How to deal with emotionally draining people

Teenager girl over yellow wall with headache
If someone consistently makes you feel frustrated, upset, or bad about yourself, it's time to honor and protect yourself.

As we move through this chaotic planet full of people, we’ll inevitably encounter some that just exhaust us. Whether a relative, peer, supervisor, or acquaintance, you likely know someone who pushes your buttons and is just plain hard to be around. You may dread your next encounter with them or ruminate about what they have said or done to you. You may leave interactions bewildered as to what happened or what you did wrong.

Although we should not assume that every person we dislike or find exhausting is emotionally stunted or immature, odds are that some are. Emotionally immature people can be really tricky to handle. For more bearable encounters with the person in question (henceforth nicknamed the Drainer), consider the following:

Identify the buttons they’re pushing. Reflect on what it is about the Drainer that most upsets you. Do they reinforce a fear that you’re inadequate or unworthy? Maybe they remind you of times in childhood when you felt you didn’t have a voice? To function well in relationships, we need to know our emotional vulnerabilities and work to address and heal them. This is especially true in the presence of Drainers, as they often have an uncanny ability to find and poke at our vulnerabilities. The more we do the work to be resilient and emotionally healthy, the less impacted we will be by Drainers.

It’s likely not about you, and you likely aren’t the only one. If you feel “off” around the Drainer consistently across interactions, odds are they have a similar impact on others (and it’s worth checking with trusted others to see if they share your frustration). In fact, the reaction a Drainer “pulls” from you can give you some valuable insight into their inner world, as they’re often parallel. Some common examples:

  • The erratic, frightened inner child: If you feel confused and/or anxious around the Drainer, like the rules are constantly shifting beneath you and you don’t know what they’ll do next, you’re likely dealing with someone who has very poor control of their emotions and boundaries. You may feel compelled to try to soothe or guide the Drainer like a parent would (or run away, fast). You’re responding to the part of the Drainer who is still a frightened and helpless child, unable to regulate and cope with their feelings because they never learned how.
  • The bully or gossip: If you feel belittled or like you aren’t being listened to or acknowledged, the Drainer likely has a very low opinion of themselves they fiercely defend by turning the negative focus to you. Alternatively, they may constantly judge and gossip about others, which can be both aggravating and boring. They may also talk about themselves and their accomplishments ad nauseum, leaving room for nothing else. When a Drainer can only focus on their good qualities or others’ bad qualities, they probably have deep insecurities they are working tirelessly to suppress.
  • The bottomless pit: If you feel exasperated trying to help or please a Drainer, you may feel like nothing is ever enough– never enough attention, sympathy, favors, gifts, praise. This is often the martyr, the perpetual victim who feels s/he is owed something because s/he has suffered. If you feel like nothing will ever be enough for them, you’re probably right; these Drainers are likely struggling with profound inner emptiness, a hole that nobody can fill. To avoid the pain of that realization, they will continue to try to fill it through guilt-tripping, attention-seeking, and other means of control.

By understanding these Drainer dynamics, you can appreciate that your reactions often reflect on them, not on you. Additionally, you may even start to pity or feel compassion for the Drainer’s deficits and how ineffectively they move through the world with their unresolved pain.

Honor how you feel. Many Drainers are master manipulators (often without even realizing it) and may try to convince you that your reactions are not valid. You’re so sensitive. Stop overreacting! But your intuition, your gut, is there to guide and protect you. Trust it. You are entitled to your emotions, and it is your right and  responsibility to attend to them and protect yourself accordingly.

Figure out your goals for the relationship. What do you want out of interactions with this person? If it is someone you are required to have regular contact with, what is the minimum amount of interaction you need to meet your needs? How can you balance their presence in your life with your well-being, the closest to a “win-win” you can think of? Consider the cultural and societal expectations that may be compelling you to interact with this person, and make a conscious decision as to whether those expectations are personally meaningful. You do not have to put yourself in an emotionally abusive situation just for the sake of tradition or appearances.

Channel your “best self” and act from that place.  At your most gracious, compassionate, mature, and wise, how would you move through the world and how would you treat even the most difficult people? Tap into this optimal version of yourself, saying and doing the things you imagine Wise You would. It’s okay if you feel like you’re “faking it” or holding back; interactions with Drainers are not the place for authentic feedback, as it likely would be received poorly and could make things worse. Rather, think about how you would want to treat the Drainer so that you can walk away from that interaction proud of your behavior. See the Drainer for who they are, and choose to act with integrity in spite of them. This takes a lot of mental energy, so the shorter the interaction, the better.

 Although we cannot change other people, we do have the power to change how we respond to them. It is a process to learn to withstand the pull of a Drainer’s emotional tornado, but with high self-awareness and clear boundaries, you can keep your feet solidly on the ground.

Recommended Reading:
Emotional Blackmail, Susan Forward

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