Try a little tenderness to put so-called social ‘vampires’ into perspective

We’ve all experienced them at some point, probably — people whose company leaves us feeling emotionally depleted and drained of energy. You might be familiar with the term ‘drains and radiators’, which contrasts the effect this behaviour has on us with the lovely warmth we experience from the company of those whose presence is uplifting and delightful. We can use the expression with a light touch. Its meaning is clear, and the plumbing reference acts as a buffer against hurtfulness.

The same can’t be said of the phrase ‘social vampire’, which in one form or another has been in use since early in the 20th century. It seems to be having something of a resurgence, with the word ‘vampire’ preceded by social, physical, emotional, professional, whatever, just to make sure we appreciate how these people can have an impact on every aspect of our lives.

‘Vampire’ is a far from neutral word. Vampires are reanimated corpses who prey on human beings, roaming the world looking for people whose blood they can suck. The word carries a raft of dark and sinister connotations. And now we can include in this group of evil-doers members of our friendship, family and work groups who we sometimes find difficult and annoying. It’s a bit of a step.

Examples of social vampire behaviour range far and wide. They encompass behaviour which shows signs of narcissism or which displays neediness or clinginess. Being quick to judge and dominating conversation are typical of vampire behaviour, we are told, as is being self-centred or over-dramatic. Other characteristics include the need for constant reassurance, the tendency to play the victim, to outstay one’s welcome in social situations, and the inability to accept fault or responsibility. That is quite the list.

Victims report that these vampires can have a devastating effect. They can cause us to feel so exhausted that we retreat into ourselves and become incapable of human interaction. They can increase our anxiety levels and damage our well-being. They may cause us to feel depressed and insecure.

Advice on how to deal with this vampire-like behaviour is far-reaching. Suggestions include:

  • set clear boundaries
  • tell them how you feel and how they need to change
  • cut them out of your life
  • practise mindfulness
  • talk to a coach or therapist

All these are sound ideas about how to handle people we find difficult. What effect these strategies would have on Dracula isn’t so clear.

The thing is, we’re not actually dealing with Dracula or the boy from Twilight or any of the undead who have thrilled and horrified audiences over the years. Our love of a dramatic, snappy label may have caused us to lose a sense of proportion. While some of our relationships may be deeply problematical, much of the behaviour attributed to everyday vampires shows flawed human beings getting it wrong. And we are all flawed, and we all get it wrong sometimes, in our own individual ways.

In general, the list of vampire crimes is something of a hotchpotch, and we could pause before leaping in to apply the label to every example. Instead, you could try describing the offending behaviour in more precise, dialled-down terms, such as:

  • X does tend to talk about themselves a lot.
  • X hangs around when they’re not wanted.
  • X demands a lot of attention.
  • X loves to be the centre of a drama.
  • X always has a excuse ready when they have done something wrong.
  • X doesn’t listen to what I’m saying.
  • It’s always someone else’s fault with X.
  • X puts me down all the time.

Before deciding what approach you are going to take, think about just how problematical the situation is. Is the person being seriously intimidating or threatening? Are you being pressurised or bullied? Threatening behaviour should be taken very seriously and requires a full-on assertive response. If the behaviour is more annoying or irritating, you could explore other ways of dealing with it. Match your level of response to the nature of the offence.

It’s possible that the limited social interaction of recent times has affected our ability to calibrate situations and to extend our perspective beyond ourselves. Perhaps we adhere to strict formulas of assertive communication because they give a definite structure. But as long as you are confident that you are able to say anything you want to say, stop and think if you have chosen the most appropriate words.

For example, does your companion’s tendency to talk about themselves at length warrant the full weight of critical attack, perhaps leading to cutting them out of your life? Instead, you could explore why it annoys you. You could think about why they do this. If you’re close enough, you could talk about it in a conversation which isn’t based on your feelings of being disrespected or ignored (unless this is what you want to do, of course) and an ultimatum that unless things change such-and-such will happen.

Express your feelings and see if some change could occur. This can be done gently, or jokingly, or seriously — whatever you feel comfortable with and think might work.

And, of course, it’s important to be able to express your feelings and to ask for change. But you can play around with the words you use. You can joke. You can be gentle. Save the heavy artillery for serious situations.

Comments about social and other vampires are often illustrated with images of dripping blood, for heaven’s sake. We can respect ourselves and other people without dehumanising our imperfect beings. Isn’t it time for a little gentleness?

In the meantime, there are always the re-runs of Buffy….

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