Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Emotional Vampires

Albert J. Bernstein’s Emotional Vampires: Dealing With People Who Drain You Dry, which a friend put me onto, is the best extended use of an analytical metaphor I have come across.

Bernstein is a clinical psychologist and business consultant—the illustrative vignettes in the book are based on both family and business scenarios clearly derived from his years of experience. The prose is clear and direct and the book is clearly structured to be as accessible to as wide an audience as possible. It is also extremely practical and unsentimental. One of the repeated lines is
always remember that attempting psychotherapy on someone you know you will make you both sicker.
The analytical conceit is to characterize manipulative people as vampires. So he lists (in Chapter 3: The Way of Vampires) the various characteristics of emotional vampires: Vampires are Different; Vampires Prey on Humans, Vampires Can Change Their Shapes, Vampires are More Powerful in the Dark, A Vampire’s Bite Can Turn You Into A Vampire and my favourite: Vampires Can’t See Themselves In The Mirror.

The book is based on a basic distinction:
When people are driving themselves crazy, they have neuroses or psychoses. When they drive other people crazy, they have personality disorders (p.3).
He examines the five most likely types of emotional vampires to trouble one’s life—Antisocial, Histrionic, Narcissistic, Obsessive-Compulsive, Paranoid. Each is briefly described in Chapter 1 (The Children of the Night) and the bulk of the book is divided into a section on each, though he notes early (p.14) that most difficult people are blends of two or more types. The first line that leapt out at me was at the end of the initial brief description of Obsessive-Compulsives:
The second-longest wait in the world is for Obsessive-Compulsive to make a decision. The longest is for them to utter even a single word of praise (p.8).
Bernstein says that emotional vampires—particularly when acting up—are emotional two-year olds and the ways of dealing with them are the same:
setting limits, arranging contingencies, being consistent, keeping lectures to a minimum, rewarding good behaviour and ignoring bad, and occasionally putting them in time-out (p.14).
One of his big lessons is, actually, they don’t think like you:
If you interpret what they say and do and according to what you would feel if you said or did the same thing, you’ll be wrong almost every time. And you’ll end up drained dry (p.17).
He lists the basic social rules of emotional vampires as:
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 (p.18).
In Chapter 4 (Dark Powers) Bernstein explains how hypnosis works, starting with a killer first impression (p.23) and then working via misdirection, identification, isolation, control, alternative reality, false choices (pp24-26). The danger signs of hypnosis are:
deviating from standard procedure, thinking in superlatives, instant rapport, seeing the person or situation as special, lack of concern with objective information, confusion (pp27-29).
The final warning:
if you think you can’t be hypnotized, you probably already are (p.32).
Each Type then gets its own Part. These follow a standard pattern of description, checklist of likely symptoms, analysis, mechanisms for dealing with, therapy for. Part I deals with Loveable Rogues—the Antisocials. As Bernstein points out, a bad label since they are highly social, it is other people they don’t care about.
Antisocials are the simplest of vampires, also the most dangerous. All they want out of life is a good time, a little action, and immediate gratification of their every desire (p.33).
Bernstein divides Antisocials into Daredevils, Used Car Salesmen, Bullies.

Part 2 is Show Business, Vampire Style—the Histrionics, seekers of approval and attention. Part 3 is Passive-Aggressive Vampires (deliver us from ghoulies and ghosties and people who are only trying to help p.109). They are pathological givers who submerge part of their personality—from themselves. Bernstein criticises the self-esteem push:
the same thing that is missing in all Histrionic creations—namely, an attempt to go below the surface and deal with the self in all its complexity (p.117).
I was a bit worried by this section, because I have long been aware of passive-aggressive patterns in my behaviour (which is, of course, a sign of not being an emotional vampire: that I have long been well aware of it). The Therapy For ... section was enlightening. Indeed, I had a cheering experience the other day. Something annoyed me, I expressed anger and moved on. I didn’t repress nor angst afterwards. I just did. Yay! (Of course, learning to operate your emotions in a different way can lead to some adjustment wobbles**: but you note any such and continue to learn.) But my issues come from a pathological upbringing where expression of emotion (any affection from my parents, any anger or other negative emotion from me) was profoundly suppressed (of course, they were permitted to express anger and I was permitted to express agreement and acceptance).

Part 3 is Big Egos, Small Everywhere Else—the Narcissists.
More than loving themselves, Narcissists are absorbed with themselves. They feel their own desires so acutely they can’t pay attention to anything else.
One of the book’s strengths is Bernstein points out the positive aspects of the various Types:
There may be narcissism without greatness, but there is no greatness without narcissism (p.130).
The description of what it is like to be a Narcissist is fairly scary:
They can’t feel connected to anything larger than themselves, because in their universe there is nothing larger than themselves (p.131).
As Bernstein puts it,
emotional Vampires are people who have for one reason or another abandoned the struggle with the Narcissistic dilemma. Antisocials ignore it because it’s no fun. Histrionics pretend they never act in their own self-interest, and Narcissists believe that what’s good for them is all that exists. Vampires are forced to prey on other people for the answer that the rest of us must struggle to find within ourselves.
What’s the answer? Another great rabbi summed that up:
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Narcissistic vampires break the Golden Rule, without so much as a thought. Does that make them evil or oblivious? Your answer will depend on how much damage they do to you.
The easiest way to get drained is to take Narcissists’ inconsideration personally, to get upset over what they must be thinking to treat you the way they do. The most important thing to remember is that Narcissistic vampires are not thinking of you at all (p.132).
In a nutshell,
to a Narcissistic vampire, other people are either prospective purveyors of Narcissistic supplies or invisible (p.136).
Bernstein divides Narcissists into Legends (with talent like theirs, who needs performance? and Superstars (You’ve got to love these guys! Worship them actually). The former are often highly creative and Bernstein is particularly unsentimentally practical about what creative really means (pp.146-7). He reminds us that
Narcissists are condemned to live in a world where nothing is bigger than their own egos (p.150).
Someone who deeply traumatised me seems a mixture of Loveable Rogue Anti-Social (Daredevil sub-variety) and Narcissist (Legend sub-variety). So I found the Narcissist section particularly striking.

The next Part is Too Much of a Good Thing—Obsessive-Compulsives. This where it got really scary. As soon as I finished reading the general description of the class I immediately rang the friend who put me onto the book to tell her I had been reading about my mother (and to thank her for putting me onto the book). The recognition bells started ringing with the first line
Can you imagine a vampire who drains you by working hard, being conscientious, and always doing the right thing? (p.179)
and just builds from there.
Obsessive-Compulsive vampires are deathly afraid of doing anything wrong. To them the smallest crack in their perfect facade leaves them open and vulnerable to all the seeping horrors of the universe.
Obsessive-Compulsive vampires see their existence as a battle against the forces of chaos. Their weapons are hard work, adherence to rules, scrupulous attention to details, and the capacity to delay gratification into the next life if need be. …
Obsessive-Compulsive vampires want to create a secure world by making everybody Obsessive-Compulsive. Only then can they be safe from themselves.
Here’s their secret: Inside every Obsessive-Compulsive is an Antisocial trying to claw its way out … The internal battle is too terrifying for them to face, so they force their gaze outward. At you. As long as Obsessive-Compulsives vampires are safely protecting you from your base impulses, they never have to look at their own (p.180).
What’s it like to be a Obsessive-Compulsive vampire?
Can you imagine how lonely you’d feel being the only competent person the planet? (p.181).
What are they like to be around?
Obsessive-Compulsive vampires believe punishment is synonymous with justice. Punishment is the only strategy that Obsessive-Compulsives know for controlling their own behaviour or that of other people. It is the only one they want to know.
Why punishment?
Punishment is clever device which allows good people to do bad things without seeing themselves as evil (p.182).
Their obsessive and compulsive desire for order is at war with the disorderly nature of the human. (And the emotional chaos they cause is, of course, “proof” of how much their control is “needed”.)

Mother was an almost text-book case. As was my boss at the job where it all went bad for me. I had never worked out how to deal with my parents except by moving cities, so I was pre-programmed to not handle (in fact, to revert to childhood patterns) when I ran into an Obsessive-Compulsive vampire boss.

(I told my friend that it was no wonder I had such trouble dealing with "emotional vampires" since I was pre-drained. She responded that I was already anaemic. Quite.)

Bernstein doesn’t deal with the issue of what it is like to have one of these emotional vampires as a parent—that is, someone with authority over you and considerable power to affect your own emotional development. But the book is aimed at adults having to deal with other adults.

Bernstein divides Obsessive-Compulsive vampires into two versions, Puritans and Perfectionists, but regards how to deal with them as imposing very similar problems and responding to very similar techniques.

Part 5 Seeing Things That Others Can’t (Paranoids) I read mainly for completeness, since I have not had significant dealings with any such. But then he made a comment about the strong Paranoid tendencies in Science Fiction, Paranoids and Narcissists being the two great sources of creativity (p.210), and it struck me that elements of the Paranoid mindset he was describing—the intolerance of ambiguity, the need to put everything in a vindicating pattern, the vacillation between naivety and cynicism—are not exactly absent from the Group Mind aspects of contemporary Progressivism, or political movements generally.

Bernstein divides Paranoids into Visionaires and Green-Eyed Monsters but regards the strategies for dealing with them to be very similar.

He concludes with a brief summing up of the varieties, their effects and most important elements in coping strategy—control, connection, facing your fears
the path to safety always goes through fear rather than away from it.
when you are dealing with vampires, there is always another choice, even if it’s only walking away ... the things that you’re most embarrassed to discuss are the things you most need to share ... when you’re dealing with vampires, the choice that seems most frightening is usually the right one (p234).
The key feature is understanding and counteracting the mechanics. There is no point speculating about how they got like that. Particularly not in seeing them as suffering some sort of sickness, because that leads one to accommodate them and their behaviours should never be accommodated (p.234). The only very partial caveat I would make is that identifying the patterns and so how it affected you can be—if allied to ways of dealing—empowering.

Bernstein’s concluding section for each Type on how that type of emotional vampires can get better I found particularly helpful since he makes it clear how difficult it is, a long term project. And never (assuming you are not one yourself) your project.

I found the book particularly helpful because, while I had identified many of the patterns of behaviour and outlook, I did not have an analytical framework in which to place them. I now do.

An extremely enlightening, accessible and helpful book.

* If it is not their fault ever, then it must be yours. Something that is never a conclusion for them, but an “obvious” premise built into the structure of the universe.
** The day I really got over anxiety patterns, I was late to the school because I was too relaxed—having squashed a dysfunctional mechanism and not yet fully developed the replacement. Getting over not expressing anger, I became harder on students. It is just a matter of being aware and adjusting accordingly.

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