We all rely on our friends, family, and co-workers to help us through tough times — and these are very tough times. Reaching out and making use of a sympathetic ear or two are crucial strategies for self-care and mental health. Our support circles provide us with the validation, encouragement, and energy we need to carry on. And when we’re called upon to support others, we can be there for them, too.
But some people tend to take advantage of their relationships, taking more than they give. These are the people who seem to be in constant crisis, perpetually drawing others into their orbit to vent frustration, air complaints, and, yes, pull attention and energy to themselves.
What Is an Energy Vampire?
On The FX Show What We Do in the Shadows, the character Colin is a psychic vampire who feeds off others’ energy. And while you may not live in a basement and literally consume other people’s frustrations as he does, you could still be an energy vampire.
“When relationships are healthy, there’s a balance of giving and getting,” says Simon Rego, Psy.D., chief psychologist at Montefiore Medical Center and associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. “There’s synergy where two people interact, a nice allocation of giving and receiving.” In such circumstances, he adds, both people leave the interaction feeling invigorated, energized, and full of positive feelings and affect. “It’s a mutual sharing and taking of energy and both exit feeling good about themselves,” he says.
For energy vampires, Rego notes, the ratio or calibration of the scale veers so far off they’re using other people’s feelings and emotions to energize themselves. “Being an energy vampire isn’t a static condition, but it could be a part of narcissism – an inflated sense of self and the need to feel better by disparaging others and promoting themselves in front of others,” he says.
The behavior can come from underlying conditions. “There are tendencies of being histrionic and needing to be the center of attention,” he says. “It could even be co-dependency, an excessive reliance on other people to feel good about themselves.” For all of these, Rego notes, there’s a general tendency to veer too heavily and regularly towards inflating their mood and energy state by using the other people in their lives.
Unfortunately, it can be hard to recognize if you’re guilty of such actions if don’t realize you’re using others.
“Energy vampires tend to be unaware that they need help from others,” notes Randy Rolfe, JD, MA, a family therapist and author. “They think they’re doing fine and that others need them. They suck energy without knowing it — it’s unintentional.”
The unintentionality here is important. We all need help and sometimes it’s hard to tell if we are too often dictating the conversation to personal needs. But the warning signs of energy vampirism are also consequences. While neediness is a spectrum, the more you identify with these indicators, the more likely you’re draining your friends and setting yourself up for isolation and depletion. In order to be aware of if you might need some recalibration, here are nine signs to be on the lookout for.
You’re Often Cynical with Friends
Energy vampires tend towards cynicism and resist efforts to be optimistic. What’s more, they believe they’re correcting the erroneous thinking of non-cynics by offering unsolicited commentary on others’ positivity. “They could say something like, ‘You’re being too optimistic. Or ‘You’re going to have trouble thinking that way.’ They’re trying to bring people down, thinking they’re being helpful by keeping them realistic.”
You Often Dominate Discussions
If you find yourself always dominating or guiding the conversation — and guiding it towards topics that you want to discuss or that relate to you — instead of listening, then it’s a concern. “If you’re sticking to your subjects of interest, jumping in repeatedly to get more attention for yourself, or downplaying good news or something positive the other person is sharing, you’re not listening to what the other person is communicating,” Rolfe says. Conversations require a back and forth. If you sense that you might be guilty of this, take a beat and pause to let the other person speak.
You Focus Conversations on Yourself — A lot
Of course, an energy vampire needs energy directed towards themselves. It’s crucial to ask yourself, per Rego, ‘How much of spotlight am I putting on myself?’ “If the bulk of your conversations are ‘Me, my stuff, how I think, feel, and my world,” disproportionate to being curious about the other person, that’s a sign.” Don’t worry if you focus on yourself for any one interaction; but look for a self-focused trend. “If you’re only ever talking about your problems and beliefs and you’re not asking or being supportive of the other person — if this regularly tips more toward you, the other person is going to feel the effects.”
You Sense Tension When You’re Among Friends
All these little signs may add up to a bigger sign — that you’re stressing out your friends. So while it’s natural to look forward to meeting up with a friend, it’s less natural to feel at odds when you’re together. “You may notice some tension,” says Rolfe. “You want to be with them, but they’re not at ease, and you’re not at ease.”
Friends Often Set Limits on Your Interactions
If you’re an energy vampire, your friends will start setting some ground rules for your hangouts. “Your friends will leave an interaction with you feeling the negative consequences of your energy pull,” Rego says. “They’ll feel burnt out, stressed, and negative. They’ll set limits of time, what activities you engage in together, and what topics of conversation they’re willing to get into.”
Has anyone ever told you, “Let’s not talk about [insert your ongoing drama here]?” That’s important to note. “Notice that people are unwilling to get into anything but superficial conversations with you,” Rego says. An easy-to-access person may now set boundaries with you — a sign that you’ve been a drag on them recently.
Or They Begin to Distance Themselves
If your energy-sucking ways have gone unchecked, your friends may start to avoid you. “I’m too busy” could be legit — or it could be a lame blow-off. “It’s an easy way to try not to hurt your feelings,” Rolfe says. “They don’t feel like having their energy drained, so if you’re an energy hog, you’ll hear it more than usual.” If this is happening .
Similarly, co-workers may cut water cooler chats short, saying they have to get back to their desk before you can get too deep into conversation.
You Are Often Critical of Others
Offering too much criticism or unsolicited advice is unlikely to win you any popularity points. But even if you’re stopping short of voicing your condemnation of your friends’ opinions, ideas, and feelings, you may notice that you’re critical of them, all the same. This negative judgment could result from the very tactics they’re employing to save themselves from you. “Energy vampires blame the other person for backing away from them,” Rego says. “You may feel anger and frustration at the people in your network for setting boundaries or feel the injustice that you’re not getting as much attention as you used to. The reality is that your friends have likely lost some of their streams of energy as a consequence of the ways you’ve been acting.”
Your Own Energy Is Depleted
Just like a vampire who’s been unable to feed, you’ll notice you feel drained yourself once you’ve exhausted the energy of those around you. Their avoidance of you will leave you unable to suck their energy anymore — and you’ll feel the consequences. “You won’t feel as charged up anymore,” Rego says. “You’ll feel more down. If you’re asking yourself, ‘Why is my energy lower?’ It could be a proxy of people avoiding you.”
Again, there is a difference between asking for help and sucking your friends dry. But suppose your relationships seem to be suffering — friends setting limits, co-workers avoiding you, and you’re pissed off at everybody. If that’s happening, take a step back and consider whether you’re pulling more than your fair share of energy from others.