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Watch Out for Breadcrumbing


I’m sure many of you read the title of this article and had no idea what I was talking about. I’d never heard the term “breadcrumbing” either until I read How to Tell if You’re Being Breadcrumbed in a Relationship, Friendship or at Work by Amy Beecham but I certainly recognize the behaviors described. I bet some of you will too.

Breadcrumbing is a manipulative technique used by unhealthy (often not nice) people to keep you hooked into them or your relationship with them. It involves giving you just enough love, praise, time, attention, good will to make you happy, but not enough to really satisfy you. In clinical terms, it’s called giving you intermittent reinforcement

According to Beecham, “‘breadcrumbing’ involves leading someone on, and keeping their hopes up through small and superficial acts of interest. A breadcrumber might be flirtatious, complimentary or seem engaged with you at first, but will ultimately end up disappointing you with empty promises and emotional abandonment. And breadcrumbing isn’t just limited to romantic relationships. It happens in the workplace, within families, friendships and on social media.” 

You may be succumbing to breadcrumbing when you experience confusion about how someone feels about you. Your boss runs hot and cold about your work, the new person you’re dating is sometimes effusive toward you and then doesn’t call you for weeks, Dad gives you barely enough gratitude to keep you helping him, you do a lot for your mother who keeps asking for more, you give your all for a friend who does little for you in return. The pattern is similar to when you’re co-dependent with another person.

Some examples. My client Frank is married to Perry who ignores him most of the time, but when Frank threatens to leave him, he wines and dines Frank back into the fold. It’s as if Perry saves up his nice to use as a chip when he knows he needs to do something to win him back. Another example is my client Arlene, a nurse, often fills in for her colleague, Les, who promises to be there next time Arlene needs to switch shifts but is never available when she asks him to do so.

The only way to eliminate people breadcrumbing you is to recognize the pattern, call people on it and, if necessary, get out of the relationship. If you can’t opt out, be sure to set tight boundaries with the person and detach from them emotionally. Break up with your boy or girlfriend. Stop expecting praise from your boss and quit looking for your parents’ unconditional love. If you accept breadcrumbs, that’s all you’ll ever get.