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What Is Erotomania? As Seen in Netflix's "You"

What Is Erotomania? 2 Experts Explain Joe Goldberg's Disorder in "You"

Watch out! This post contains spoilers.

Ed Speleers as Rhys, Penn Badgley as Joe Goldberg in Netflix's "You" depicting erotomania

The newest season of "You" has given viewers quite a lot to talk about. Not only has the Netflix series sparked conversations around the "taboo" sexual act of golden showers, but it also included a storyline around erotomania.

Also known as De Clerambault's syndrome, erotomania is a delusional disease in which someone believes another person, normally of a higher social status, is in love with them, says Akos Antwi, a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner. And though this disorder is not inherently dangerous, when left untreated, it can lead to unhealthy obsessions and stalking, as seen in "You."

While the show's portrayal of erotomania may be compelling and make for an interesting plot, the series doesn't fully or accurately reflect the experiences of all individuals living with this very uncommon condition. So because erotomania is a complex and poorly understood condition, we talked with experts who can better explain what is erotomania. Ahead is all the information you didn't see or learn from its inclusion in "You."

What Is Erotomania?

Erotomania lives under the umbrella of delusional disorders, says licensed clinical psychologist Janelle Peifer, PhD. "Erotomania is a diagnosis where an individual believes that another person — often someone famous or that they have never met — is in love with them," she says.

Though its definition is most often related to a delusional love or a delusional romantic relationship, the condition can also make people believe they have a very close friendship with someone who they've never met or don't know. As seen in "You," Joe Goldberg's character (played by Penn Badgley) fully imagines his friendship and interactions with Rhys Montrose (played by Ed Speleers), and Dawn (played by Alison Pargeter) believes she and Lady Phoebe (Tilly Keeper) are "soul sisters" despite Phoebe not knowing her.

For the record, erotomania is very uncommon. One study published in the National Library of Medicine notes that it's a "relatively rare condition" and that the "lifetime prevalence of this delusional disorder is 0.2 percent."

What Are Erotomania Symptoms?

According to Antwi, some common erotomania symptoms include:

  • Persistent fantasies about the object of their delusion
  • Spending excessive amounts of time thinking about or attempting to contact this person
  • Stalking this person in order to get closer to them or attempt to prove their delusional belief
  • Experiencing extreme levels of jealousy if they think someone else might be trying to get closer to this person

People with erotomania may also feel like this individual "sends them secret messages or communicates somehow just to them via the songs they write or the social media posts that they make," Dr. Peifer adds. (Think: Joe finding "hi Joe" written among pages in Rhys's book.) But generally, people with erotomania may find themselves "with intrusive, recurrent thoughts of the individual, accompanied by strong emotions of attachment, joy, or love that can move into obsessions," she adds.

How Is Erotomania Diagnosed?

Erotomania is often identified and diagnosed by a licensed mental health clinician, says Dr. Peifer. However, sometimes, the individual with erotomania may not believe their behavior is delusional or concerning, which can make the diagnosis process harder. Antwi adds that the diagnosis can also include a combination of physical examinations, psychological testing, and psychological assessment tools such as interviews, surveys, and questionnaires.

Is Erotomania Dangerous?

You may think erotomania is a dangerous disorder because of its depiction in "You." After all, the storyline includes Dawn kidnapping Phoebe and Joe compartmentalizing his "bad urges" by believing his friend Rhys is condoning his actions. But really, erotomania is not necessarily dangerous as long as it's treated, says Dr. Peifer.

You. (L to R) Alison Pargeter as Dawn, Tilly Keeper as Lady Phoebe in episode 406 of You depicting erotomania. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023

However, Antwi tells POPSUGAR the disorder could become dangerous if left untreated, which could lead to "behaviors such as stalking or violence if the individual feels that their delusion is not being taken seriously or acted upon." This could also include harassing or frequently sending unwanted messages or images to this individual.

Dr. Peifer adds that it can become just as dangerous for the individual with the erotomania themselves. She says the disorder could lead them into "social isolation, depression, and psychiatric distress that accompanies unmanaged delusional symptoms." However, with diagnosis and treatment, erotomania is not something to be feared.

Erotomania Treatment

Though treatment options can vary depending on the severity of someone's diagnosis, Antwi tells POPSUGAR it could include "some combination of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), psychotherapy, antipsychotic medications, stress management techniques, or other forms of medication management such as mood stabilizers or antidepressants if necessary."

Dr. Peifer adds that treatment for erotomania can include evidence-based therapy, which would be used "to minimize symptoms and behaviors that may be maladaptive." This would include enhancing social support, providing community, and tailoring the treatment to account for the individual's needs and background.

How Accurate Is the Depiction of Erotomania in "You"?

It's important to keep in mind that this disorder doesn't present in exactly the same way it's depicted in the show. Dr. Peifer says "You" does a good job of "capturing how well an individual with mental health concerns may normalize and rationalize their internal experience, even when it leads to severe concerns, danger, and negative outcomes." However, this representation can also increase the stigma around delusional disorders.

You also may have noticed that Joe regularly disassociates from reality (essentially blacking out) whenever he commits acts of violence in the season, but this isn't actually related to his erotomania. "I think [Joe's disassociating] is an example of Hollywood mashing together a bunch of diagnostic traits for sensationalizing purposes," Dr. Peifer says. Joe's character shows signs of many more conditions than just erotomania, she says, including PTSD, psychotic disorders, borderline personality disorders, and more. It is possible for erotomania to coexist with other disorders; the syndrome is associated with other psychiatric illnesses, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depressive disorder, for example, but it's important to note that erotomania isn't the blame for every psychotic symptom that's shown in "You."

Though "You" didn't necessarily give erotomania its best treatment, "the more we understand and destigmatize, the better outcomes we can expect," says Dr. Peifer. So if you're here learning about erotomania as a result, that's one step in the right direction.

Image Source: Netflix
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