What is an Energy Vampire, and How Do We Avoid Them?

Carolyn Light

Your mental wellness is worth protecting

Photo by Morgan Housel on Unsplash

My colleague just left our company for a new job, and I’m so relieved.

She started at the company before I did, and when I onboarded, I wasn’t sure how I felt about her. I thought she seemed a bit aloof, but truthfully, this was fine with me. I’m introverted and quiet; I work best when I’m uninterrupted, and having a colleague who only conversed with me about work matters didn’t bother me.

I noticed that she always had a complaint or harsh words for our colleagues. Our counterparts in another office were overstepping their bounds and making it hard for her to do her job. The accounting rep didn’t return her calls quickly enough. She made our administrative assistant cry while berating her over an ant problem in the communal kitchen.

Everyone avoided her. She was never invited to office happy hours, never included in any type of idle chatter in the kitchen, and people pointedly looked at the ceiling when she spoke in meetings.

Still, she and I were part of a small team, and for me, she was unavoidable. Further, because we were roughly the same age, and in the same stage of our lives, she began to open up to me. At the time, we were both single and on the dating scene. We would chat (and laugh) about the dates that we went on, and slowly, we began to become friendly.

Our friendship created a noticeable shift in her behavior at work. Other colleagues commented on it to me, noting that she seemed to be in a much better mood. They joked that I broke through her unseen barrier, and she began participating more in office events and interactions. I figured she had just been lonely and unsure how to connect with our colleagues. I thought this was understandable, and felt glad that she was opening up.

She began dating one man in particular, and though she closed herself off to other men, he did not close himself off to other women. She would sit in my office for an hour at a time, telling me everything that he said and did; telling me about every conversation they had, everything he did to hurt her feelings, and asking for advice about how to handle the situation.

At first I didn’t mind — though I was having trouble getting my work done and staying later in the evening to get caught up. I gave her the best advice I could — telling her honestly that she needed to let his man be free to date other women since he clearly wasn’t interested in being monogamous with her — and I would listen patiently again the following day when she would tell me about how she ignored my advice and he was still treating her poorly.

She started texting me at night after work. At first, I would respond to the messages — as I do with all of my messages — but in an attempt to regain some of my alone time after work, I slowly stopped responding. This did not go unnoticed; she would text me things like “I just need to talk,” and then I would feel guilty and bad for ignoring her. I would respond and lose the remainder of my evening.

It got to a point at work when my boss took notice of the time she was sitting in my office and asked me what was going on.

I don’t know, I mumbled in response, not wanting to get her in trouble, not wanting to complain. I think she’s going through something and needs someone to lean on.

That’s not your job, my boss responded. If she’s making it too difficult for you to get your work done, you can tell me.

I didn’t say anything, but my boss decided enough was enough, and pulled her aside when I was at lunch one day to tell her she needed to stay out of my office and focus on her own work.

You could have told me I was bothering you, she screamed at me later. You didn’t have to go complain to our boss about me. I thought we were friends.

I didn’t even try to defend myself. I was too tired.

I told a friend the whole story later over drinks.

Ugh, a classic energy vampire, she said to me.

An energy vampire? I responded.

Yeah, she said. You know, someone who sucks the energy and life out of you.

At home that night, I Googled “energy vampire,” and found that this was a common scenario. Reading through the examples, I saw my colleague reflected as though the articles were written about her specifically.

One particular article on Healthline ran through all the different characteristics of an energy vampire, including the following:

They’re always involved in drama. My colleague sought out drama, from her interactions with our administrative assistant, to the man she was dating. Her life was turbulent at all times, and it seemed to be how she thrived.

They act like martyrs and don’t take responsibility for their own actions. Despite the fact that the man she was dating told her honestly that he didn’t want to be exclusive, she still blamed him for all of her problems. When my boss told her that she needed to leave me alone and let me do my work, it was my fault, even though she had been the one spending all day in my office distracting me. Nothing was ever her fault; everyone was out to get her.

They use your good nature against you. Energy vampires feed off of your energy, and the people most susceptible to this are empaths (that’s me!). She knew I was uncomfortable telling her I needed her to leave my office so that I could work. She knew that if she made it sound like she was dealing with a crisis I wouldn’t turn her out. She fed off of my energy until she was completely revitalized and I was a dead battery.

They guilt-trip you. “I just need someone to talk to,” she would say in her texts to me. “You’re the only one I’ve told about this.” As in the scenario above, she used my empathy against me to get my attention and make me feel like a bad person for not talking to her.

She was exhausting.

If you find yourself in a situation dealing with an energy vampire, how is this best handled?

The Healthline article continued to list some of the ways that we can protect ourselves from such people.

First, do your best to establish boundaries. This one is hard, and I wasn’t good at it. But, had I been better at it, I would have started by establishing that I’m off-limits after work. If I spend all day with someone, there’s no reason why I should be required to give them my attention after-hours.

Adjust your expectations. She wasn’t going to change — which meant I could only change the way I reacted to her. Not offering her my advice, or sitting with her through her venting sessions would have changed our dynamic entirely.

Tell them you’re too tired. Energy vampires feed off of energy. If you don’t have any energy for them, they’ll go somewhere else.

Cut them out of your life. Depending on who this person is in your life, you may or may not be able to take this step. I couldn’t cut her out of my life entirely; she worked with me. But I certainly could have cut her out of my socializing and left her in the work-sphere only.

I bumbled my way through this situation.

I didn’t recognize what I was dealing with, and was unable to cut it off before it became too ingrained in my life. Now though, with the awareness I have, I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to avoid dealing with a similar situation in the future.

It’s challenging to cut someone off when you want the best for them, and your intuitive response to someone in need is to try to help. Still, your own energy is worth protecting. The cliche you can’t pour from an empty cup became a cliche for a reason — to remind us to take care of ourselves also.

Have you dealt with an energy vampire? How did you handle the situation?

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We're all just out here, doing our best. Pondering: Mental Health | Feminism | Relationships & Dating | Social Climate

Chicago, IL

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