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Psychology: the rise of the social vampire, and how to handle the one in your life

Psychologists say that, if you don’t know who the social vampire is in your friendship group, there’s a very high chance it’s you… 

Vampires are everywhere at the moment, aren’t they? We’ve seen them in American Horror Story’s 10th season, and in Netflix’s Midnight Mass. The upcoming adaptation of Stephen King’s classic novel, Salem’s Lot, is packed to the brim with bloodsuckers, too, and they’re set to bare their fangs once again in upcoming horror film, Night Teeth

Throw in that reported True Blood reboot, and you have a merrily rolling vampiric bandwagon to jump upon. However, the vampires we see onscreen are very different to the ones we spend time with in real life – because, yes, they do walk among us, although they’re far less easy to spot in a crowd, and much harder to deal with, too. Unless, of course, they have a particular aversion to garlic.

Don’t believe me? Well, let me explain.

We all know, deep down, the kind of people we should be surrounding ourselves with on a daily basis. It’s those friends, colleagues, and family members who make us feel good about ourselves. Who generate warmth and positivity. Who energise us simply by being there. And who, above all else, actively listen to what we have to say.

Like I say, we know this. We know it in our bones. And yet, somehow, more and more of us are finding ourselves in the company of social vampires – particularly as we continue to venture out of lockdown and spend time with one another IRL again.

“Social vampires are those people who suck the energy out of us when we hang out together,” explains Beingwell life coach Grace McMahon, adding that “this might be emotionally draining, physically draining or socially draining.”

“You’ll know this feeling if you’ve ever felt totally exhausted after meeting up with a social vampire,” she says.

Essentially, then, social vampires are those people who are forever waiting to talk about themselves. Who derail entire conversations with unrelated anecdotes, who don’t listen to anything anyone else is saying, and who talk and talk and talk without drawing breath. And they are, too, those people who tend to overstay their welcome – which can be as literal as, yes, being the last one to leave the party.

So, setting all talk of Buffy and pointy wooden stakes aside, what can we do about the social vampires in our life? 

Well, here’s what we’ve learned…

How does social vampirism impact us?

“Social vampirism can take a toll on our relationships and wellbeing,” says McMahon. “Feeling socially or emotionally drained after hanging out with someone doesn’t exactly leave us feeling eager for the next time so it can push people away. 

“It can also be quite tricky to manage how we feel after such meetups. We can become exhausted after just a couple of hours, and, when our social capacity is filled to the brim, we might start to withdraw from company – and this, in the long term, can leave us feeling lonely and potentially quite low.”

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Who is the social vampire in your friendship group?

McMahon continues: “Becoming socially drained can feel as if our brain has just switched off; we don’t have the power to contribute to or make conversation, we feel distant and maybe bored. This, of course, can appear rude to those around us, when in fact we’ve simply had enough for now.

“And this in turn can make us feel more irritable and even anxious, especially if we start overthinking.”

What sort of people engage in social vampirism?

While McMahon says that many social vampires are “quite self-centred” (by which, of course, she means that they tend to focus on themselves and what they’ve been doing, forget to ask about you, and don’t seem to notice you in the conversation at all at times, which can feel utterly rubbish and be quite frustrating), she stresses that this is not true of everyone. 

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“Not all social vampires are aware of how their behaviour is being received, so it’s not necessarily malicious or ill-intended,” she says.

“It might be that they have simply become carried away with their own stories, or a sign that they struggle to relate with others so find it easier to talk about their own experiences. And lockdown has left many of us starved of human interaction, too, so it could be that they’re nervous and babbling as they relearn how to navigate social situations properly.”

How can we let people know – gently – when they’ve overstayed their welcome?

“It’s important to communicate our boundaries, in any circumstance, but especially with relationships,” advises McMahon.

“We’re not mind readers, unfortunately, so we do need to find effective ways to communicate our needs with others. Many of us can feel hesitant about using boundaries because we fear we’ll upset another person, but in reality we need them to protect ourselves, which in turn helps to maintain relationships.”

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Social vampires can be draining, but it is important to acknowledge the good that they have brought into our lives when we have needed it.

She continues: “You could try letting these people know that you have a limited social capacity today so can’t stay too long. Or offer a time limit; invite them to coffee, perhaps for an hour or two, so they know when you’ll be wanting to get off and they won’t feel stunted mid conversation or like you’re eager to ditch them.

“Remember, the person hanging around might not be great at reading social cues, and may even be worried that they look like they’re dashing off too soon, which explains why they stay longer than most. Communicating is important.”

How can we tell when we need a break from someone? And how can we achieve this without breaking a friendship?

McMahon says that we need to become consciously aware of the impact that the social vampires in our lives are having on us. Once we have done so, we can take the time to remember the good they have previously brought into our lives, as well as re-energise ourselves after such encounters.

Doing this successfully will empower us to maintain the relationship in a manner that doesn’t continually affect us negatively.

However, “if your wellbeing or relationships are being impacted by the social vampire in your life, then it’s time for a break.” 

As McMahon puts it: “If a social vampire is draining your social cup every single time you meet, without noticing the effect it has on you or acknowledging your feelings at all, then it’s time for a break.

“It doesn’t have to be forever – although it can or might be – but, when our relationships become less satisfying, we can start to feel the impact on our wellbeing. Try to avoid sticking with someone if they have this effect on you. 

“You will thank yourself for it later.”

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