How to Handle Emotional Vampires

4 min read

The people in your life can drain your energy for lots of reasons. They might be narcissists, in need of constant attention and praise. Perhaps they’re just a little overly dramatic, negative, or complain a lot. On the flip side, they could engage in toxic positivity, putting a happy spin on absolutely everything in a way that you find fake and tiring. Or maybe they’re perfectly fine people but just a bad match for you.

Whatever the scenario, if you’re dealing with an emotional vampire, there are things you can do to manage the situation and protect your energy.

“If you can avoid this person, that’s my first recommendation,” says Natalie Dattilo, PhD, a psychologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “If it’s not [an option], get good at setting boundaries and limits and sticking to them.”

“It’s important to limit contact,” says Susan Albers, PhD, a psychologist at Cleveland Clinic. “You do not have to answer the phone. You do not have to respond to an email. Always have an escape plan. If you do answer the phone, you can say, ‘Oh, the laundry is in I can only talk for 5 minutes.’ Setting boundaries, that's the key.”

Another important step in handling an emotional vampire in your life is to recognize what the problem for you is in the first place.

“It’s easier to point the finger at the other person and say, ‘This is the way they are,’” Dattilo says. “But you can’t do anything to change them. It’s always a good idea to start with self-awareness. Recognize how you feel after the interaction.”

Ask yourself: Exactly what happens with this person to make me feel drained?

“It’s important to distinguish what’s a crisis and what’s a drama,” Albers says. “Is what this person is bringing truly a crisis or is it just dramatic?” Ramping down your own feelings and reactions can help you preserve energy when you do have to spend time around them.

“It can feel like they’ve got a potato,” Albers says. “They throw their feelings at you and want you to catch them. You can turn that back around. Tell them that they can handle this. It’s not for you to take responsibility.”

Practicing good self-care can help. “When we’re in a better place, we’re better at communicating and tolerating others,” Dattilo says. “We’ll get drained because life is stressful. But when we take care of our own emotional needs, it protects us against other people and their emotional needs.”

She also suggests looking for ways to take back control. Reframing the situation in your own mind can help. “Use it as an opportunity to practice compassion, being present, tolerating discomfort, being mindful, listening. You can engage differently in a way that feels more like a choice than not. You have some say in this. You can control your experience of this person. That’s a good way to protect your energy.”

It also helps to be prepared for those interactions and ask for help. For example, Albers says, if the person who’s draining your energy is a family member, ask your spouse or someone else in the family to help back you up or not to leave you alone with that other person.

A little creativity sometimes helps, too. If they don’t like the word "no," Albers says, there are other ways to say it. Try ‘I can’t right now,’ 'Let’s do that tomorrow,’ or ‘I’ll check back with you.’

Another place you might run into emotional vampires is at work. In this case, it may be especially hard to avoid the person or even set limits. This is especially true when the emotional vampire is your supervisor or boss.

Joel Carnevale, PhD, an assistant professor of management at Syracuse University, has been studying the impact of narcissistic leaders in the workplace. His studies show that such attention-seeking leaders cause their employees to feel undervalued.

When employees don’t feel valued, their productivity plummets, Carnevale says. People become less willing to speak up. They rate their work energy as being lower.

It probably isn’t an option to simply avoid your supervisor, but there are still some things that may help. First, try to understand why the person does this. If a supervisor is threatened by your success, for example, stroke their ego by asking them for help. It also can help when a narcissistic leader at work sees that acting in ways that are more inclusive, more cooperative, or kinder would benefit them. At the end of the day, it all comes back to you.

“Focus on what you can control,” Carnevale says. “You can’t control their behavior, but technically that isn’t what’s causing the exhaustion. It’s your reaction to those situations. I’m a fan of mindfulness and meditation. It can be a useful tool to become more cognizant of your own reactions to those situations and learn how to not get carried away by it.”

If you’re so deeply into the situation that you can’t get to a place of self-awareness or calm, a mental health professional can talk it through with you and help you sort things out.

“A counselor can help you find clear and kind ways [to address the problem],” Albers says. “They can also reassure you that it’s OK to take care of yourself. Energy vampires can make you feel guilty.”

Dattilo says a counselor might be especially helpful if the energy vampire in your life is someone important to you, such as a parent or partner. In this case, the counselor could help with communication, especially if the relationship is getting in the way of everyday life. And if your relationship is crossing over into emotional abuse, seek help.

“That’s not something you want to learn to tolerate better,” Dattilo says.