As a physician, I've found that the biggest energy drain on my patients is relationships. Some relationships are positive and mood elevating. Others can suck optimism and serenity right out of you. I call these draining people emotional vampires. They do more than drain your physical energy. The most malignant ones can make you believe you're unworthy and unlovable. Others inflict damage with smaller digs to make you feel bad about yourself—"Dear, I see you've put on a few pounds" or "You're overly sensitive!" Just like that, they've thrown you off-center by prodding areas of shaky self-worth.
5 Signs That You've Encountered an Emotional Vampire
To protect your energy, it's important to combat draining people. The following strategies can help you identify and combat emotional vampires from an empowered place.
5 Types of Emotional Vampires
1. The Narcissist
Their motto is "Me first." Everything is all about them. They have a grandiose sense of self-importance and entitlement, hog attention, and crave admiration. They're dangerous because they lack empathy and have a limited capacity for unconditional love. If you don't do things their way, they become punishing, withholding, or cold.
How to Protect Yourself: Keep your expectations realistic. These are emotionally limited people. Try not to fall in love with one or expect them to be selfless or to love without strings attached. Never make your self-worth dependent on them or confide your deepest feelings to them. To successfully communicate, the hard truth is that you must show how something will be to their benefit. Though it's better not to have to contend with this tedious ego stroking, if the relationship is unavoidable this approach works.
2. The Victim
These vampires grate on you with their "poor-me" attitude. The world is against them, it's the reason for their unhappiness. When you offer a solution to their problems they say, "Yes, but..." Eventually, you might end up screening your calls or purposely avoiding them. As a friend, you may want to help, but their tales of woe overwhelm you.
How to Protect Yourself: Set kind but firm limits. Listen briefly to the friend or relative but then say, "I love you but I can only listen for a few minutes unless you want to discuss solutions." With a co-worker, sympathize by saying, "I'll keep having good thoughts for things to work out." Then add, "I hope you understand, but I'm on deadline and must return to work." Body language that telegraphs "This isn't a good time," such as crossing your arms and breaking eye contact, can help enforce these healthy limits.
3. The Controller
These people obsessively try to control you and dictate how you're supposed to be and feel. They have an opinion about everything. They'll control you by invalidating your emotions when they don't fit into their own rule book. They often start sentences with "You know what you need?" and then proceed to tell you. You end up feeling dominated, demeaned, or put down.
How to Protect Yourself: The secret to success is to never try to control a controller. Be healthily assertive, but don't tell them what to do. You can say, "I value your advice, but really need to work through this myself." Be confident, and don't play the victim.
4. The Constant Talker
These people aren't interested in your feelings. They are only concerned with themselves. You may wait for an opening to get a word in edgewise but it never comes. Or they might physically move in so close that they're practically breathing on you. You edge backwards, but they step closer.
How to Protect Yourself: These individuals don't respond to nonverbal cues. You must speak up and interrupt, as tough as that is to do. Listen for a few minutes, then politely say, "I hate to interrupt, but I have to talk to these other people/get to an appointment/go to the bathroom." (It's a much more constructive tactic than saying, "Keep quiet, you're driving me crazy!") If this is a family member, politely say, "I'd love if you allowed me some time to talk to so I can add to the conversation." If you say this neutrally, it can better be heard.
5. The Drama Queen
These people have a flair for small incidents into off-the-chart dramas. My patient Sarah was exhausted when she hired a new employee who was always late. One week he had the flu and "almost died." Next, his car was towed, again! Each time this employee left her office, Sarah felt tired and used.
How to Protect Yourself: A drama queen can't draw energy from of equanimity. Stay calm, and take a few deep breaths. This will help you not get caught up in the histrionics. Set kind but firm limits. Say, for example, "You must be here on time to keep your job. I'm sorry for all your mishaps, but work comes first."
To improve your relationships and increase your energy level, I suggest taking an inventory of people who give you energy and those that drain you. Try to spend time with the loving, nurturing people, and learn to set limits with those who drain you. This will enhance the quality of your life.
Judith Orloff MD is the author of Emotional Freedom: Liberate Yourself From Negative Emotions and Transform Your Life (Three Rivers Press, 2011), available in paperback, and upon which this article is based. An assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA, Orloff's work has been featured on The Today Show, CNN, and in Oprah Magazine and USA Today.