Warding Off Energy Vampires
Are there emotional vampires lurking all around you?
Unfortunately, this isn’t a problem you can solve with a garlic necklace or some holy water. An “emotional vampire” (or “energy vampire”) is a very unscientific term for a person who stirs up strong emotional reactions in others — like anger, pity, discomfort, or annoyance. Not only do they not take accountability for this, they seem to feed off of it. They drain your time, energy, and emotional wherewithal, and give you little in exchange.
If a relationship is feeling bad, it could be that you’re dealing with a draining personality type. But sometimes, it’s more about the ingredients that you’re bringing to the table (or not bringing to the table). Many counseling and coaching clients need some help telling the difference, and I created this article to make it a little easier. You’ll learn why certain people trigger you (while other people get along with them just fine), and how you can prevent the emotional vampires in your life from bleeding you dry.
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Warding Off Emotional Vampires
We can feel drained by certain relationships for all kinds of reasons. Could it be that you’re dealing with an “emotional vampire?” Or is something else going on? Read on to find out.
What Is an Emotional Vampire?
An emotional vampire (sometimes called an “energy vampire”) is not a clinical term that psychologists use as a diagnosis. It’s a casual term that describes someone who elicits emotional reactions from the people around them and then feeds off of those reactions, whether they’re positive or negative. After interacting with a person like this, you might feel drained, used, confused, or mentally and emotionally exhausted.
Relationships can leave us feeling this way for all kinds of reasons. It may be that the other person has personality traits that make dealing with them feel like trying to push a semi truck up a hill with your pinkie finger. It could also be the case that the “emotional vampire” in your life is illuminating some personal growth work that you need to do.
In relationships, there’s always an interplay between what you bring to the table and what the other person brings to the table. Your own expectations, ways of communicating, and ways of relating could limit the types of relationships that will feel alright for you. If this is what’s happening, you can expand your tolerance for different kinds of people by building your emotional intelligence and learning some new relationship skills.
To figure out whether this emotional vampire issue is a “you” thing or a “them” thing, it helps to get familiar with some of the common culprits.
Types of Emotional Vampires
Here are a few personality types that many people find draining. You’re likely to encounter these emotional vampires at some point in your life, if you haven’t already.
- Selfish Jerks
Dealing with selfish people is tough. They’re often unpleasant to be around, and either have no awareness of how they’re affecting others, or simply feel entitled to affect other people in a negative way. This type of emotional vampire believes on a deep level that other people are there for them — to help them, serve them, and, if need be, to sacrifice their own well-being so the selfish jerk can have what they want.
Selfish jerks are often charming, funny, and confident at first blush. They can seem kind and empathetic, but they usually have an ulterior motive that involves getting something from you, even if it’s just a feeling of power and control. They’re prone to lying, infidelity, and behaving in reckless ways that create problems for others.
You may be especially vulnerable to this type of emotional vampire if you have a history of relationships with narcissists, particularly in your family of origin. You could also struggle to deal with selfish jerks if you have codependent traits that compel you to try to “heal” others, or to show them the error of their ways.
- Bottomless Pit Complainers
This type of emotional vampire is intensely focused on their own problems, and spends a lot of time and energy venting about them to anyone who will listen. They may have a lot of inner narratives that place themselves in the role of the victim of someone else’s misdeeds, and they generally lack the insight to recognize their own inner obstacles that have contributed to the problems they’re experiencing.
Initially, it can be hard to distinguish a bottomless pit complainer from a person who’s simply going through a hard time. One giveaway is that this type of emotional vampire is usually not interested in solutions. Darkness seems to be an end in itself, rather than something they’re working through. They may be prone to self-indulgent behaviors that continuously create new problems — and an eternal wellspring of bad circumstances to complain about.
If you’re someone who has a lot of empathy in relationships, bottomless pit complainers can begin to drain you quickly. You will likely spend a lot of time listening empathetically, hoping it will make them feel better, only to watch them grow increasingly miserable as time goes on. You will likely put a lot of energy into brainstorming ways they could improve their circumstances, only to watch them decline to take any action to help themselves.
Someone who is in this much pain is incapable of concerning themselves with your well-being, which means the caring and concern is going to be a one-way street. Not only do bottomless pit complainers not want to hear about your problems, they may even resent you for sharing the positive things that are happening in your life. It feels awful when you realize you’ve been tossing your time and energy into a black hole, and that’s what it’s like to have a relationship with a bottomless pit complainer.
- Belligerent Iconoclasts
This type of emotional vampire is opinionated, argumentative, and convinced that their way of viewing things is the one and only way (in other words, they lack intellectual humility). They may buy into conspiracy theories and other paranoid worldviews, and enjoy the shocked and uncomfortable reactions they get when they force conversations about these topics onto others.
You can often find the belligerent iconoclast on social media or in website comment sections, trying to lure people into “debates.” You may also encounter them out in the world, where these difficult conversations can be harder to escape, especially if they’re a family member or someone you work with.
You’ll know you’re dealing with this type of emotional vampire when the conversation takes a turn into the bizarre territory of their imagination, and they begin expounding on their paranoid, grievance-driven viewpoints without any regard for whether you’re interested or comfortable with the topic. You’ll feel like you’re being talked at, rather than sharing ideas together and listening to each other with genuine interest.
- “Nice” but Deceptive
Some emotional vampires seem pleasant and agreeable on the outside, but in reality they’re harboring a lot of anger, resentment, and contempt, which they don’t take responsibility for. They may act out these feelings through passive-aggressive behaviors, like talking badly about you behind your back, making subtle digs at you in conversation, or, in general, seizing opportunities to make your life worse. They’ll do it with a smile, and if confronted, they’ll probably play dumb. They may even act hurt that you’re being so mean to them.
A “nice” but deceptive emotional vampire can be tricky. Because of their pleasant exterior, you may get pretty close to them before you realize they’re full of anger and they would like you to be, too. There may be many things about their personality that you like and enjoy, but ultimately you’ll realize that it’s not possible to have a healthy relationship with them because of their tendency to conceal what they’re really thinking and feeling.
- Super Needy Vampires
A super needy emotional vampire is very insecure, and very focused on themselves in their insecurity. They aren’t sure that they’re ok, and so they need to get that validation from you — and they’ll work hard to make sure you give it to them.
They may put themselves down in order to draw out compliments from others. They may try to be important and helpful to you, but in ways that feel intrusive, such as by pushing unsolicited advice. Conversations with super needy people often turn back to them, even when the subject is something you’re struggling with.
You: I can’t believe it’s really over. I’m completely heartbroken and I don’t know how I’ll go on.
Super Needy Friend: Look on the bright side, at least it’s not as bad as my last breakup.
You: (on the verge of tears) It’s not?
SNF: And at least you’re thin! I don’t want to date again until I lose ten pounds. I look so fat in all my photos. Don’t you think I look fat?
You: (sobbing) No, no, you look great.
Spending time with a super needy emotional vampire can feel draining because they have low self-esteem and they need you to prop them up. They lack the internal resources to feel good about themselves, so they outsource that job to the people around them. You may feel a little sorry for this type of emotional vampire and spend a lot of time taking care of them. No matter how much you give, it will never be enough to help them feel secure.
- Melodramatic Types
Emotional vampires who fall into the melodramatic category feed off of drama. They may do things to provoke emotional reactions in others, and then blame the other person’s “anger issues” when they react in predictable ways. They may stir the pot and play people off of each other and then not take accountability.
Melodramatic types often create conflict, and then exaggerate the harm to themselves for sympathy, or to cause the other person to feel guilt or shame. If someone speaks to them in an annoyed tone, they may say the person “screamed” at them. If their partner is ten minutes late to the restaurant, they may say they stood them up.
It’s exhausting to deal with this kind of emotional vampire because you’re constantly on the defense, and you’re always a little uncertain about whether you can trust them. Were they really offended by what you said, or do they just want you to feel bad? Is so-and-so really a huge jerk, or do they just want your sympathy? It’s hard to say!
How to Deal with Emotional Vampires
When it comes to dealing with emotional vampires, there are a few things you can do:
- End the relationship — Ending a toxic relationship is often the best course of action, particularly if there is any abuse happening. But for run-of-the-mill emotional vampires who are more irritating than dangerous, ending the relationship is not always necessary, or possible. You may be co-parenting with an emotional vampire and need to get along for the wellbeing of your children, or they may be a family member who you only have to tolerate for a few hours on holidays. In these cases, you can still take steps to limit how much their behavior can affect you.
- Build your self-awareness — Becoming more self-aware is a powerful tool for dealing with emotional vampires. Many of us have a tendency to emotionally invalidate ourselves, or to question whether we should be feeling how we’re feeling. This makes it hard to take your feelings seriously and to respond appropriately. If you feel drained, manipulated, or used after dealing with someone, the first step to changing that is to recognize that feeling and validate it for yourself. Then you can think about why you feel that way and how you’d like to respond.
- Get some distance — This could be literal distance, emotional distance, or both. You might try to move desks if you sit by a melodramatic person at work, or limit the amount of time you spend with a selfish or needy friend. You can also limit what you choose to share with the other person (which is a good idea if they have a manipulative streak), and you can be careful about which conversations you choose to engage in with them.
- Set boundaries — Setting healthy boundaries is about making conscious choices about how you’ll respond in particular situations, and then following through on those choices. For example, if you have a friend who frequently calls you to complain and keeps you on the phone for hours, you could set a boundary that you will only participate in one 20-minute phone call with them per week. Then, it’s your job to end the call after 20 minutes — whether they like it or not.
- Lower your expectations — Finally, stop expecting the emotional vampire to be different than they are. If you invest a lot of energy helping someone who doesn’t want to be helped, or trying to change someone’s mind who isn’t listening, or hoping that your selfish sibling will stop being selfish, you’re going to feel disappointed and depleted. Letting go of unrealistic expectations doesn’t change what they’re going to do, but it does create a very different emotional experience for you.
What Do Your Emotional Vampires Say About You?
Think about the people in your life who feel like they drain your energy. Notice any patterns? You may have a “type” of emotional vampire that you often struggle with — and they could point the way to some valuable personal growth work for you.
For example, if you are a bit of a people pleaser and have a hard time saying “no,” setting boundaries, or asserting yourself, you’re going to struggle to get your needs met in relationships with anyone but the most empathetic and attuned people who give you what you want without you having to ask for it. You may feel drained by other people’s demands on your time and energy, not because they’re particularly selfish or needy, but because you need to work on advocating for yourself. Once you do, relationships will feel much easier.
People who feel responsible for finding solutions to other people’s problems often feel drained by relationships. One sign that this might be an issue for you is if you often give advice and feel frustrated when other people don’t take it. Check out our podcast episodes on “Dealing with Control Freaks” and “What Is Your Problem?” for some clarity on whether or not you’re taking on more responsibility in relationships than is healthy.
Who Fills Your Cup?
Many of us spend too much time worrying about our most difficult and least fulfilling relationships, and not enough time on the healthy, happy relationships that make our lives great. So, who fills your cup? Who cares about you, consistently shows you empathy, is happy when you succeed, and leaves you feeling emotionally uplifted, rather than sapped dry?
These are the healthy relationships where you should invest your time and energy. When you do that, you’ll leave less room for emotional vampires in your life.
[03:25] What is an Emotional Vampire?
- Relationships with emotional vampires feel unbalanced or one-sided.
- “Emotional vampire” is an unscientific term, not a diagnosis.
[11:31] Emotional Vampire Types
- Selfish and self-absorbed people who don’t care about others.
- People who incessantly complain about everything.
- Argumentative and belligerent people.
- Melodramatic people who provoke a lot of shame and guilt.
- Super needy or insecure people.
[31:55] Emotional Vampires in Relationships
- It’s vital to understand the role you play in a difficult relationship.
- Learning new skills can help you have better relationships with everyone (including people who are not emotional vampires).
[44:05] How to Deal with Emotional Vampires
- You might need to learn how to advocate for yourself.
- Set healthy boundaries.
- Self-awareness, self-validation, and distance are all excellent tools for handling emotional vampires.
- There are some relationships that it’s better to end.
[59:49] Emotional Vampire, or Needs Help?
- Someone who seems like an emotional vampire might actually be someone unwell and in need of care. It’s critical — and tricky — to discern.
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Music in this episode is by Bauhaus with their song “Bela Lugosi Is Dead.” You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://bauhaus.bandcamp.com/. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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