Sunday, January 25, 2009

Emotional Vampires

An Emotional Vampire can suck the life out of you by draining you emotionally.

This topic is related to my "They're BAITING You!" article, and also relates to the concept of conservation of emotional energy, touched upon in my previous article on Conspiracy Theories.

Emotional Energy is important in dealing with your personal finances. If you are drained of emotional energy, you may find yourself depressed, tired, weakened, and unable to make decisions or look after yourself. In order to take care of yourself (see my article, "The Unwritten Social Contract") you need to conserve your emotional energy for your own life.

Unfortunately, there are people and institutions which are Emotional Vampires - they suck the life out of you. You've heard that phrase before, haven't you - someone who is described as "sucking the life" out of something. Or perhaps the phrase "he sucks all the oxygen out of the room". These are phrases which describe the concept of the Emotional Vampire - someone who takes and takes and takes, but gives little back. As I noted, Emotional Vampires can also be institutions as well. The best example is broadcast television (see my article "Kill Your Television!") which drains viewers of energy while giving little back to the viewer.

The following are some more detailed descriptions of examples of Emotional Vampires, and also the strategies on how to deal with these folks (and institutions). Many of these folks can be our co-workers and friends or family members. While the option of avoidance is always an option, it is not always practical, except as a last resort. Anyway, here is my list, which is by no means exhaustive.

1. The Friend with the Perpetual Problem: We've all had this friend, and probably always will. You go over to visit (or more likely they visit you) and within a few minutes of chit-chat, the topic is (once again) changed to the friend's permanent intransigent problem that can never be solved. It could be work, a spouse, their deadbeat children, an infirm Mother who "needs to go into the home, but won't go!" or some other problem.

Now don't take this the wrong way - everyone has problems once in a while, and sharing them with friends is a good way to put your problems in perspective and find a solution. But that's not what I am talking about here. This is the friend who has the problem forever and refuses to do anything about it. The frustrating thing is, oftentimes the "problem" is of their own making, or the solution is simple and obvious, but the friend has a laundry list of reasons why they "can't" solve the problem.

The real reason they won't solve the problem is that they like having the problem, as it gives them an identity and something to talk about - something that perhaps takes their mind off other problems in their lives, or drowns out the deafening silence in most lives and thus insulates them from having to think about greater issues such as their life and death.

You can talk these issues to death with such friends, and you can suggest alternatives, provide advice, do research, go out of your way to help, and all to no avail. If you can actually do something to help, they will sabotage your efforts. So what do you do?

Other than total avoidance (e.g., tell them to find a new friend) one strategy is not to get drawn into these discussions. If the topic veers off to their "problem", quickly change the subject, and even say, quite frankly, "I don't want to discuss that right now". Limiting your contacts with such friends is also a possible complimentary tactic, as even without "the problem" being discussed, such "friends" can be emotional drags.

You need to save your emotional energy for dealing with your own problems in life. This is not selfish, but self-preservation. Just as you need oxygen to breath, you need this emotional energy to live. You cannot merely give it away, or more correctly, squander it, on emotional vampires, who will then take this energy and waste it on nothing. If you are going to try to "help" someone (a concept that is fraught with peril anyway) make sure they really want to be helped, rather than just want your sympathy.

2. The Conspiracy Theory or Political Junkie: I have written about these before at length, so I will not go into details here. But basically these folks will, after a brief period of chit-chat, launch into a one-sided conversation about conspiracy theories or politics, which will eventually leave you exhausted and drained. Trying to talk politics with them is fruitless, as they are not interested in discussing or debating issues, only polemicizing.

Again, there is nothing wrong with a good spirited debate or discussion - on occasion. And one where each person respects the other's opinions is a true debate. But that is not what I am talking about here. Rather, I am talking about people who rant on about some perceived injustice or political issue, usually characterizing anyone who disagrees with them in insulting terms. And this sort of diatribe goes on every time you meet them. If this is the case, this is not a "dialog" or "discussion" but an emotional drain.

Again, avoidance is probably the most effective way to deal with such people, as they are usually crazy and won't listen to you anyway. You can try to change the subject, but that rarely works. Oftentimes I find that agreeing with someone like this makes it easier to change the subject. However, this forces you to agree or nod to some opinions that are truly odious. Or you can say "Gee, I never thought about it that way before!" But beware, such behavior only gets the Vampire to believe that he is "converting" you to his way of thought, which may encourage him more. Again, limited avoidance (limiting contacts) is a partial solution, or limit contacts to group situations where you can spend time with them, but also avoid a prolonged one-on-one situation.

3. The Trouble making Co-Worker: This is one time-bandit and Emotional Vampire that I have seen far too often, which is one reason I work alone. You've probably seen this before yourself. You've just gotten a job with a company. The pay is OK, the place seems pleasant, and you have some interesting work to do. Within an hour or so, some guy (or gal) comes into your office or workplace and regales you with tales about how bad things are in the company, how you are all being underpaid, how much the management is making, how badly they are managing the company, how superior the competitor's products are, and who is sleeping with who, of course (to get a promotion).

By the time this clown leaves your office, you are drained emotionally and physically. You are depressed and now hate your work, and oh, by the way, his two-hour diatribe has cost you two hours of productivity, so now your boss is on your back, making Mr. Sunshine's prophecies self-fulfilling.

Even worse, you may find yourself being sucked into his little game - becoming a complainer yourself, and drawn into hour-long bitch sessions that do little to make anyone feel better about their work, but drag down every one's productivity and emotional energy.

The really nasty ones try to draw you into office politics games - getting you to "choose sides" in some inane war with the office manager or over who didn't refill the coffee pot or whatever. This latter job I saw firsthand, when an underling once tried to provoke me into a fight with her boss, over increasingly trivial nonsense. What finally sealed the deal for me was the fact that she never did any real work, but spend all her time playing computer solitaire and scheming to get rid of her supervisor. When they decided to fire her, it was a relief.

These people are not only Emotional Vampires and Time Bandits, they can also cause you to lose your job or promotion - as well as causing severe depression and make you hate your job. Avoidance is key, but total avoidance is not always possible. Handling the whining co-worker can also be tricky, particularly if they are waging a political battle in the workplace. You need to brush them off, but in such a way that you do not become a target of their aggression. Limiting contacts and saying "Gee, I'm so sorry to hear about all your troubles, but I have this rush project due today - maybe we can talk about it later" might help, but there are no guarantees.

One reason such people flourish in today's workplace is when there is not enough work to do. If everyone is busy, no one has time to goof off and create trouble. If there are a lot of "bitchers" where you work, chances are, the place is suffering from poor management. A busy workplace is a happy workplace. If the employees have "nothing to do" then it is time to assign more work. If there is still not enough work to do, maybe a layoff is in order - with you-know-who at the top of the list.

But in many cases, this is not your call and thus not an option. Sometimes the only thing you can do is find work elsewhere. But whatever you do, take action. Don't become an Emotional Vampire yourself by becoming the "friend with the perpetual problem."

4. The Guilt-Game Player: You probably know this fellow or gal - and they may be a family member. When you see a friend - a real friend - their first thing they DON'T say is "why haven't you called me lately?" To say such a thing is to imply neglect and foist guilt onto a friendship - and real friends don't do that.

And yet, I've met people who do just that. They claim to be your friend, but if you don't call regularly, they act all huffy and offended. Which of course, makes you less likely to want to be their friend.

There are 330 million people in the United States alone - and over 5 Billion in the world. If someone won't be your friend, chances are there is someone who will. Friendship should be a natural, organic thing that is not an emotional drain, but an emotional booster. The Guilt Friend doesn't get this at all. If you do not attend to their needs on a regular basis, they will blackmail you with guilt.

A real friend - real friendship, is such that you can see each other every day for years, and then maybe not for months or years, and still pick up right where you left off. It is not based on guilt or jealousy of other friends.

And friendships can wax and wane and there is nothing wrong or inorganic about that. It is a natural part of life. When you have different priorities and issues in your life, your lives go different ways. If you go off to college and your friend does not, it is hard to maintain those common interests (not impossible, just harder). If you get married and have children, your priorities are far different from your unmarried friends who are still out partying every night.

There is nothing wrong with drifting apart or perhaps changing the nature of the friendship from a daily type of thing to weekly, monthly, or yearly. If you let the friendship take its own course, rather than trying to force-feed it, it is possible that later in life, when your interests coincide, that you move closer back together. So maybe when your friend gets married and has kids and a minivan, you'll have far more to talk about. Just let it happen.

But, if you end up becoming acquaintances and no longer friends, that is OK, too. Chances are, in your new life circumstances, you'll make new friends, too. And there is nothing wrong with that.

By the way, it is not really emotionally feasible to have a lot of close friends. If you examine most human relationships, you'll see a pattern that most people have a small number of close friends (maybe 1-5), a larger circle of looser friends and friend of friends (maybe 5-20) and then larger circles of acquaintances and hangers on (maybe 20-100) all of which groups may which may include family members.

Of course, some people have far less than these numbers, and that is perfectly fine. But few people are capable of maintaining real emotional relationships with large numbers of people. And there's nothing wrong with that. Thus, when you acquire new friends at different points in your life, it is only natural that some other friends may fade from the scene.

5. Psychotic Girlfriend/Boyfriend: I hope you never have one of these, as not only can they be emotionally draining, but possibly physically threatening. The scenario runs the gamut from the attempted-suicide girlfriend to the stalker boyfriend. They may comprise the "Perpetual Problem" friend, the "Guilt-Game" player and perhaps even the "Conspiracy-Theory Junkie."

They say that breaking up is hard to do, but it is even harder when someone threatens to kill themselves if you leave them (or worse yet, threatens to kill you). I wish I had some sound advice on how to handle this one, but perhaps that is best left for professionals.

Probably the best defense is a good offense. That is to say, try to spot the warning signs early on. This of course, may not work, as some stalkers have been known to go into full-stalk mode after only one date.

What's up with the Psychotic Boyfriend/Girlfriend? Why is it they refuse to commit to a relationship on the one hand, but then go ballistic if you threaten to end it? Again, the answer is probably left to professionals, and if you find yourself in this situation, spending some money consulting with a professional might be the best solution.

Again limiting contact (avoidance) is probably the best solution (in some instances, a court order!). There is not much you can do to "salvage" a relationship with someone with severe emotional problems. Most of us are not equipped to deal with such problems, and they will inevitably lead to our own downfall.

And as we shall see in the next section, sometimes people with such problems don't really want to solve them, anyway.

6. Enamored of the Process: I have touched on this in my Patent blog. In the Patent business, we sometimes get inventors who are so enamored with the process of getting a Patent, that they lose sight of the overall big picture - that getting a Patent is the goal, not getting bogged down in minutiae. And once they get the Patent, they are not interested in licensing, litigating or selling the Patent, but instead drag out the process or even subconsciously sabotage it.

Why does this self-destructive behavior occur? I believe it is because the inventor enjoys the process more than the result. The process is exciting, and they can regale friends and family with stories about "what their lawyer said" and such. But the actual result is fairly boring - even if successful. And of course, there is always the chance that if you push the process forward, it might not BE successful. The hoping and wanting is often better than the having, particularly when the end result is failure.

But aside from this Patent Example, there are others whose behavior fits into this mold. A friend with a long-pending lawsuit or other action, for example, seems almost to enjoy the process more than the result. Or, for example, a friend with a mental illness, who regales you for hours about "what my Psychiatrist says my problem is"or shows you his new medication (and reads to you from the Physicians' Desk Reference about it). This is enjoying the process a little too much, I'm afraid. But the process is sometimes more interesting than the goal, particularly if the goal seems unobtainable.

Also, having a process to latch onto provides an identity to a person - and provides them with a role to play - the victim, the patient, the inventor. Many folks are unsure as to how they are to act in society - and often take their cues from such poor sources as television and movies. So they play out these roles, often to the detriment of their friends and family.

Again, limiting contact is probably the best action you can take. There is not much you can do with the "enamored of the process" Emotional Vampire. Changing the subject when you are around them may help make them bearable to be with. However, inevitably, they change the subject back to their lawsuit, patent, illness, or whatever, like a compass that is predisposed to point North.

7. The Gossip: Everyone loves to gossip, let's face it. One famous quote, variously attributed to Gertrude Stein (unlikely) or Alice Roosevelt (more likely) is "If you can't say something nice about somebody.....come sit next to me!" If someone says they don't like gossip, they are probably lying. It is human nature to "dish the dirt".

But one situation that can leave you drained dry is the perpetual gossip session. I have seen this before, where a group of people gets together and then all talk about a person not in the group. These sessions continue until they reach a point where, when you finally meet that person, it is, to say the least, awkward.

Often this is related to the "Perpetual Problem" person, who has some issue in their life that they cannot (or refuse to) resolve, but wants to inflict on others at every available turn - draining friend's and family's emotional energy as a result. The Gossip takes this one step further by re-hashing these problems in front of other people "Can you believe so-and-so can't figure out their life???" they say, not realizing that they are bootstrapping the whole process to a new group of people, draining what little energy you had left from the original Emotional Vampire.

To some extent, the original "Perpetual Problem" person gets off on this. They love to know that people are talking about THEM and THEIR PROBLEMS. It provides validation to their lives that they are important enough to be talked about behind their backs. In such an instance, not only do they not hate the gossip - the embrace it.

Again, changing the subject helps. I've had to really put my foot down on this one from time to time when "bitch sessions" about a missing member of the group get out of hand. But avoidance is also a viable option.

8. The TELEVISION: See my article "Kill Your Television" to know how I feel about the TeeVee. The Television is probably the single biggest and most dangerous Emotional Vampire in the world today. It is a huge Time Bandit to boot. The average American watches four and half hours of TeeVee a day but since many folks (like myself) don't watch ANY TeeVee, that means a lot of people are watching 6-8 hours a day or more.

It is not hard to do - wake up with the Today Show. Watch Sports at the restaurant at lunch. Come home and "flop down in front of the tube and veg out", Eat dinner in front of the TeeVee. The watch your favorite "prime time shows" and finally, off to bed, nodding off to the "Late, Late Show" after watching the 11:00 news and Leno.

The time TeeVee takes from you is staggering. And the time could be better spend doing things around your house, organizing your finances, learning a new skill, reading a book, repairing your car, fixing a meal, or playing with your child. Instead, by watching TeeVee, you end up watching other people do these things instead.

Once we got Cable TeeVee, we stopped doing home improvement projects, and instead just watched home improvement shows.

The nature of TeeVee is also emotionally draining. The news is designed to depress you. Bad news sells. So if you watch it, you become convinced that everything is bad. Even during "good times" the TeeVee News paints it that the world is about to end.

The programs are no better - usually designed to titillate and convince you to stay tuned through the commercials. Like the news, the programs push an agenda of bad news. Futuristic stories are invariably about future dystopias where everything is bleak and grim. Crime dramas convince us that the world is crime-ridden (not true, actually) and the criminals run roughshod over the legal system (largely not true). Even the comedy shows perpetuate stereotypes that everyone is engaged in promiscuous sex. All the shows pander to the lowest common denominator and are aimed at a 8th grade educational level. When you watch TeeVee, you are doing the ultimate "dumb down".

And the commercials oftentimes load up your mind with the worst sort of normative cues. Most are ads for outright rip-offs if not just bad deals.

The only solution to TeeVee is avoidance. I check out videos from my library or on netflix. If a TeeVee show is any good, you can get it on DVD shortly after it runs. Most are not very good. The acclaimed "best show on television" for the last few years was the HBO series "The Sopranos". After watching every episode, I can say that it was a mildly amusing soap opera, with little or no "story arc", no point, and no moral or theme. It was just a string of incidents - what the executives call "character-driven" drama. It's just a bunch of stuff that happend, with no rhyme or reason. When the show ended with a blank screen, the writers were trying to tell the viewers this, but no one got it.

If that was the "best" of television, I'm glad I didn't waste more time watching more of it. The show "30 Rock" was supposed to be "critically acclaimed" so I went to the NBC website to download a few episodes. It was painful to watch. Not only was the humor inane (and hardly subtle) but the 22-minute format, chopped up into small scenes, made it seem entirely superficial.

Save television for special occasions. The good news is, with the Internet and video on demand becoming the next wave of TeeVee, the idea of sitting and "channel surfing" for hours will be dead soon. You will be able to pick and choose what you want to watch, when you want to watch it, instead of watching old reruns on the History channel along with tons of ads for SUVs.

9. The Friend with Perpetual Problems: This is different than #1 above, in that the friend does not have one unsolvable problem, but rather a series of crises that you have to solve.

I have a friend who comes to me with any and all pieces of paper than cross her path in life. If she gets a letter in the mail from the bank, she wants to know "What does this mean? How do I handle it?" Of course, I try to be helpful, so I call the person or organization involved and investigate for her, or straighten it out, and help her with the paperwork.

I like to help people, but this does get to be a bit much, sometimes, particularly when the friend refuses to learn to fend for herself for these fairly simple matters. There reaches a point where they are not asking you for assistance to learn how to do something, but rather are using you as a personal secretary.

The only way out of this fix, is to just say "Sorry, I can't help you" after you've explained the same thing once or twice before. There is no law saying you have to be a Patsy.

* * * * *

Preserving, conserving, and marshaling your emotional energy is an important part of your financial life as well as emotional and even physical. If you are constantly worrying about things or being dragged down by Emotional Vampires, you can literally make yourself sick. In addition, these folks will drag down your emotional energy to the point where you don't have the time and energy to balance your checkbook or think about your finances.

Be kind to yourself. Very few others will. There is nothing wrong with making sure your own emotional state is sound. If you do so, you may prevent yourself from becoming an Emotional Vampire - feeding off the energy of others. Because once you have been drained of all your emotional energy, then you become the victim, and the only way to replenish yourself is to feed off others.