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Build Your Career Office Life

How to Handle 'Emotional Vampires' at Work

Albert J. Bernstein, Clinical Psychologist, Business Consultant and Author of Emotional Vampires at Work, contributed this article to BusinessNewsDaily's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Emotional Vampires are what I call people with personality disorders — the strange psychological maladies that drive other people crazy. Like vampires they are driven by a single insatiable need. If you're not careful, they will use you to fill it.

You already know these people. The ones you are most likely to meet at work are:

  • Antisocials: crave excitement in all its forms, sex, drugs, rock 'n roll, larceny, bullying and gambling with other people's money.
  • Histrionics: live for attention and approval. They firmly believe that what it looks like is more important than what it is. Wherever they go, they create drama, passive-aggression, and motivational seminars.
  • Narcissists: are certain that the universe revolves around them. This group includes CEOs who make Louis XVI look like Gandhi, and the smartest guys in the room who just can't seem to finish a job.
  • Obsessive-Compulsives: will do anything to protect themselves from mistakes — yours, because they don't make any. There is absolutely no task that they consider too small to micromanage.

If you know who these people are, and already feel yourself getting frustrated with them, you know first-hand how they drain you dry — by using your own emotions against you.

Emotional Vampires know how to push your buttons. They drain you by tapping into the automatic emotional responses programmed into the lower levels of your brain. Their actions can evoke emotions that cloud your thinking. To protect yourself, you need to override these automatic responses using your more-evolved higher brain centers. Instead of merely reacting, you need to ask yourself what you want to happen and adjust your behavior accordingly. This takes the calm of a Jedi knight and the chutzpah of a Jewish mother.

This is accomplished by calming yourself when you don't feel calm and here's how:

  • Slow it down — Rational responses are slower than emotional reactions. To gain control over yourself and the situation, you must actually think more slowly than the emotional vampire.
  • Keep your mouth shut — Your first response in an emotional situation is seldom your best. Say nothing until you have had time to think.
  • Ask for time to think — Emotional Vampires are counting on an immediate response. Don't give it to them. Always ask for time to think it over, whether it's a minute or a day. In most situations, this simple trick will completely disrupt a vampire attack. No one will get madder at you for acting as if you take the situation seriously.
  • Never explain — Emotional responses are usually attempts to fight back or run away, whether you're aware of what you're doing or not. The most common form of fighting back is explaining why you are right and the other person is wrong. The most common form of running away is explaining that whatever happened is someone else's fault. Both are absolutely futile, but you will feel the unconscious urge to explain in your mind in the same way you feel an itch on your skin. Don't scratch! Problems at work offer a cruel choice: you can be right or effective; take your pick.
  • Know your goal — Most rational acts are goal directed. Once you abandon the impossible goal of being right, your mind is clear enough to consider other more reasonable possibilities.

What it means to have Chutzpah

The Yiddish word chutzpah has many meanings, all of which involve boldness. To fight vampires you must recognize that every damaging thing they do follows a pattern that requires an expected emotional response from you. You must be bold enough to do the unexpected.

If you're wondering how, I just told you. The steps I've outlined for dealing with difficult emotional interactions are the very essence of the unexpected. Master them, and vampires will have no buttons to push. The rest is commentary; go learn it.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher.

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