How To Identify ‘Energy Vampires’ and Keep Them From Sucking the Life Out of You

Photo: Getty Images/ilkermetinkursova
Do you ever talk to a friend and just feel utterly drained after? Maybe you’re emotionally spent or need some time to decompress alone, or you feel overwhelmed by their problems with barely any mental space left to process your own. If any of this sounds familiar, you may have been zapped by an energy vampire. And regaining agency over your energy will require learning how to deal with energy vampires both in the moment and outside of interactions with them.

Like the term insinuates, an energy vampire is someone who sucks the energy out of someone else through the ways in which they approach conversations. Anyone in your life can take on this role—a friend, family member, coworker, or someone else—and while it’s not necessarily intentional, the impact will always be to leave you feeling overwhelmed or under-resourced in the wake of your interactions with them.

Experts In This Article

While, in some cases, you may be able to simply end your relationship with this person to preserve your energy or otherwise emotionally detach from them, in other cases, you may need or want to keep seeing or spending time with them. (Perhaps they’re a relative, for example, or your manager at work, or even just a friend whom you don’t necessarily want to lose.) In the latter scenario, learning how to deal with energy vampires will be essential to continue spending time with this person without feeling all but lifeless at the end of every interaction.

Below, relationship experts share how to identify energy vampires in action, the reasons why people might fall into this tendency, who may be most susceptible, and how you can learn to deal with energy vampires—no matter when and how they may strike.

4 signs that a person is an energy vampire

1. They only take and never give in your relationship

Anyone who is constantly demanding of your support or attention while rarely offering up any of their own is likely an energy vampire. This might look like the friend who always calls to vent or unload on you but doesn’t pick up the phone when you ring them, or the partner who only seems to engage with you when you’re helping them with a problem.

“As soon as they are done speaking, you have sympathized with their situation, and it’s your turn to share some news, they have to run and hang up the phone.” —Leslie Dobson, PsyD, clinical and forensic psychologist

“As soon as they are done speaking, you have sympathized with their situation, and it’s your turn to share some news, they have to run and hang up the phone,” says clinical and forensic psychologist Leslie Dobson, PsyD of an energy vampire in action. “This person is always taking and never giving in return.”

Relationship therapist Minaa B., LMSW, relationship expert at eharmony, notes that energy vampires are particularly known for unhealthy emotional dumping or venting, or using a relationship solely for co-rumination. “They will assume you are always ready to hear their drama or their negative experiences, and they will dump them on you with no warning,” she says.

2. They're pessimistic

For the energy vampire, “something is always going wrong,” says Minaa. “They reject any kind of positive alternative thought and seem to be only interested in staying in a dark, angry, or sad place.” By claiming such a negative state of being, they also have a rationale for expecting you to provide them with endless emotional support, she adds—even if you were the one who originally came to them for support.

That said, occasional pessimism alone does not necessarily make someone an energy vampire. “Humans are imperfect, and everyone has bad days, so differentiating between a friend venting about a bad day and an energy vampire can be tough sometimes,” says therapist Joey Trine, LCPC, regional clinic director at Thriveworks, in Illinois. For example, a coworker making hopeless statements about your company or a friend who talks negatively about other friends may be an energy vampire, or they may just be upset about something, she says.

To parse one from the other, Trine recommends considering whether this person has a regular pattern of pessimistic behavior, and if you almost always feel drained after interacting with them. If both things are true, you likely have an energy vampire on your hands.

3. You feel used by them and uncomfortable in their presence

If you feel the urge to avoid this person, feel on edge around them, or typically end conversations feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or otherwise uncomfortable, they’re probably an energy vampire.

By a similar token, you could be dealing with an energy vampire if “you feel anxious before you spend time with them, you don’t feel like yourself [with them], or you [resent] the time you’ve spent with them once it’s over because of how they made you feel or how [little] energy you have left for your life and other loved ones,” says Dr. Dobson. In this way, you could feel used or intruded upon by them, she adds.

Along those lines, an energy vampire may implement unhealthy tactics, such as manipulation and guilt-tripping, “to make people feel bad for not wanting to engage in their drama or stories as a way to get continued attention,” Minaa says.

4. You feel morally obligated to give them attention and support

…even when you feel as if you aren’t really helping them, or they don’t want your help. There’s often a feeling of fear or anxiety that if you don’t give them the exact kind of support they want or need, you might upset them, so you wind up walking on eggshells around them (which is part of why being in their presence can be so draining).

“Figuratively, it’s like they're entitled to disrespect you and your time, but you have to be perfect and not disturb or disrupt their peace, otherwise you’re a perpetrator within seconds,” says relationship expert Callisto Adams, PhD.

What causes someone to become an energy vampire?

It’s worth reiterating that people can act as energy vampires intentionally or unintentionally, and with or without malice.

“There are many reasons why someone might suck the energy out of a friend or loved one,” says clinical psychologist Andrew Cuthbert, PsyD, LP, clinical director at Timber Creek Counseling.“We might [initially] focus on how a person can be intentionally self-centered and self-absorbed; however, I think it’s more compassionate also to notice the incredible complexity of people and their backgrounds.”

Dr. Cuthbert encourages considering Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory, which shows how everyone's behavior is influenced by micro- and macro-systems, including familial input, laws, social norms, mass media, and more. That’s to say, it’s possible that an energy vampire is acting in such a way because of a complicated mix of external influences—rather than out of selfishness. For example, even if the person is unwilling to consider other points of view, that’s “more complex than them simply wanting to do others harm,” says Dr. Cuthbert.

Below, find a few specific internal reasons why someone might intentionally or unintentionally become an energy vampire.

Having an anxious attachment style

A person’s attachment style—secure, anxious, or avoidant—describes the ways in which they form and maintain relationships and is developed in response to experiences with caregivers during childhood. Those with an anxious attachment style struggle with vulnerability and intimacy, often seeking reassurance from a partner that they still like them and want to be with them—which can just as quickly turn them into an energy vampire.

“If a person has an anxious attachment style, with a desire to control those around them, set impressions, and prevent any abandonment in a relationship, they may suck the energy out of another person who is empathic, loving, or emotionally available,” says Dr. Dobson. This kind of behavior may not be intentional, she adds; perhaps the person experienced a lack of support or trust in a previous relationship, and now, they’re just constantly seeking reassurance of that support in a way that’s inadvertently draining their partner.

Needing support

It may be the case that the person constantly making demands of your attention genuinely is in need of care or is looking for connection or comfort, says Trine.

Perhaps they simply do not realize that the requests they’re making for your support are indeed draining you, or that the unsolicited stories they’re sharing of the difficulties in their life are reflective of emotional or trauma dumping. “The presumption that an individual ‘should know better’ regarding an undesired behavior is distorted thinking that everyone operates in the same framework,” says Trine.

Desiring power or control

In some cases, a person might become an energy vampire on purpose to gain an edge over other people. After all, if they manage to dump their problems on others or otherwise suck the life out of them, they might be relatively better positioned for success or personal progress.

“Intentional energy vampires are more likely to be interested in personal preservation, or they feel a need to be competitive,” says Trine. You may see this with coworkers or family members who feel a power struggle or aren’t getting what they want, she adds.

Feeling like a victim

In other words, they probably don’t relate to Taylor Swift’s Anti-Hero lyric: “It’s me, hi, I'm the problem, it’s me.” (Sorry, I had to.) Rather, they don’t feel like they’re the problem (ever) and prefer to pass the blame to everyone else.

“This person is in constant need of validation and has a tendency to see themselves as the victim in every situation,” says Dr. Adams. She believes this may be due to unresolved trauma, difficulty feeling present, or primarily focusing on feeling validated and justified, which may be tied to deep-seated insecurity.

Who is especially susceptible to energy vampires?

Empaths (and other empathetic people)

Energy vampires love an empath’s compassion and willingness to be supportive, Minaa says. Those are great qualities—don’t get us wrong, empaths—but energy vampires tend to take advantage of them, which can make it even tougher for empathetic folks to set effective boundaries.

“The more they are around energy vampires, the more they may find themselves feeling emotionally depleted from the constant emotional waves they experience when listening to energy vampires dump,” says Minaa. After all, empaths are the ones who are most prone to taking on someone else’s emotional baggage as their own—which can stoke worry and unrest, she says.

“Empaths may also be prone to doing the accountability work of others in order to fix people or help them heal,” adds Minaa, which can make them ideal targets of energy vampires.

People who are non-confrontational

Those who wouldn’t think to challenge or confront someone about emotional dumping or frequent requests for help are also prime suspects for energy vampires, says Trine. It’s easier for an energy vampire to complain to someone and receive the validation they seek if that person doesn’t pick a fight or put up any resistance, she explains.

People who are open and agreeable

“People high in agreeableness (more selfless, submissive, and naive), low in extroversion (non-assertive, reserved), and high in openness (highly curious and eager to learn) are likely the type of people who will give more time to an energy vampire,” says Dr. Cuthbert, referencing the five-factor model of personality, which considers measures of openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

Put simply, adds Dr. Cuthbert, those who easily attend to others, don’t easily advocate for their own energy, and are generally open-minded will be at high risk of getting taken advantage of by an energy vampire.

How to protect yourself from or deal with energy vampires

Set boundaries (and more boundaries)

Friendly reminder that it’s okay and good to set boundaries! That might look like setting parameters around when you’re available to be reached by a coworker, how much time you can offer a friend on the phone, or what kinds of topics you feel open to discussing in order to protect your energy and your peace.

Dr. Dobson encourages outlining such boundaries when you first meet a person and/or throughout the relationship (depending on the nature of your connection) and reinforcing them whenever they are crossed.

To spare yourself from an energy vampire, keep a close eye on how your new relationships with people progress and how those peoples’ other relationships look, says Dr. Dobson. In particular, keep an eye out for patterns: For example, Minaa says, “Do they have a tendency to call you to dump without asking if you have the space to hear their problems?” In this case, you could set boundaries around when you answer their calls, or say upfront, “I sense you’re going through a difficult time at the moment, but I don’t have the energy right now to be of assistance. I can call you back when I am in the right headspace to have this conversation,” suggests Minaa.

The same thing goes if you notice such patterns forming in existing relationships. Remember: You are always free to reiterate your boundaries when they are ignored or set new boundaries in an old relationship if the person on the other side begins to drain your energy.

Be mindful of how much energy you choose to give

Dr. Cuthbert believes it’s possible to train yourself to expel less emotional energy—even in the presence of energy vampires. “One simple technique is to imagine your emotional input as a dimmer switch,” he says. “As you go into an interaction, you can adjust how much of your energy you want to offer up to the person.” The idea? While you can’t control how much energy any given person might demand of you, you can control how you respond, he says.

“As you go into an interaction, you can adjust how much of your energy you want to offer up to the person.” —Andrew Cuthbert, PsyD, clinical psychologist

For example, when Dr. Cuthbert recently fell victim to an energy vampire, his partner encouraged him to worry less about the other person’s happiness and put his attention elsewhere. “Why give so much energy to them when they pay so little attention to you?” she asked him. It’s a valuable lesson for anyone learning how to deal with energy vampires: At the end of the day, we’re all in charge of our own energy reserve and can do with it what we please.

Consider seeing how they respond when you’re honest with them

As noted above, some energy vampires aren’t aware of the ways in which they’re sucking the life out of those around them. In which case, it may be worth communicating with an energy vampire in your life and letting them know how their actions are affecting you.

According to Dr. Cuthbert, relationships of any depth will move through periods where one person may be receiving more support than they’re getting, and vice versa. By surfacing the issue, you can alert the energy vampire in question that you’re nearing your limit in terms of the support you can offer them and that it’s their turn to start giving a bit more than they’re taking.

This conversation might also bring to light some reasons in their life why they might be needing so much care or support and allow you to come up with other ways they might receive it (that don’t involve dumping on you).

“It is a gift to have relationships with others who are not just willing to attend to the simple ways they may give or take your energy, but who are also willing to take responsibility for mistakes, sit with emotional complexity, and care for you as a whole person,” says Dr. Cuthbert. “Even as we may step on each other’s toes, we can find better ways to dance together.”

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