How to Break Free from Energy Vampires
Energy vampires: The term may sound sci-fi, but internationally recognized author and women’s health advocate Dr. Christiane Northrup tells us they’re very real. And if you’ve ever felt that you spend too much time trying to make others happy or as if someone in your life—a lover, parent, coworker—is robbing you of energy, then you’ll understand where she’s coming from.
In her new book, Dodging Energy Vampires, Northup identifies two groups of people—empaths and energy vampires—and explores the relationship dynamic between the two. A self-identified empath, Northrup describes them as highly sensitive and caring people. They seek out the best in others and always look for ways to help. Their downfall, says Northup, is that their desire to nurture others makes them ideal targets for energy vampires—who tend to be charismatic, manipulative, and narcissistic. Northup works to help people detach from energy vampires (in healthy, safe ways) because she doesn’t believe energy vampires really change: “Get over the notion that a narcissist will change. You will spend your whole life waiting!”
Northrup walks us through her philosophy on energy vampires—why she thinks people are addicted to them, signs that you may be in a relationship with one, and how to break free and reclaim your power.
A Q&A with Christiane Northrup, M.D.
They are individuals who exhibit characteristics associated with a cluster B personality disorder in psychiatry. In other words, it’s not a chemical imbalance in the brain but rather a character disorder. This might include narcissistic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder, and antisocial personality disorder.
Often, when people think of these personality disorders, they think of the extremes—however, there’s a spectrum. Energy vampires are the type of people don’t feel obligated to do the right thing. They tend to lack empathy and don’t always care what others are thinking or feeling. Unfortunately, they are generally very charming, charismatic, and incredibly smart. They usually are the people you can never do right by. They tend to be high up the totem pole in society or in the workspace and have no qualms about bullying or harming other people to get their way. Oftentimes because of their charisma and charm, their victims may not be taken seriously.
They often play the victim themselves and manipulate others into doing things for them. They tend to place blame on others rather than taking the blame themselves. If they act out of line, they’ll tell the other person, “You made me get angry. If your behavior were different, I wouldn’t yell the way I do.” They have cold and calculating tendencies, and they prey on empaths.
In my experience, general insight therapy or psychotherapy doesn’t work for these individuals. Simply put, they don’t change. Only in very rare cases, usually later in life, will such an individual change their behavior, if they themselves grow tired of their patterns.
Empaths are highly sensitized individuals. They’re usually very sensitive to smells, medications, touch, or loud noises—rock concerts aren’t their thing. They may be told that they feel too much, or that they need to grow a thicker skin. In comparison to an energy vampire who doesn’t take responsibility for anything, an empath will take responsibility for more than their share.
They feel into situations, meaning they may feel the pain that another person should be feeling, even if they aren’t. By nature, empaths almost always want to uplift a situation—they want to make the world a better place—and they are constantly trying to improve themselves. They tend to believe love conquers all and everyone is good at heart. Which sometimes leads to a rude awakening for an empath.
Energy vampires tend to use sob stories to get the energy of an empath. Empaths typically enter relationships thinking they can help the other person, and they often end up giving all of their energy to the other person. At first, an energy vampire might show appreciation for the empath, saying something like, “Thank god I found you. You’re the only one who can help me.” And the empath might enjoy this attention, as well as the gratification that they’re really helping someone. But an energy vampire won’t return the favor. The empath will just keep giving, and giving, and giving, until they experience a burnout. I liken empaths to lint rollers for the pain of other people. They make the mistake of thinking that they’re responsible for fixing other people’s problems. This is a pattern often learned in childhood.
Energy vampires, or narcissists, can be addictive for many reasons. They’re often larger than life, very good-looking, charismatic, and exciting. An empath may feel boring by comparison and flattered by the attention of the narcissist. The narcissist is often able to manipulate the empath into thinking that their life will be worthless—or not as exciting—without them.
Often narcissists are good at sex, and they may use sex as a way of keeping an empath addicted. When people are having sex, a biochemical reaction occurs that releases oxytocin—the feel-good and bonding hormone. This might make an empath chemically attached. They might start to believe that the only way they can feel true pleasure is by remaining with the narcissist. Often, empaths stay with a narcissist because, deep inside, they’re afraid they won’t do any better. They may begin to obsess over the narcissist: “I’ll never meet anyone this exciting again, so I’m just going to put up with their stuff.”
As the empath is subjected to increasingly extreme demands by the narcissist, they might develop cognitive dissonance. They understand what is going on, yet they can’t believe it’s happening. In other words, their brain tells them one thing, but their heart or body says something else. This confusion can lead an empath to begin to doubt themselves, which I’ve seen develop into a form of near PTSD.
When an empath is in the midst of recovering from this type of relationship—because of its chemical and mental deep ties—it can take a while, even two years, to get over the addiction.
Energy vampires use many forms of control in order to keep an empath under their thumb. Many are wealthy and powerful, and they use their money to control and manipulate their partners. For example, they may threaten their spouse, saying, “If you leave me, I won’t support you financially, and the kids will suffer.” If they’re parents, they may use their children to gain leverage. They may manipulate their children by buying them expensive gifts, while speaking negatively of the other parent.
Energy vampires often wield great influence in their communities. They may run major companies, be the head of their household—often for generations—and be revered as a pillar of their community. They then use this influence to convince the empath that rebelling against the narcissist will make them a pariah in their community. By holding this dominance over them, the empath comes to believe that the narcissist can direct the way other people view them.
Empaths oftentimes find themselves in defensive positions. An energy vampire will lie and hide things from an empath, and gaslight them to the point that they make the empath think they’re going crazy. Empaths often feel the need to keep good notes in order to preserve their sense of reality and sanity.
The majority of individuals often develop these types of relationships in response to their primary parental relationships. Generally, individuals go one of two ways: One, they believe they can heal their childhood parental relationship. Or two, they develop a relationship that re-creates their childhood dynamic with a parent.
The first type encompasses individuals who were not abused as children but may have had a narcissistic parent. As adults, they commonly try to repair that parental relationship through their adult relationships. This is called repetition—we go back to painful experiences and try to bring love where there wasn’t any. This is a normal human response, in which we’re attracted to individuals who will help us work through our life’s issues.
The second type often involves individuals who were either sexually abused as children or never had an example of a healthy or loving relationship. For example, an individual may have been sexually abused by a relative or someone close to them growing up. They were told to keep it a secret or else something bad would happen to another family member. The adults who were supposed to take care of them didn’t. As a result, they never had a good example of a healthy, loving relationship. Many women who are in abusive relationships were abused as children. These childhood experiences may, in part, pave the way for having an unhealthy adult relationship.
Both groups are struggling to bring healing to a situation where there wasn’t before. It’s important to understand these dynamics, so that people in these situations don’t feel like they’re going crazy. It’s natural to do something the same way you grew up doing something. These people are just trying to heal the earlier experience.
They’re completely related. I love the way mindfulness teacher Mare Chapman, who has worked with women for decades, describes the relationship. She says that, throughout most of our history, women have been one down.
The person one down is constantly looking to the person one above them to determine what their needs are. They focus on how they can meet the needs of the person above them in order to survive. Chapman calls this “othering.” As a result, a child with a narcissistic parent becomes hyperfocused on the parent and their needs so that they can survive.
The term “codependence” became widespread in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and it pathologizes what is in effect a natural response to a dysfunctional situation. I’ve used the term “rescue addict,” which I believe is more accurate than codependence. In the ’90s, author Anne Wilson Schaef wrote a book called Escape from Intimacy. She divided codependence into three subtypes: relationship addiction, romance addiction, and sex addiction. According to Wilson Schaef, sex addicts come on, romance addicts move on, relationship addicts hang on.
It all relates back to trying to get a need met that wasn’t met in childhood—or, I believe, in a past life, if you want to go way back there. But it’s possible to break this cycle through true healing.
No, these sorts of relationships are never healthy—not even at the beginning. However, they may seem unavoidably compelling, making you feel like you have to do it, despite your better judgment. Your knees shake, your heart skips a beat, and you decide you to have to go through with it.
They are almost fated relationships, because the point of attraction inside the empath is the unhealed child. It’s a moth to a flame. Almost anyone can hold it together in the honeymoon phase. Chances are an empath has been told, “You’re too sensitive. Grow a thicker skin. What’s wrong with you?” for so long that they enter into a relationship from a lower place, thinking that something is wrong with them. Then along comes an energy vampire who gives them attention and makes the empath feel like a million dollars, saying things they’ve always longed to hear. The empath thinks, Finally, someone who understands me. This honeymoon phase usually lasts a maximum of two years, and then it starts to crack.
I’ve seen it once. A man was married with three kids, and he was spending all of his time at work. He wasn’t being attentive and was criticizing his wife all the time. It got to a point where she was ready to leave. The man wasn’t a full-blown narcissist, but he finally got into treatment with someone who understood narcissism, he worked through it, and now their marriage is back on track. But again, the wife had to get to a point where she was ready to leave. It wasn’t just a threat.
Knowledge is power. The first thing to do is to learn what narcissism looks like. It’s vital for people to be able to recognize this dynamic and understand that narcissist don’t change. If you’re scared to look at someone in this light, there is a good chance you’re in relationship with one. Most people avoid looking at this because they know it’s going to change their life. Do not continue to live in a fantasy that a narcissist will change. I have seen many people who have stayed in relationships for decades, thinking that their love could change the situation, and it doesn’t. Remove yourself from the fantasy of thinking someday things will be different.
Once you have recognized these facts, you have to decide whether you can live with that or not. I have heard far too many empaths say that they gave the narcissist the best years of their lives. I don’t want to see a woman have to wait until later in life to come to this realization. Recognize this sooner, and you will be better off. If you don’t, over time you will tend to get depleted from constantly giving more and more of your life energy to the relationship. As narcissists age, they begin to demand more and more. And interestingly, as women age, the stages of their life tend to point them in the direction of truth. So in a relationship where the man is a narcissist and the woman is an empath, this often makes the relationship come to a head, at which point the empath is forced to recognize that they need to make a change.
There are a few ways to assist an empath through the process of detaching. Twelve-step programs, such as Al-Anon or Co-Dependents Anonymous, have proven very useful for many. Another exceptionally helpful resource is therapy—working with someone who understands relationships and their dynamics. Try to find someone who has a lot of experience, and who understands this particular issue. A great resource is SurvivorTreatment.com, which was founded by clinical psychologist George Simon and psychotherapist Sandra Brown.
Sandra Brown’s book Women Who Love Psychopaths is a great resource during recovery. Narcissistic abuse recovery expert Melanie Tonia Evans has an online program, NARP (Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Program), which is great. EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) is an eye-movement therapy that can help individuals recover from cognitive dissonance. Tapping, otherwise known as EFT (emotional freedom technique), is designed to gently release negative emotions and beliefs that cause us pain. It can also be helpful in treating cognitive dissonance.
I think nutrition is also a vital component to recovering. Holistic Women’s Health Psychiatrist Kelly Brogan wrote a book called A Mind of Your Own and has an online program called Vital Mind Reset. In my experience, when women nourish their bodies and brains optimally, it often provides them with the strength and courage to see things clearly.
Yoga Nidra has been helpful to many. Karen Brody wrote a book on using Yoga Nidra, Daring to Rest, and she also has an online community that teaches it—incorporating thirty minutes of rest a day to help women reclaim their power.
Energy vampires are great at getting you to feel bad about yourself. Shame is powerful and painful. It means that you feel bad about the fact something is wrong with you. If you’re struggling with this, I would suggest reading research professor Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly, which gives insight into all of the great work she has done around shame. This can help you work on becoming proud of who you are, instead of allowing someone else to determine your self-worth. If you have been dealing with these issues from childhood, having had a narcissistic parent, you’ll work on rewiring the diagram of worthiness inside of you. You do this through self-love and knowing that there isn’t anything you need to do to improve yourself—you just need more love.
Christiane Northrup, M.D. is a visionary pioneer and a leading authority in the field of women’s health and wellness, which includes the unity of mind, body, emotions, and spirit. She is a New York Times–bestselling author whose books include Dodging Energy Vampires, The Wisdom of Menopause, Goddesses Never Age, and Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom. Dr. Northrup is also an acclaimed speaker who teaches women how to thrive at every stage of their life.
The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies. They are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop. This article is for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.