Picture this: You’re getting ready for a “Galentine’s Day” brunch with friends, when your cellphone rings. It’s your neighbor, calling to complain (again!) about her latest drama. And just like that, your mood goes from excited to exhausted — and now you’re also running late. You love your neighbor, but her knack for making everything about her steals your energy and stresses you out.
“The quality of our relationships affects our health and our emotions,” says psychiatrist Judith Orloff, MD, author of The Empath’s Survival Guide. “But some people suck the joy right out of us, then make us feel like we’re ‘too sensitive.’”
Like most movie vampires, “joy vampires” often look normal, which can make them hard to spot. To help you identify them, get a little curious, advises psychologist Anna Napawan, PhD, author of Happiness Workbook. “Ask yourself, 'Why am I overwhelmed when I’m with this person?' and 'Do I feel comfortable around them?'” Familiarity isn’t the same as comfort, she observes. “Just because you’re used to certain behaviors doesn’t mean they’re good for you.”
Thankfully, all it takes is a few easy strategies to neutralize this kind of negativity. “I don’t think of people as entirely toxic, but as having traits that drain us,” says Dr. Napawan. This means we can target specific behaviors of joy vampires and even mend strained relationships. Read on for simple ways to boost your joy and discover the peace you deserve.
1. To Dodge Passive-Aggression: Name Emotions
After a disagreement with your mother-in-law, she gives you the silent treatment. “Passive-aggressiveness is anger with a smile,” says Dr. Orloff, who explains that people uncomfortable with anger or frustration find indirect ways, like the silent treatment or backhanded compliments, to express their feelings.
When this behavior leaves you hurt and confused, pinpoint the hidden emotion behind it. “You might say, ‘You’re giving me the silent treatment — are you angry with me?’” says Napawan. “Naming the emotion for them allows both of you to address it.” And consider extending compassion: “It’s okay to be mad, but how can we work through it together?” If they keep giving you the cold shoulder, you may need to set a boundary, adds Dr. Orloff. "Just keep it concrete. Passive-aggressive people respond to specificity because it’s not overwhelming.” For example: “I can’t keep coming over if we don’t discuss the argument we had.” Addressing one situation at a time is direct but not confrontational.
2. To Thwart a Complainer: Set Time Limits
Every time your friend calls, she wants to vent. “Chronic complainers are so draining because when we offer solutions, they’re often not receptive, and instead say, ‘Yes, but…’” says Dr. Orloff. Such incessant pessimism makes you feel both helpless and exhausted.
Protect yourself from a complainer by being clear with them. “If they’re a friend or loved one, you can show them empathy while still remaining firm by saying something like, ‘I’m sorry you’re going through this, but I only have a few minutes to talk.’” This is what Dr. Orloff calls a “positive no” because it’s concise yet kind. “It’s draining and demoralizing to try to fix people’s problems when they’re not open to our advice, so you could also tell them, ‘If you want to explore solutions, we can plan a longer time to talk.’” This kind of boundary encourages joy vampires to problem-solve rather than simply complain, which will ultimately bring you closer together.
3. To Defuse a Critic: Reveal Your Truth
At Sunday dinner with your whole family, your mother tells you the chicken you made is a bit dry and suggests cooking it at a lower temperature next time. You know she means well, but it seems like she’s always finding fault. Says Dr. Orloff, “It hurts to be criticized, but it’s especially hard when the comments are unsolicited and come from people we love.”
When dealing with a chronic critic, particularly if it’s someone close to you, consider revealing a bit of your heart. “Instead of telling them they’re being rude, name the vulnerability you’re feeling by saying, ‘I know you’re trying to help, but it really hurts,’” encourages Napawan. “Because they care about you, they’ll likely accept what you’re telling them — but if they do get defensive, show self-kindness and remind yourself, 'They’re not yet ready to hear what I’m saying.'” This lets you step back and get a broader perspective so you can focus on what to do next, such as limiting how often or how long you spend with critical people.
4. To Outsmart a Narcissist: Try 'Gray Rocking'
Your new co-worker puts the “I” in team. In fact, everything out of his mouth is about himself. He seemed nice when you were first helping him learn the ropes, but in hindsight, you feel like he was just using you. Says Dr. Orloff, “Narcissists are like chameleons — they read people well and can play different roles based on what they think we need — but they reject or turn on us as soon as we do something they don’t like.”
The best way to handle a narcissist is to starve their ego. “Be as non-emotionally reactive as you can — like a gray rock,” advises Dr. Orloff. “If they want to hook you back into their orbit and ask you to do them a favor, say something direct like, ‘I don’t want to do X right now.’ Say it almost as if you’re a machine, dull and boring, because narcissists exploit your emotions to feel more powerful.” Indeed, this kind of “vampire” feeds on getting a rise out of you. That’s why simply meeting their arrogance with boredom defangs their ego while boosting your sense of self. In the end, the best way to outsmart joy vampires of all types is to know that you deserve happiness and to be surrounded by positive people.
A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.