How to Deal With People Who Drain Your Energy

Stop feeling depleted every time you interact with an energy vampire

Let’s eavesdrop on a conversation with an energy vampire.

THEM:
They insist that you invest your energy in their cause, and their cause always seems hopeless – or it’s just not your cause.

YOU:
To avoid being rude, you accept their agenda. Now your brain mirrors their agitation. And it piles on your own agitation about the time you’ve wasted.

You feel depleted when you finally break free from this interaction. You resolve to make it different next time. Let’s eavesdrop on the next time.

THEM: 
They insist that their cause is righteous and any good person would surely agree.

YOU: 
You start to raise objections, but they become more insistent so you decide to save time by going along. You end up depleted.

To change this dynamic, you need to understand your mammalian herd impulse. In the state of nature, mammals live in groups for protection from predators. Natural selection built a brain that constantly seeks safety in numbers. When you mesh with the person in front of you, your mammal brain releases the nice safe feeling of oxytocin. If you refuse to mesh with that person, your mammal brain alarms you with fear of isolation, which means instant death in the state of nature. You’re not consciously thinking this in words, but the brain we’ve inherited turns on threat chemicals when we separate from the herd.

But it’s complicated. Oxytocin is only released when you connect to someone you trust. If you don’t trust that person, your brain turns on the bad feeling of cortisol. Today, cortisol is called the “stress chemical,” but in the state of nature it signals pain and the anticipation of pain. So meshing with someone you don’t trust triggers the anticipation of pain, but distancing triggers fear of losing your herd. What’s a big-brained mammal to do?

You can re-wire the circuits that control these chemicals. You can wire yourself to feel safe when you distance yourself from your herd or pack or troop. It’s harder than you may think, alas, because slashing a new trail through your jungle of neurons is harder than flowing down the neural superhighways you built long ago.

It’s frustrating to think that your neurochemistry got wired in youth, but the reasons are obvious in the animal world. Reptiles leave home the instant they’re born because they’re already hard-wired with the life skills they need. Mammals are born helpless and build their survival skills during a period of early dependence. We mammals are not pre-programmed with the experience of our ancestors; we wire ourselves from our unique individual experience. The bigger a mammal’s brain, longer its childhood, because neurons take time to connect in useful ways. By the time you face that energy vampire, some of your neurons became super-highways while others got pruned.

Everyone gets wired to fear isolation because the threat is real in your early experience. This fear can waste a lot of your energy until you wire in an alternative. Fortunately, you can do that by repeating a new thought or behavior every day without fail for 45 days. Your old circuit will always be there, but your new circuit will grow big enough to start feeling natural.

So what new thought or behavior will you choose? There’s no easy answer because you still face the unfortunate choice between meshing with a person you don’t really trust, and refusing to mesh and risking isolation. But our brain evolved to meet survival needs, and it rewards you with a good feeling when you meet a need. If you believe you are meeting your needs, you will feel good. Let’s eavesdrop on a new encounter with the energy vampire.

THEM: 
They broadcast an inflamed view of a situation and insist on your agreement.

YOU: 
“Interesting. I’ll think it over.”

THEM: 
“But don’t you see…” they persist.

YOU: 
In the past you would have felt alarm when you resisted the pressure to sync with this person. But you have spent the last 45 days activating the idea that you are safe with or without their approval. Each day for 45 days, you have reminded yourself that you have built effective survival skills, and you will be able to meet your needs with or without this person’s support. But you don’t want to be rude….so you’re still tempted to donate your energy to their cause.

THEM: 
They shame you for not “getting it” faster and for failing to trust them.

YOU: 
That’s enough. Your brain weighs this new bit of information along with the others. You are confident that you have acted like a worthy member of the herd, and you are confident of your steps away from the herd too. You decide when to step back and how far, and it feels good.

Congratulations! You have held on to your energy!

You may think it’s selfish to focus on your needs, but it’s the job your brain evolved to do. If you invest your energy in the needs of the energy vampire instead, your brain will alarm you with cortisol. This doesn’t mean you should follow your short run impulses, since long-term consequences trigger cortisol if you don’t account for them. It means your brain will reward you with a good feeling if you stay focused on your needs, whether others consent or not.

Loretta G. Breuning, PhD