Meet Uncle Frank and Aunt Martha. You see them only once a year over the holidays. You love them because they are family, but they absolutely drain you. Maybe "love" is too strong a word. If you're honest with yourself, you tolerate them. Uncle Frank can't wait to tell you every detail of his latest aches and pains, whereas Aunt Martha thrives on pointing out what's wrong with just about everybody, including you. When you're with them, you feel trapped and can't wait to escape. After you leave, you feel depleted. Do Uncle Frank and Aunt Martha remind you of anybody you know?

Energy vampires are people who feed off others' energy to compensate for a lack of their own. Whether they are too negative, needy, jealous, self-centered, paranoid, passive-aggressive or judgmental, an energy vampire will metaphorically suck your lifeblood and leave you empty. You know that you're in the presence of an energy vampire if you leave every interaction with him or her feeling overwhelmed, mentally or physically drained, irritable, anxious, stressed out or even physically ill. Hmm...where did that headache come from?

If you are somebody who is particularly sensitive to the energy of others, sometimes called a highly sensitive person (HSP) or empath, you will feel the effects of energy vampires even more intensely. Coined by Elaine Aron, PhD, the phrase "highly sensitive persons" refers to people who are especially aware of subtleties in their environment and are highly affected by the moods of others. The term "empath," created by intuitive psychiatrist Judith Orloff, MD, describes individuals with an innate ability to sense what's going on in those around them—both physically and emotionally—as if it were happening to themselves. This is a wonderful thing when the people around you are kind and positive. It's much more difficult, perhaps even toxic and downright draining, if you're interacting with an energy vampire.

The best way to deal with energy vampires, regardless of whether you're an empath, is to realize who they are. Here is a simple strategy to help you identify energy vampires in your life. Although you can do it mentally, it may help to quickly write your answers down (just let the thoughts, feelings, sensations and images come to you and then put them into words).

  • What kinds of qualities in other people do you find emotionally draining or exhausting? What kinds of people do you find it difficult to be around?
  • Are there currently any such people in your life with whom you don't feel you have set appropriate boundaries?
  • What would setting firmer boundaries with these people look like? What would be the benefit of setting such boundaries?
  • What keeps you from doing this?

As action steps, choose one energy vampire in your life and then commit to setting a firmer boundary with this person. This may mean saying no when you would ordinarily say yes. It may mean limiting the time you spend with this person or the mental energy you give this person when you are not with him or her. Remember: As soon as you begin to feel depleted, whether this means being tired, anxious, stressed out or physically ill, it's time to bid the energy vampire farewell. Sorry, Uncle Frank and Aunt Martha, but I gotta go!

Fulfilled This is an adapted excerpt from Fulfilled: How the Science of Spirituality Can Help You Live a Happier, More Meaningful Life, by Anna Yusim, MD. Yusim is a Stanford- and Yale-trained psychiatrist and lives in New York City with her husband.


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