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Sonderbooks Book Review of

Emotional Vampires

Dealing with People Who Drain You Dry

by Albert J. Bernstein, Ph.D.


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Emotional Vampires

Dealing with People Who Drain You Dry

by Albert J. Bernstein, Ph.D.

Reviewed December 28, 2010.
McGraw-Hill, New York, 2001. 242 pages.

If you have enough difficult people in your life that you want to read a book to boost your ability to deal with them -- well, you might as well have some fun with it!

This light-hearted look at difficult people actually has some very helpful tips. And it does make you laugh when the comparison with vampires seems especially apt.

The author explains that most emotional vampires you will encounter do not have full-fledged personality disorders, but the ways they think and act do seem to fall into patterns of five types: Antisocial Vampires, Histrionic Vampires, Narcissistic Vampires, Obsessive-Compulsive Vampires, and Paranoid Vampires.

He also explains that most difficult people are a blend of two or more types, so feel free to use whichever technique works best for dealing with them. I also liked this paragraph:

If you see yourself among the vampires, take heart; it is a very good sign. We all have some tendencies in the direction of personality disorders. If you recognize your own, they are apt to be less of a problem than if you have no insight.

Here are some attitudes that apply to all emotional vampires:

"My Needs Are More Important Than Yours."
"The Rules Apply to Other People, Not Me."
"It's Not My Fault, Ever."
"I Want It Now."
"If I Don't Get My Way, I Throw a Tantrum."

Then he gives some general qualities of emotional vampires:

VAMPIRES PREY ON HUMANS
Night-stalking vampires will drain your blood. Emotional Vampires will use you to meet whatever needs they happen to be experiencing at the moment. They have no qualms about taking your effort, your money, your love, your attention, your admiration, your body, or your soul to meet their insatiable cravings. They want what they want, and they don't much care how you feel about it.

VAMPIRES CAN CHANGE THEIR SHAPES
Storybook vampires can change themselves into bats, wolves, or a cold, formless mist that seeps through unguarded windows. Emotional Vampires can turn themselves into whatever you want to see, but only long enough to lure you in. To say that they are consummate actors doesn't do them justice. Often, they play their roles so well that they fool themselves into believing they are who they pretend to be.

VAMPIRES CAN'T SEE THEMSELVES IN A MIRROR
If you want to know if someone is a vampire, hold up a mirror and see if there's a reflection. If you want to know if someone is an Emotional Vampire, hold up a self-help book that describes his personality perfectly and see if there's a spark of recognition. With both kinds of vampires there will be nothing there. Night-stalking vampires have no reflections; Emotional Vampires have no insight.

VAMPIRES ARE MORE POWERFUL IN THE DARK
Both kinds of vampires thrive on darkness. Blood-hungry vampires stalk the night. Emotional Vampires lurk in the darker side of human nature. They take power from secrets. Your dealings with them will usually involve a few little details that you'd rather not share, because other people wouldn't understand.

A VAMPIRE'S BITE CAN TURN YOU INTO A VAMPIRE
Throughout the ages, vampirism has been contagious. A few bites and vampires can have you acting just as immaturely as they do.

The book goes on to help you recognize different types of vampires and understand how best to respond. Some of the advice seems particularly brilliant:

The maddening thing about Passive-Aggressives is that their words are so different from their actions. If you ask them what they want, they'll say they want to make you happy, even as they do things to make you miserable.

On the surface, their actions make no sense, but there is an underlying logic. If you want to understand Histrionics, read their actions as if they were sad, angry adolescent poems about how the expectations of others are a prison from which they can never escape.

If you're involved with Passive-Aggressive Histrionics, you cannot avoid being perceived as the person who is imprisoning them. Don't try. Instead, focus on your own behavior, and try to be a compassionate jailer.

Forget any attempt to make Passive-Aggressive vampires admit to what they really feel. It'll only make your headache worse. Don't make the mistake of demanding that they talk to you directly about problems. You might as well demand that they speak in rhyming couplets.

There really are no battles you can win with the Passive-Aggressive. Once the situation turns into a battle, you have already lost.

Explicit instructions, while absolutely necessary will not work as well as you think they ought. Passive-Aggressive vampires deal with the world by misunderstanding and by being misunderstood. The thing they never misunderstand is praise. Use gobs of it.

Passive-Aggressive vampires will always do whatever you pay the most attention to. If you make a big deal out of forgetting, complaining, surliness, negative body language, or whatever, that's what you'll get. With Passive-Aggressives it is possible to waste considerable time and effort trying to get them to improve their attitude rather than getting the job done. Make sure your contingencies favor the behaviors you really want rather than the ones you find most annoying. What's the point of rewarding people for giving you headaches?

Of course, as helpful as this book was in getting me to understand how best to deal with certain difficult people, it also opened my eyes to why it might be difficult to live with me:

Perfectionism is a vice that masquerades as a virtue. It can lead to excellence, but it usually doesn't. Doing everything correctly can become the top priority, eclipsing the importance of the task or the feelings of other people. The wake of Obsessive-Compulsive vampires is an orderly row of insignificant tasks done to perfection, and significant people leaving in frustration because they don't measure up.

Perfectionists, bless their neurotic little hearts, don't have a clue about what a pain they are to everyone around them. It's not that they don't care what the people close to them feel; it's just that they get so distracted by little details in the process of living that they miss the overall product....

Perfectionists never do anything spontaneously, except perhaps to notice mistakes. To Obsessive-Compulsives, the notion of a pleasant surprise is an oxymoron.

If your feelings are hurt, say so. Don't try to make your point indirectly by rebelling, withdrawing, "accidentally" making mistakes, or griping to friends, family, and coworkers. Passive-aggressive behavior just makes Perfectionists feel more justified in their anger. There's no point in throwing gas on the fire.

Show some appreciation. You can be sure that however hard they are on you, Perfectionists are twice as hard on themselves.

Fortunately, he also has good tips for self-help if you recognize vampire qualities in yourself. For perfectionistic vampires, among other things, he tells us:

Goof Off. Spend a little time every day just sitting and doing nothing. Computer solitaire was invented for this purpose. Learn some sort of relaxation technique and practice it every day, especially on the days you think you're too busy.

Hmmm. Sounds like a good excuse to start a computer game!

Another good tip: "Always Know Your Top Priority. Not for the moment, but for your whole life. Think about what you'd like to have carved on your tombstone and work toward that. The other details will take care of themselves."

A funny thing happened after I wrote this review: At work the next morning, I was happily doing an excessively detail-oriented task. (Checking Y's and N's on an attendance sheet against what had been put in the computer.) I realized there's a reason I related to the Perfectionistic statements. Now, there is a good side to being detail-oriented -- but this book pointed out some ways that being too perfectionistic in relationships can cause conflict and barrel over people's feelings.

I thought it was a bit ironic that they specifically mentioned how Perfectionistic vampires and Passive-Agressive vampires can particularly antagonize one another. When they are in love, their strengths can dovetail nicely. But when in conflict, they can definitely make things worse if they don't take care.

In summary, this book has some valuable tips on interacting with difficult people and becoming less of a difficult person. As you can see, I focused on the ones that applied to my life. I'm sure the other categories are equally insightful if that's what relates to you. All of the suggestions and insights are handled in a light-hearted, easy-to-swallow way.