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May 5, 2021

Why labeling people as “Emotional Vampires” is so Problematic.

I recently saw a piece online titled, “A Guide to Spotting an Emotional Vampire.”

Having encountered a few of these in my time, it’s no surprise I greedily devoured the article.

It touched upon the main defining characteristics of the emotional undead: excessive need for validation; self-absorption; extreme neediness; a lack of empathy; repeating relationship patterns.

As I read it, I said, “Yes! That’s them!” repeatedly and often aloud. It was liberating to read that someone else had similar experiences as mine. I felt vindicated—and that’s always a pretty good feeling to have.

I then got up from my laptop, and, buoyant with my newfound validation, went for a satisfying run. Later, I returned to the article. My thoughts hadn’t changed, but I was intrigued to see what others had to say about it. So I scrolled down to the comments.

And, half an hour later, I’d changed my mind about the whole thing.

Now, I’m not sure I’d ever be comfortable calling someone an “emotional vampire” again.

The article began by saying that an emotional vampire has an excessive need for validation and attention from others. As such, conversations with them tend to be dominated by one person: them. Everything always segues back to them, their life, their problems. Now, if you’ve encountered an emotional vampire, then you know this is true. Your world might be caving in, but they’ll still be chuntering on about their journey, or their needs. It’s almost as if you don’t exist. It’s incredibly frustrating and invalidating.

The only problem with this (and I’m afraid it’s a bit of a big one) is that I also see this every day in my job. I work with people suffering from a range of mental health issues. And, even when I’ve been supporting them a long time, and that relationship is well-established, I’m not sure any of them has ever really taken much of an interest in me as a person.

Granted, it’s a professional relationship, and I’m there to help them. But, even the people you work with take some interest in your life. My clients don’t. It doesn’t occur to them. Not because they’re mean or selfish—in all honesty, they’re probably the nicest, kindest people I’ve ever met. But their mental illness, which is often result of past trauma, doesn’t allow them to see the world this way.

Whereas you and I wouldn’t think twice about asking someone else, “How’s it going?” it simply doesn’t occur to my clients that this is just something you do.

In most cases, it’s not them being self-absorbed or an emotional vampire. It’s because they have Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder, or are in the throes of Bipolar, or are on the autistic spectrum, or, at the very least, grew up in a house where they were never seen, heard, or validated and now (grossly) overcompensate in their adult life by taking it all too far and making everything about them. Or, more often than not, they’re going through a really sh*tty time, and all their energies are focused on them not being pulled under.

Honestly, the label of emotional vampire might make you feel better, but it diminishes the (often) genuine battle they’re trying to fight.

Also, haven’t we all done this at times? Haven’t we all, at some point, gotten so wrapped up in our own problems, in our own pain, that we’ve been blind toward the suffering of others? I know I have.

When I was at my most ill, I barely had the ability to look after myself. So, empathy for someone else’s problems? I’m not sure I even had the capacity to see them, let alone act upon them. That doesn’t make me an emotional vampire; it means I was mentally unwell. The same will likely be true for most of the people you think about bestowing this moniker on.

And, while you’re at it, please make sure you’re compassionate and take an interest in others before you start bemoaning another’s perceived lack of those qualities. Hypocrisy is never a good look.

However, there’s an added dimension to this: “emotional vampires” have been painted to be especially bad if you’re dealing with something serious. If they’re indifferent to you ordinarily, then if you’re undergoing something massive, they seem to care even less.

Again, there’s a bit of problem with this.

On the one hand, this is typical behavior of a narcissist who will normally discard you during the worst times in your life. However, at the same time, most of us suck when people we know are going through something big. We freeze, not knowing what to say, afraid of making it worse.

It’s lovely to think that when the sh*t goes down, everyone flies to your help with stoic, unflinching support. We don’t. We crumble and make idiots of ourselves. Or we run away, especially if we know we did something that contributed to the mess. Why? Because that stuff makes us uncomfortable as hell. It’ll trigger us in a million ways we don’t understand.

Need confirmation of this? Have a breakdown, and see how people react. I guarantee that you’ll see stuff you never saw coming. And most of it will have absolutely nothing to do with you.

None of that makes someone an emotional vampire—it makes them a slightly f*cked human being like the rest of us.

The article then went on to explain how this excessive self-absorption doesn’t just blind them to the problems of others, it also gives them a chronic lack of self-awareness: nothing is ever their fault.

If someone dislikes them, it’s because they’re jealous of them, or somehow trying to hurt them. Heaven forbid any grievance be actually true—it’s probably just a result of you being toxic. And, if you can ever get them to admit wrongdoing, it was probably your fault anyway. You made them do it.

Again, all true. Except…

Once more, this is also mental illness. Truthfully, none of that is uncommon. And more sadly, it’s also real life. People do this all the time.

And it’s not because they’re an emotional vampire. It’s because they have a chronic issue with shame and guilt, and instead of being able to handle those horrible, uncomfortable emotions safely, they project outward.

If someone has done something to hurt you, and they’re still banging on about how innocent they are, that’s the guilt and shame talking. It’s not because they don’t care; if anything, they care too much, and don’t have any idea how to healthily process what they’re experiencing. Instead of looking inward and dealing with all that horrible guilt and shame, it’s targeted outward, at you.

And if they’re doing that? Well, give them a bit sympathy. Because someone who’s had a happy life doesn’t do that. Only someone who had a sh*tty childhood and/or adulthood behaves that way. It’s misery manifested.

You don’t need to necessarily avoid that person. In fact, a bit of love, compassion, and validation will probably work wonders. If they fail to respond to that, then there’s no issue in cutting them off. After all, they’ve got to be willing to meet you halfway. If not, then saying, “I tried. Goodbye,” is okay to safeguard your own mental well-being. You can still be sympathetic—just do it at a distance that works for you.

The ones you do have to stay clear of—without hesitation—are the ones who just don’t care. For these people, it’s not about things never being their fault. They can’t even see a problem in the first place—there’s no need to apportion blame because they never saw any issue.

These people aren’t emotional vampires, they’re potentially sociopaths. Big difference.

Next, the article said that due to this extreme lack of self-awareness, the emotional vampire is so busy blaming others, they can’t see that it’s actually their needy, push-pull, obnoxious, immature, cold behavior that is pushing people away. Because they can’t see it’s them, they end up repeating the same patterns over and over again, oblivious to that fact that they’re overlooking the only common denominator: themselves.

I once knew someone who said that all their relationships had failed because they only attracted narcissists, or people who needed saving. Err…okay.

Firstly, that’s not someone being an emotional vampire. That’s someone with a f*cked up attachment style who is unable to choose an appropriate, healthy partner or well-meaning friends. They’re not an emotional vampire; they’re damaged and—thanks to miserable life experiences—are attracted to the wrong qualities in other people.

Secondly, not wishing to labor the point, but, again, mental illness. It’s not called Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder for nothing: a lack of self-awareness comes as standard. (As does choosing the exciting, toxic partner, over the healthier, dull-looking one.)

Thirdly, c’mon—how many times have we heard or said nonsense like this? If being aware of your toxic traits is a superpower, then being truly self-aware is a mega-superpower. It’s not just rare in the mentally ill, it’s rare in us all. Most of the people I’ve met in my life have limited self-awareness. In fact, I’ve only ever encountered one person whose self-image matched the reality. In most cases, when I’ve listened to people describe themselves, I’ve genuinely had no idea who they were talking about.

As a result, we always blame others instead of first looking at ourselves. We may end up doing so in the end, but there’s a lot of “they’re a narcissist! And emotional vampire!” before we reach that point. We revert to the default position of: “They really, really hurt me—ergo, they are an emotional vampire.”

No. Chances are they are just a bit screwed up and, as a result of their screwed-up-ness, they ended up really f*cking hurt you. That doesn’t necessarily make them an emotional vampire, it makes them a flawed, imperfect human. As we all are.

They might also be mentally ill, which—let’s face it—thanks to the strains of living under the shadow of COVID-19, they very well could be, even if a condition has never been diagnosed. One in four of us? Right now, that figure is likely to be one in two of us.

The bottom line is that there’s a difference between someone who’s a sociopathic, entitled, self-absorbed asshole, and someone who, for one legitimate reason or another, doesn’t play well with others.

It’s a sad truth that some people aren’t very nice and are incapable of remorse, compassion, admitting culpability, or doing the work that leads to growth. I wouldn’t call them emotional vampires; I’d say they have toxic behaviors, and I’d heartily recommend leaving them in your past.

But, the others? Before you toss the label around, at least think about it. Especially if there’s mental illness involved, or trauma. Those people have already been invalidated all of their lives. Calling them the emotional equivalent of Dracula isn’t moving anything forward. If anything, it’s keeping us all in the metaphorical schoolyard, aimlessly throwing around expressions that—in truth—actually mean very little, and that do more harm than good.

We don’t need to vanquish emotional vampires. We need to heal them. And we need to work on those parts of ourselves that are also vampiric and need healing too.

And we can start that process by not calling each other this in the first place.

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