“This is my office, also known as the hunting ground,” says energy vampire Colin Robinson in an episode of the satirical show “What We Do in the Shadows.” As he explains, “Energy vampires drain people’s energy merely by talking to them.” Robinson looks like an ordinary human, but he is a superpowered vampire who feeds off of bothering and boring his colleagues. He gets stronger the more he interrupts them as they type on their computers and distracts them with loud, prolonged pencil-sharpening.
“What We Do in the Shadows” is a fictional show that uses humor to tell an emotional truth: A lot of us deal with energy vampires at our jobs.
“Energy vampire” has become a pop culture term to describe someone who is exhausting and draining to deal with, but to be clear, it’s not a medical diagnosis.
“There is no official diagnosis or treatment approach specific to [energy vampires], no class on energy vampirism taught in graduate school, but we’ve all known them personally and professionally,” said California-based clinical psychologist Ryan Howes.
The challenge with energy vampires at work is that you cannot fully ignore them ― especially if they are on your team. But there are proven strategies to defeat them and regain your time and energy.
Below, clinicians discuss the line between an annoying co-worker and an energy vampire, as well as tips on how to set boundaries with one at the office:
The biggest sign that your co-worker is an energy vampire is how they make you feel.
From their manner of speech to the topics they cover, energy vampires do not just exhaust their victims in one way ― they deploy different tactics to drain people’s physical and mental energies.
“They can take a wide variety of forms, from the person who asks way too many intrusive personal questions, to the person who always seems to have a horrible day and wants everyone to join them, to the person who tells long stories that never seem to have an end or a point. And on and on,” Howes said. “If you feel tired after interacting with them, and find yourself dreading the next time you bump into them, you may be dealing with an emotional vampire.”
It can be typical to occasionally have boring or socially awkward interactions with colleagues, but an interaction with an energy vampire is more intense, Howes said. “Some of my clients talk about feeling like they have difficulty focusing and staying motivated after a meeting or conversation with an EV,” he said. “This can leave them feeling angry, frustrated or too depleted to even care.”
Because energy vampires can drain people in different ways, Nevada-based clinical psychologist Tanisha Ranger said you should focus on how you feel after interacting with a colleague to determine if they are an energy vampire.
“How you feel after you interact with them tends to be uniform,” she said. “[If] you don’t feel like the conversations have been in any way productive or useful, and you feel like a lot of your time was just wasted for no real reason, those might be really good signs that you’re dealing with an energy vampire.”
Another big sign is if they never want to hear a solution to their complaints.
Ranger said energy vampires may also be “help-rejecting complainers.”
Although they want to talk to you about all the problems, “anything that you offer that might be a solution, or a way to manage, or a way to help, they have all the reasons in the world why that cannot and will not and shall not work,” she said. “And so it just becomes this hamster wheel.”
Oversharing and having consistently one-sided conversations are red flags, too.
“Energy vampires are people who are profoundly lonely,” Ranger said. “I think that they don’t have a lot of real, positive reciprocal connections in their lives.”
That’s why you may hear them constantly talk about their personal life and problems without seeming awareness about how it makes others feel.
Disclosure does not go both ways. “You will notice that they don’t necessarily ask a lot of questions about you. They don’t necessarily give an indicator that they care too much about how you’re doing, or what’s going on with you, or anything of that nature,” Ranger said, noting that “you basically end up feeling used up.”
“They have that loneliness,” she explained. “And they also don’t have that awareness because your lack of interest in what they’re saying feels normal. That’s how everybody is when they’re talking.”
If you’re worried that you might be the energy vampire, reflect on how much time you spend talking to a colleague versus how much they end up sharing in return. If it’s always lopsided in your favor, that could be a potential sign that you’re draining your co-workers.
“If you walk away from a conversation, and you play it back in your head, and you can’t remember a single thing that the other person says, that might be a problem,” Ranger said.
Pay attention to your conversation partner’s body language and tone. A pattern of one-word responses and a lack of engagement can be signs that they are not really listening to what you are saying, Ranger said.
Setting boundaries with an energy vampire doesn’t need to be hard.
The advantage of dealing with an energy vampire at work is that you have a built-in excuse for why you need to bow out of a conversation. “It’s the easiest and most understandable boundary to set ― ‘I need to get back to work,’” Howes said. Here’s how to get that message across to an energy vampire:
Understand where they are coming from.
If you’re building up resentment against your vampiric colleague, try to first feel compassion for their circumstances.
“One thing I’ve learned through my work as a psychologist is that EVs are often people who have unmet needs for attention and approval that could stem from any number of difficult or even traumatic issues from their past,” Howes said. “Think about it: If they were totally emotionally healthy and had great self-esteem, would they need to coercively drain others of their attention and emotional support, inspiring resentment?”
“No,” he said, “the energy vampire technique is probably something they learned to try to get their needs met when they were young, and they were never taught healthier ways to connect and maintain relationships.”
He continued, “Thinking of them that way may help you see they are a person, just like you, but who had some speed bumps and poor guidance that resulted in this unfortunate interpersonal style,” so “knowing this may give you some more patience and compassion when interacting with them.”
Don’t fake attention that you don’t really feel.
One simple way to limit the pull of an energy vampire’s attention is to just not ask questions that you don’t want the answer to, Ranger said.
“I know so many people who are like, ‘I don’t know why I said that, because I did not care,’” she said. “I’ve really trained myself to not ask questions that I don’t care about the answer to.”
Use the ‘swivel’ to redirect unwanted conversations.
“If the conversation starts to turn to matters that are too personal or invasive, you can always try to turn it back to work-related issues and hold the focus there,” Howes said.
One proven way to do this is by “swiveling” the discussion away from overly personal topics and onto something that you actually want to talk about. As Rebecca Nellis, the executive director of Cancer and Careers, previously told HuffPost in 2019, a swivel is where you acknowledge what the person is saying with appreciation and empathy, before then using “’and’ statements, or ‘while’ statements, or an implied ‘and,’ and then a new topic.”
Be upfront about how much time you have to interact.
If redirecting conversations back to a project isn’t working, you may need to be more explicit, Howes noted, suggesting that you say something like: “Hey, this is interesting, but I really need to focus on my work right now. Can we talk about this later?”
If you are dealing with an energy vampire you must closely work with on a project, it can also help to set explicit time boundaries on conversations that are not related to the task at hand.
“Yes, tell me about your weekend, but I need to send this email in three minutes,” Howes suggested saying. He said that when those three minutes pass, you can say: “Time’s up! Gotta send that email. You can fill me in on the rest tomorrow.”
Set a timer on vent sessions.
A “time-limited pity party” can sometimes be a helpful release of tension and a way to bond with colleagues, Ranger said, but it helps to set a timer on a colleague’s vent and complaining session.
“I’m a big fan of having an inanimate object ringing loudly to let us know it’s time to stop, as opposed to me,” she said. “That takes a lot of the pressure off of you as the person who has to tell your co-worker to wrap it up.”
If the energy vampire is your boss, be explicit about priorities.
Setting boundaries with vampiric bosses requires tact. One way to push back is to explicitly note when your boss’s interactions are taking you away from your job.
Ranger said she did this once with a boss who would interrupt her computer tasks by speaking thoughts out loud. When this happened, Ranger would ask her boss, “‘Do you want to do this’ — [while] pointing between me and her — ’or do you want me to do this?’ [while] pointing at the computer.” That way, her boss was clear about the choice Ranger was facing.
And ultimately if your energy vampire boss is not listening to your requests, it may be time to ask: “Is the price you’re paying emotionally worthy of this paycheck and this job? Or is it time to ask for a transfer to another boss, or even start looking for another job?” Howes said. “There are many jobs, but only one you, and you’re worth caring for.”