How to spot (and deal with) an energy vampire

Energy vampires are friends, family members or coworkers who literally zap your emotional energy. Here's how to avoid getting sucked dry.
by Sarah DiGiulio /  / Updated 
Image: Mid adult woman consoling friend
Energy vampires most often target those who are sensitive and compassionate — and likely to lend a listening ear. Seb Oliver / Getty Images/Image Source
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They leave you feeling drained after every conversation. They want your nonstop attention and the conversation is always about them. They may be charming, charismatic and the life-of-the-party personality. They also may cheat. They may lie. And it’s probably someone else’s fault when something goes wrong.

These are some (but certainly not all) of the traits you might run across in someone who is an “energy vampire.”

An energy vampire is somebody who literally zaps your energy dry.

“An energy vampire is somebody who literally zaps your energy dry,” Judith Orloff, MD, a psychiatrist on the University of California-Los Angeles Psychiatric Clinical Faculty, tells NBC News BETTER.

There are different types and they fall on a spectrum, she adds. There’s the narcissistic drama queen friend who’s always dealing with one crisis or another. There’s the manipulative coworker who doesn’t care who she steps on to get ahead. And there’s the downright psychopathic criminal.

What energy vampires all have in common is they “feed on” (or manipulate) people who will give them air space and open ears.

Unsurprisingly those most often targeted are the sensitive, compassionate, always-see-the-good-in-people types of people, Orloff says. (She’s also author of a book on the topic, "The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People".)

Energy vampire isn’t a clinical term or diagnosis currently. But Christiane Northrup, MD, author of the recent book "Dodging Energy Vampires," explains that energy vampire characteristics do tend to map to “cluster B” personality disorders — the ones where people tend to have dramatic, overly emotional or erratic thinking or behavior — which are fairly common, she says. (Northrup spent 25 years practicing obstetrics and gynecology and now focuses on being an advocate for women’s health and wellness.)

Cluster B includes people with antisocial, borderline and narcissistic personality disorders, and each of those is a clinical diagnosis with measurable specific traits spelled out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), the diagnostic playbook psychologists use to identify mental health disorders.

“There’s no chemical imbalance in the brain or anything like that,” she adds. But individuals either lack or have a somewhat misguided conscience or moral compass, she says.

According to Northrup, energy vampires also include the extreme end of the spectrum of these personality disorders, namely psychopaths and sociopaths. They are often talented, but manipulative, too. They feed on your good, loving and compassionate energy, and they have no qualms about doing so, she says. They make you feel guilty, as if you’re never giving enough.

Who is and who’s not an energy vampire?

While psychopaths, according to Northrup’s definition, are one type of energy vampire, they’re certainly not the most common ones you might come across. Think of any names that came to mind as you read the first part of this article. That’s a good way to start identifying the energy vampires in your life, Northrup says.

Not everyone with narcissistic traits or who enjoys being the life of the party is necessarily an energy vampire, she adds. There are some who recognize what they’re doing if you call them out on it and stop. Energy vampires (those who could be diagnosed with a character disorder), however, are addicted to that kind of behavior and the attention they get from it.

Generally they’re self-centered people and they’re somewhat manipulative, Northrup says. “On some level they all know what they’re doing and they do it because it works.”

The non-energy vampires of the world give them the benefit of the doubt that they really do need your love, compassion and good chi, Northrup adds, “because we think they think like we do.” And that’s why energy vampires are so dangerous, she says.

Some energy vampires may have inherited those character traits from a parent and they’re unaware of how their behavior affects others.

This is where Orloff’s definition of energy vampire differs. She says they’re so dangerous because energy vampires may not know what they’re doing (other than the truly manipulative psychopaths and sociopaths). Some energy vampires may have inherited those character traits from a parent and they’re unaware of how their behavior affects others, she says.

Spending too much time with energy vampires can make you sick

What makes energy vampires so toxic is that they can be sources of chronic stress, says Northrup. Especially if the energy vampire is someone you can’t avoid — such as a spouse, a parent or a boss — constantly having your energy drained by that individual is a stressor, she says. “You’re constantly walking on eggshells around that person; waiting for the next shoe to drop.”

And that type of chronic stress is well known to have pretty deleterious effects on multiple systems in the body, including the immune, cardiovascular, neuroendocrine and central nervous systems.

Evidence shows that people under chronic stress are at a higher risk of chronic problems ranging from autoimmune diseases to heart disease, obesity and depression.

“They’re a health risk,” Northrup says about the energy vampires in our lives.

How to vanquish energy vampires (or at least not get sucked dry)

Remember that when it comes to looking out for your own energy and well-being around energy vampires, you’re not being selfish, you’re practicing good self-care, Orloff says. Doing so keeps you from getting overwhelmed, anxious and sick. Here’s how:

  • Cut them out of your life (if you can). If they’re not someone you can’t avoid (such as a boss or a family member), cut off contact with the person, Northrup says. If it’s an ex-spouse who you still need to communicate with — perhaps if you have children — communicate as little as possible and use technology to your advantage, she adds. Text or use a messaging app, rather than making plans over the phone.
  • Set boundaries. Know what types of activities work well and which ones don’t, and plan accordingly. Maybe going out to lunch or coffee is bearable, but inviting that individual to your house is just too much. Set beginning and end times, Northrup says.
  • Lower expectations. If you’re dealing with a narcissist, know that these people are not capable of being empathetic toward you, Orloff says. So don’t expect that from them. Avoid bearing your soul to that person to protect yourself from feeling disappointed when they don’t meet you with the understanding you’re looking for.
  • Be too tired for them. Northrup calls this strategy “broken wing.” When an energy vampire tries to bend your ear, tell them you feel under the weather or really tired. “They will go to another source immediately,” Northrup says. “They do not want to be around somebody who doesn’t have energy to give back.”
  • ‘Grey rock’ them. Act like a grey rock around them, Northrup says. Don’t entertain them. Don’t give them energy. Don’t give them the response (whether it be your open ear, your sympathy or your support) that they’re looking for and they’ll lose interest.
  • Know the difference between “venting” and “dumping.” Everybody needs to voice frustration now and again. Energy vampires constantly dump their frustrations, irritations, annoyances, bad days and negative feelings on others. “It’s really important to know the difference between venting (is accountable to their role in the problem and looking for a solution or resolution) and dumping (think unintelligible rant),” Orloff says. “So you can sit limits and not just sit there and take it.”
  • Do NOT overreact. Remain cool, calm and collected when dealing with an energy vampire, Northrup says. Losing it can cause an energy vampire to do the same and make you feel worse about yourself.
  • Make sure you have a way to reality check. Determine which of your friends or family can be your reality check on the situation trusted individuals who can level set with you when the energy vampire in your life is acting up, Northrup says. “Yes, they’re acting crazy. Yes, it looks like they’re getting away with murder.” Those trusted reality check friends can help affirm that what you feel in your gut is right, and not the other way around.
  • Say “no” nicely. “It’s OK to not invite people to interact with you. And it’s OK to say no to people,” Orloff says. And remember, “no” is a sentence in and of itself, she adds. You can say it in a nice way that’s not impolite or uncaring, she says. “You can be a loving, compassionate person and still stick up for yourself. You don’t need to be a doormat.”

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