Emotional vampires: Dealing with people who keep crossing your boundaries

September 7, 2017

By Jordan Pickell

Relationships built on mutual care and respect make us feel good. When we spend precious time and energy with people and in return they disregard our boundaries and well being, I call them emotional vampires. I might also call them abusive.

Emotional vampires might pick at you, put you down, talk only about themselves and expect you to make them feel good. You find time and again that when you engage with them you are left feeling depleted, humiliated, confused, or enraged. You might feel guilt or shame for having these reactions. Or you might blame yourself for the way that interaction went down. You think, if only you did something different, maybe they will recognize what they are doing and change.

Sometimes with some self-reflection and determination, it is relatively easy to shift away from pouring our energy into these relationships. Other times, it can be more difficult. Maybe they involve people we love: our partners, our parents, our friends. Sometimes emotional vampires are people you can’t exactly just cut out of your life, like co-workers or in-laws.

So what can you do with relationships when the support and understanding only go one way?

Remember that they are not entitled to your time or energy

It does not matter if they raised you, they pay your salary, or they really really need emotional support. You are worthy of respect. You have needs and feelings and limitations. You do not have to accept poor treatment from anyone.

Even within your limited power, you really do have choices around how you respond. Of course, when we change the way we respond to emotional vampires, they could feel threatened and bring about difficult consequences. Imagine what those consequences might be and whether you can live with them. Even when you make the decision to more or less keep the status quo, remembering that you have a choice can help you feel like less of a victim.

You are already making these decisions all the time– when and how to communicate your boundaries. That being said, it can be helpful to take the time to reflect and make conscious choices.

I know setting limits with a difficult person is easier said than done, so I think it’s important to…

Honour the ways you protect your being

Remind yourself that it’s okay to choose not to respond. It’s okay to call out when their words or actions are unacceptable to you. It’s okay to choose not to go to the social gatherings. It’s okay to choose what you share, and what you hold back. It’s okay to abruptly change the topic to less emotionally charged conversation. It’s okay to re-focus your time and energy on other people. It’s okay to take a break, to walk away, to move on. Your responses and your choices are valid.

Get support

It can be difficult, even scary to shift the dynamics in these soul-sucking relationships, especially when they involve significant people in your life. Surround yourself with people who respect you and affirm your needs.

Connection is a basic human need. When we don’t have a strong support system, we will put up with a lot of mistreatment in order to stay in connection with the few people we do have in our lives. That’s how important relationships are to our survival. Finding folks who have your back will make it much easier to recognize when something doesn’t feel good in relationship. It will help create the security to be upfront about your needs and desires.

If you are noticing a pattern of emotional vampires in your life, or just wanting some extra support, seek the help of a trusted counsellor. A counsellor can support you in addressing the exhaustion and guilt, finding ways to hold onto your sense of self-worth, and asserting your boundaries.


Remember that you are not responsible for other people choosing to violate your boundaries. You do not have the magical power of changing emotional vampires into caring and respectful people. You do have the power to recognize how you feel in these relationships and find ways to protect your being.


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