Over the years I’ve been asked to do interviews on a whole range of topics but it’s at Halloween that the topic of emotional vampires tends to come up. It’s a little kitsch but the media love things like that! (I’ve shared an interview from a few years ago below).
Given that a previous blog post was about surrounding yourself with people who lift you up and bring out your best, I thought it might be worth writing about how to handle those people who can pull you down and bring out your worst, aka emotional vampires.
But before I share a little advice (all hard-won) on how to deal with those people who occasionally enter your orbit (or sometimes live there permanently!), let me just say one really important thing: You alone are responsible for the energy you put out and the energy you let in.
This article is not about the energy you put out – I’ve written others on that! – it is about taking ownership of the state of your relationships and refusing to buy into a victim mentality where you feel helpless to do anything but to suffer those around you (not true!).
Sure there are people in your life who may not be your cup of tea. You may have to work with them or work for them or you may live in the house next door or maybe you’re related to them but you have more choice in how those relationships develop than you may think.
Take 100% responsibility for the energy you put out and the energy you let in
So my first bit of advice is to begin by owning that you are the only person responsible for your thoughts, your behavior and your happiness . And those people who trigger you the most are those who also have the most to teach you about yourself and life. That doesn’t mean you may enjoy their company or condone their actions. It may not mean you want to spend another minute of your life with them, but they most certainly offer you the greatest lessons on tolerance, acceptance, forgiveness, compassion and courage.
Most people are very unaware of how they impact those around them. So if someone is continually doing something that oversteps the mark, you may need to be quite explicit in drawing a line in the sand about what you do and don’t want to talk about, or what behavior you will or won’t accept. When my kids were young I became friends with a neighbor whose children were a similar age. She had no idea what an emotional vampire she could be as all she ever wanted to do was to complain about her husband and her kids and the exhaustion of motherhood. There was no end to the faults she could find with him and her lot in life. My kids enjoyed playing with hers but one day I just said, “You know I’m sorry you feel this way but I would prefer not to talk about your husband anymore unless of course, you want to talk about ways to improve things. I hope that’s okay.”
And of course, if you’re dealing with someone who has no regard for your boundaries (like a Harvey Weinstein character), you may need to be a little more strident in your language, like, “Cut it out!”
Hold up a mirror
In line with setting boundaries, sometimes people just don’t realize how they are ‘showing up’ and sometimes (when you care enough to risk it) the kindest thing you can do – for them and for yourself – is to gently let them know the impact they are having on you: “When you talk like this (or about ‘insert-topic’) I can’t help but feel offended, drained, hurt etc.”
Steer clear and be willing to unfriend
You don’t always get a choice about whether to spend time with an energy taker but if you do, then give them a wide berth. Of course unfriending people you’ve spent a lot of time with over the years (or decades) can be quite awkward and sometimes really uncomfortable. You can help make things easier by simply filling your calendar with people and activities that light you up so that when they want to catch up you can, very authentically, say you are busy with other commitments, even if its just spending time with yourself!
Beware of ‘should’ relationships
One of the biggest things I hear people say (particularly women) when it comes to ending relationships is how guilty they feel and invariably in that conversation will be the word should. But here’s the deal, if your main reason for spending time with someone is because you think you should rather than if you really want to then reflect on a) who it is you are trying to please – other people or yourself? – and b) the price you’re paying for doing so.
Sometimes we need to accept that relationships have run their course and are no longer serving our highest good. Sure we get a pay-off staying in them (from family harmony to a pay check) but is it worth what you’re giving up? (Like your sanity or happiness?)
This isn’t about burning people off or being righteous. It’s about being clear about who you want to be in the world and for those you love most – passionate, optimistic, kind, generous, accepting, a change maker – and who it is that will support you in being that person more often (and holding you to account when you’re not!). So enough with the should-driven relationships. Surround yourself with the kind of people who you want to be more like, not less like!
Practice Loving Kindness (No matter what, go high)
What’s that I hear you say? “I’m not the Dalai Lama. I can’t possibly practice loving kindness with this arsehole!”
Oh yes you can.
That doesn’t mean you must tolerate the intolerable or let people treat you with anything less than respect. It does mean that you don’t descend to their level. It means that you act with the character, courage and compassion they may be lacking. “Hurt people hurt people,” my friend Caren once said. Likewise, people who are suffering want others to suffer with them.
Imagine what it must be like to be that person? Probably not a lot of fun. So be kind to them as you set your boundaries and fill your calendar with people and places that inspire you more. Who knows how your willingness to treat yourself with love and respect may ultimately impact them. But for now, just know that letting other people pull you down, infect your energy and siphon joy and optimism from your day isn’t serving you and it isn’t serving them either. Like Michelle Obama, “If they go low, go high.”
Be someone others want to be around
The greatest gift you can give anyone is to be someone others want to be around. And if that means spending less time with some people (at least right now) so you can create more space for others, so be it.