I don’t think this is a controversial opinion, but it may come as a new idea to some people: I believe that people should be personally responsible for the thoughts, the words, and the energy (feelings) they put into the world. I will get back to this in a minute. Let’s talk about emotional vampires.
Emotional intelligence: how to not be an asshole
Emotional intelligence wasn’t an emergent concept (at least in my awareness) until I was in late high school or early college, and boy, when I realized where I was lacking, I needed to put in the work to make sure I really was emotionally intelligent. Why? Because I don’t like being an asshole, and because I realized that I was being emotionally drained by people who would’ve sucked every ounce of life out of me if I didn’t stop them (I also just like knowing I try my best to be a good person). The distinct competencies related to emotional intelligence (or EQ) include “the ability to monitor your emotions as well as the emotion of others, to distinguish and label emotions correctly, and to use emotional thinking to guide your thinking and behavior and influence of others”.
Back to emotional vampires: have you been in a relationship where every conversation or interaction with a person felt like they were slowly draining your emotional battery? This can look like disproportionately one-sided conversations, one person always playing the “therapist,” or, what I call, an emotional dumping ground. Maybe you didn’t ask for it, but all of sudden, after talking to this person, you’re sitting there, saddled with the emotional baggage you didn’t ask for.
Is this you?
YOU. NEED. BOUNDARIES. If you don’t have boundaries, then the world is going to suck the life out of you—and we don’t want that. We want you to shine bright and be the best version of you whenever you can be. You deserve a happy, emotionally healthy, balanced life just as much as the next person!
The first thing you can do to protect your boundaries is notice. In your everyday conversations, notice what drains your energy. This can feel different for everybody, but for me, I can physically feel the change in my body; I physically begin to feel tired, like I’d just finished a nonstop, twelve-hour workday. This is an important step because so much of our social interactions just happen and some of us don’t realize we’re drained until the conversation ends.
The second part is the hard part: we have to talk to these people in our lives to shift these patterns in our relationships. Once we get settled into a certain pattern in our relationships, those patterns are extremely difficult to break unless we decide to engage in the necessary conversations to change them. And that’s hard because people generally don’t like conflict and because we never know how people are going to react when we tell them their behavior is unhelpful or unwanted.
Here’s one helpful place to start: Use “I-statements” to convey your feelings and their impact. Most people aren’t aware of how their behaviors may affecting you, so start first by stating your intent, what they’re doing, and then identifying the impact they are having on you.
For example, “Our friendship means a lot to me and I want to find a way for us to make it work without me feeling emotionally exhausted all the time. When you spend hours talking about your bad days without asking me how I feel, or asking me if it’s okay, it exhausts me. I want to be there for you, but I also need to take care of myself.”
There are a number of ways that this conversation can go, but be open to how others react; oftentimes, the people who react badly may not be the best people for you anyways. If you’re trying to protect your boundaries, and they’re not willing to respect that, that may be a red flag for the future of your relationship.
How to not be one of them
It’s completely possible that you haven’t always been the most conscientious yourself--and that’s okay, as long as you’re willingness to learn and change. I think we all have work to do to make sure we’re being careful about managing our emotions. It’s something we can practice just like we can practice marathon running or swinging a golf club. If you’re not sure where to start, here are a few things to think about:
Who’s doing all the talk, and what energy are you bringing into this conversation? In your conversation with your friends and loved ones, who is doing all of the talking? Who is doing the “emotional work,” that is, the work of being the helper and being the “container” for others’ emotional decompression? Who doesn’t seem to engage or talk as much, and why? Equally important, take stock of how often you’re the one doing the talking, what you are talking about, and how the emotion behind your words can then impact your listener. You are responsible for your energy. If you think you may need to confide something heavy in a friend, it’s totally okay (and encouraged!) to ask for permission first! I have a few friends who are particularly good listeners, but I always preempt my venting sessions by asking, “Do you have the time and energy to listen to me vent about this?” I also try to clarify my intention when I talk, so they know whether I’m seeking advice or just need someone to listen and validate me. This is what I’m talking about when I talk about taking personal responsibility for my feelings: I understand the energy I’m putting out in the world, putting on others, and I actively monitor what I’m saying to make sure I find the right place for it to land so it doesn’t drain a wrong or unexpecting person.
Are you really listening? Whether you’re an introvert or extrovert, everybody needs someone to understand and listen to them. Mentally track what’s going through your head as you’re listening to your friends talk. Are you preparing a witty response to lighten the mood? Are you trying to remember what you ate for lunch or thinking about the next time you need to go to the gym? In order to fully listen, you need to be present with the people who are confiding in you. You need to really understand the words they are saying and the feelings they are conveying to you, and that takes a lot of emotional and mental energy. This isn’t a good time to wonder about what’s for dinner--and this skill, active listening, takes practice. I’d know--it was something I had to actively work on throughout college when I realized I was actually a really shitty listener.
How do you respond? You’ve listened to what your friend has to say--and now you’re going to respond. It’s perfectly natural to feel uncomfortable with difficult or negative emotions. You may reflexively want to combat your friend’s feelings with humor and, in some relationships, that might be okay, but most people want their feelings heard and understood (which is differently than wanted them fixed, ahem). If you’re constantly deflecting other’s feelings instead of putting in the work to sit with them through it (like they do for you!) and validating what they’re feeling so they feel heard, you may be putting off the responsibility of reciprocating emotional support for your friends due to your own discomfort. And that not only feels really shitty, but it can also damage your relationships.
Recognizing someone’s detrimental emotional impact on you doesn’t mean it’s the end of your relationship. As you stand up for yourself to protect your emotional wellbeing, some people may respond poorly-- and that’s never a reflection of you or your worth. You can choose to work through the conflict--which is healthy--to revisit it another time, or simply to disengage, and all of those are perfectly acceptable options, but you deserve to be treated kindly. It may not be a sexy or “mainstream idea,” but relationships of ANY KIND involve work from everybody involved, and I feel like that work can be productive if navigated appropriately. In the end, your boundaries are there to protect you and putting yourself first is going to be unbelievably beneficial for you and everybody around you.