My Co-Worker, the Emotional Vampire
For too long, protecting my energy at work was its own full-time job.
When I began my current job, I felt as though I was on Cloud 9. At last, I found myself at the perfect intersection between my education, my interests. and my strengths.
I loved how I spent my days. I loved my responsibilities. I loved my office. I loved the highly energetic and intelligent students that passed through the halls, expressing thoughts rooted in idealism (though lacking a bit in reality).
For the first time in my professional life, I felt myself settling in. I felt as though I had finally landed and could start a legitimate career. My boss was (is) a gem — a true rarity in the world of managers — and she took the time to train, support, and set goals with me. I also began getting to know my co-workers. I felt so lucky; the majority of them were about my age, had similar interests, and were as happy to be in the office as I was.
One of my colleagues stood off to the proverbial side by herself. It didn’t feel unusual though — she was married and we were single. She had kids and we were childless. She was about a decade older and had different interests. We were cordial — friendly even — and we all worked well together.
At some point, this particular colleague developed a closer relationship with me than she had with our other co-workers. It made sense — our offices were directly across the hall, we had the same boss, and worked in the same department. As our friendship grew, she became comfortable confiding in me, and I learned more about her life. She was dealing with some issues at home, and they were beginning to take a toll on her.
She began calling in sick to work with greater frequency. When she was in the office, she was unhappy — snapping at our students and making sarcastic remarks in our staff meetings. She continued to confide in me, sometimes spending entire hours at a time in my office instead of her own, venting.
As I would with any friend, I tried to help assuage her frustrations. I offered suggestions and advice that I thought might be helpful to her in various situations. I nodded sympathetically at the right times and never turned her away when she needed someone to talk to. When she’d finally drag herself back to her own office, I felt tired.
This continued, and I began to dread seeing her. I started to enjoy the days she called in sick, even though it meant I might need to cover some of her student appointments. The excitement I used to feel about my job in the mornings ceased. This took place over the course of months, and so the cause of my growing dissatisfaction wasn’t entirely clear to me at the time.
It wasn’t until I was clicking through Facebook one day and read an article posted by one of my friends that I realized why I was suddenly unhappy at work. My colleague was an “Emotional Vampire.”
“Emotional Vampires” are defined as people who drain others of their energy. They “feed” off of the emotions of others, and leave those they encounter depleted of their own emotional resources.
I felt emotionally exhausted after conversing with my colleague.
Our conversations often followed a circular pattern, with her telling the same stories repeatedly, rehashing them despite my gentle protestations that I had heard them before. She wouldn’t allow me to bring her solutions to her issues — she just wanted to complain. At the end of our conversations, I felt mentally diminished. I would stare at my computer, unsure of what I had been doing before she came into my office. My emails piled up and I slowed in responding to them. I had no motivation to complete my projects, or finish my to-do list for the day. I’d feel like napping on the subway during my evening commute.
She’d mentally follow me home.
Even leaving her presence at the end of the day didn’t allow me the reprieve I needed. She’d text me the latest details from her house in the evenings. I’d find myself sitting on my couch at night, staring at the TV, but not paying attention to what I was watching. I couldn’t focus on the books I was reading and I’d re-read the same sentences over and over again.
I felt agitated and stressed. I couldn’t relax. I began putting my phone on “do not disturb” upon entering my condo, just to have some peace.
I found myself engaging in negativity even when she wasn’t there.
I suddenly began complaining to my other co-workers about my students. I complained to them about being tired. I complained to them about being crabby. I complained that my coffee was too bitter. I complained that my coffee was too sweet. I complained about the weather, and the copy machine, and the lack of paper towels in the restroom. I complained just to complain.
A negativity that hadn’t previously existed took root in my mental state. And when my emotionally draining colleague was there, forget it — our conversations quickly turned into whine-fests, and no one else wanted to be around us.
The details of my life didn’t interest her.
She called me her friend — but we didn’t have a friendship. She’d come into my office, plop down into my comfy chair, and immediately begin talking about her day, her weekend, her children, her problems. About an hour into the conversation, she’d say “so what did you do this weekend?”
I don’t share many details of my life, so my usual response would be something like, “I just went out with some friends.” She’d say, “Oh, that’s nice,” and then she’d go back to talking about herself — confident that she had satisfied the “ask your friends about their own lives” part of our “friendship.”
She didn’t seem to notice that I never sought her out or that I never shared my own thoughts or feelings with her. She didn’t care — a reciprocal relationship with me was not her aim — I was simply meant to be a listener.
Finally, summer rolled around and she went on vacation, during which, I returned to myself.
When she wasn’t around, I was happier. Hard stop. Being apart at the end of each day wasn’t enough to refill my depleted emotional reserves, but when she went on summer vacation, I enjoyed her absence from the office. Shortly after she returned, I went on vacation myself and was thrilled at our continued physical distance.
At this point, I realized that something needed to change, but I didn’t know what to do. The most common advice to those dealing with emotional vampires is to cut them off, but I couldn’t do this with her. While I needed my space from her, I also needed our working relationship to be fruitful. I spent more time in the office than anywhere else, I spent more time with her than with anyone else — so I didn’t want to cause a drastic upheaval.
Hindsight is 20/20, and I should have brought my boss up to speed with the situation — she could have helped me to solve it, but at the time I didn’t want to involve her, and so I never told her of my concerns.
Instead, I began acting aloof when my colleague would come into my office, showing significantly less interest in her issues. I stopped offering solutions to her problems.
I began closing my office door intermittently throughout the day. I began taking more walks during the afternoon lull. I began meditating during my lunch breaks. I stopped joining in during her complaining sessions. I countered her negative comments with positive ones.
If anything positive came from this situation, it’s that I was forced to look inward. Up until that point, I hadn’t consciously thought about my own needs. Personal needs evolve, and it was up to me to figure what mine were, and how to fulfill them.
I determined the steps necessary to counteract her distressing effects on my life, and implemented these steps constantly. I realized that I wasn’t trying to change her — I couldn’t change her — I only needed to protect myself. Realizing this helped me to get through her daily onslaughts of negativity, and positivity seemed to act as her kryptonite; she eventually began spending less time lounging in my office.
Months later, my co-workers and I let out a collective sigh of relief when she resigned her role, but until she did, I engaged my emotional force field when walking into the office each morning.
To anyone dealing with their own toxic co-workers — my advice is to bolster your resources. Batten down your hatches. Do your best to reinforce your emotional beams. Make a list of what brings you happiness and increases your energy, and then have these things or actions on standby. Hurl your positivity as hard as you can at their negative comments and actions. Involve your manager if the situation is especially severe.
And if none of that works, look down at your phone and say, “Oh sorry, I have to take this call,” shoo them out of your office, and shut your door behind them.