describes the "obsessive love wheel" -- the various stages of a relationship obsession:

  • The attraction phase

  • The anxious phase, when the controlling behaviors show themselves

  • The obsessive phase, where stalking takes place

  • The destructive phase

"Unless a stalker wants to change, you can't stop them," Moore tells WebMD. "They will only change when their world around them starts crashing around them."

Equally disturbing: Law enforcement officials often don't act on reports of stalking, Zitek adds. "They're more understanding now than they used to be. But if you call the police and say, 'My ex-boyfriend is stalking me,' they may not actually do anything about it. They'll say, 'Call us if he comes on your property.'"

Here's something else to consider: Are you a stalker? If you see this obsessive pattern in yourself, see a therapist or join a support group like Co-Dependents Anonymous, he says. "A lot of times, stalkers have addiction issues. They may be drinking or doing drugs. It's important for them to reach out. But they also have to reach in -- admit something is going on, get to a therapist or support group so they don't feel all alone."

Published July 29, 2004.

SOURCES: John Moore, licensed professional counselor; author, Confusing Love With Obsession. Brook Zitek, DO, forensic psychiatrist, Temple University School of Medicine, Philadelphia.

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