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How do you know if your friend is an emotional vampire? What if it is you?

Relationships: It can be hard to spot a friend who intentionally or unconsciously saps our energy

It seems it would be easy to recognise a “good” friend. They are there for us, have our best interests at heart, and give us space to breathe and grow. There’s also a presumption that a ‘bad’ friend would stand out like the sore throbbing thumb they are, and we’d be best to cut the sore off rather than bandage it.

However, when it comes to spotting a friend who intentionally or unconsciously saps our energy, it may not be as obvious unless we tune into how we feel after spending time in their company. Certain friendships can leave us exhausted, stressed and emotionally drained, with a cloud of other negative emotions lingering.

“Friendships aren’t always plain sailing, and that’s part of the fabric of life,” says counsellor Georgina Sturmer. “Sometimes, we need more support or we’re the ones offering support. But it’s important to notice when it feels like a friendship is out of balance. When a friend leaves you feeling emotionally drained, this is a red flag that suggests we might be dealing with an ‘emotional vampire’, even if their fangs and wings are metaphorical rather than real.”

Evonne found a close friendship wasn’t as kind or supportive as she presumed it was when she started to realise how bad she felt after encounters with a particular person, who was outwardly competitive in their friendship. “I found that everything seemed to be a competition for her. If something good happened to me, something better happened to her. And if I experienced something bad, she went through something worse.”


She says that she gave out the title of “friend” easily, but she realised that when she would receive a message from this particular person, she would become instantly irritated. “The notification with her name was a trigger,” says Evonne. “I didn’t realise at first how she was making me feel until I would become anxious at seeing her name pop up on my phone.”

My life could in no way ever be seen as being better or worse than hers

—  Evonne

Emotional vampires come in many forms, with negative thinkers, manipulators, blamers and dramatisers fitting the bill. However, Sturmer suggests that it is helpful to draw on the concept of the “Drama Triangle”, which was popularised by transactional analyst Stephen Karpman to recognise the three key styles of an emotional vampire.

This encompasses the persecutor, the rescuer, and the victim.

“A persecutor is made of Teflon,” says Sturmer. “Nothing is ever their fault, and they are quick to blame and criticise others. In a friendship, they might constantly be gossiping or unkind about other people, as a way of seeking attention or support. Or they might turn the spotlight directly on to us, criticising how we present ourselves or how we behave.”

The “rescuer” might sound like a helpful friend to have, Sturmer continues, but tells us that in reality, a rescuer can be domineering as they always want to solve everyone’s problems and be in charge. This is not what we need when we’re reaching out for empathy and support. The triangle is completed with the victim who always feels if they have been wronged by everybody else. “They also blame others for their own misfortune,” says Sturmer, “and they show a kind of helplessness that can draw us in and make us feel as if we have a responsibility to fix everything that has gone wrong for us”.

After Evonne had her first child and her friend also became a mother, the lines of friendship shifted once more. What should have been a supportive bond through the shared experience of motherhood, became a fierce competition that Evonne wanted no part in.

“She became very competitive over the developmental differences between our daughters,” she says, but she quickly learnt to not open up as easily as she felt judged, manipulated, and constantly defending her choices and decisions.

“If she asked me about my daughter feeding or sleeping or toilet training, I started to simply say that we were working on it rather than get into any deep conversation. It was an incredibly difficult relationship to navigate. I was either not as good as her, or just really bad at whatever it was. My life could in no way ever be seen as being better or worse than hers.

“It really made me go into myself and talk less about everything. I just asked questions and that seemed to be enough for her because she didn’t really care much about my life or what was happening for me.”

This kind of friendship requires strong boundaries to protect ourselves from the negativity that can impact us. “This might be about our boundaries with this specific friend, or it might be about our boundaries more generally with the people in our lives,” says Sturmer who suggests considering the amount of emotional energy that we expend when we are with these particular people. She also recommends “noticing whether we are shouldering their emotional burdens along with our own, and finding ways to put them aside so that we can focus on our own needs”.

Boundaries may mean adjusting our expectations as to how a particular friend will show up for us. It may include limiting our exposure to friends that emotionally and mentally drain us, creating distance as appropriate. Avoiding arguing and learning to say no can also be beneficial in navigating difficult relationships before making the decision to cut the friendship off completely.

It’s important to understand that how a friend makes us feel can often be entwined with our beliefs and ideals and that we cannot control how other people think, feel, or behave. Sturmer advises however, that we can control the impact it has on us. “If you find that an emotional vampire is pulling your strings, consider how your own thoughts or behaviours can change the pattern of your relationship. This might feel uncomfortable or confrontational or disloyal. But remember, if you are taking steps towards creating a healthier, more balanced friendship, then you are likely to be doing the other person a favour in the long run.”

And what if, you are the emotional vampire?

A lack of self-awareness can mean a person doesn’t recognise when they are draining another. If you recognise some of the characteristics of attention seeking, arguing, creating tension or drama, or feeding off the emotions of others, perhaps its time to check in with your behaviours.

“The first step is about noticing what we are doing,” says Sturmer. “Figuring out which situations trigger this behaviour, and thinking about what it is that you’re trying to achieve.

“Ask yourself, are you pushing people away, or putting them into a difficult situation? These can be tough questions to ask ourselves, but they help us to notice when we need to rethink how we treat other people.”


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Geraldine Walsh

Geraldine Walsh

Geraldine Walsh, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health and family