Most of the difficult people you have to work with do not qualify for a psychiatric diagnosis, but when people are at their most difficult, they are often acting like people who do. For this reason, I have found it helpful to teach people how to understand and deal effectively with the worst of the worst. If you can handle them, you can handle anybody.
To a therapist, a diagnosis is not what a person is, but an estimate of how often he or she engages in a self (or other) destructive pattern of perceptions and actions. Everything is on a continuum. Everybody occasionally shows most of the major symptoms of a mental disorder. Those who qualify for a diagnosis engage in these patterns more often, and have little else in their repertoire.
What I’m saying is that you live and work in a world in which everybody is a little bit crazy. Perhaps you have recognized this already. It’s easy to click with people who are thinking and acting like sane grownups. When they — or you –are engaging in these destructive patterns the problems start. To deal effectively with destructive patterns, you have to recognize them and avoid being pulled in. You see, these patterns all have elements that are attractive as well as destructive. In so many cases, people’s greatest assets if overused become liabilities. The value of diagnostic thinking is not putting people into categories, but in recognizing that certain patterns of thought and behavior go together. When you see one part of the pattern, the rest is likely to be there as well.
As a therapist, I specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of personality disorders, which are different than other psychological problems in one important respect. The people who have them drive other people crazy. They are the most difficult of difficult people. Like vampires, they drain you, not of blood, but of your emotional energy. That’s why I call them emotional vampires.
Emotional vampires create illusions. At first, they look better than regular people. At work, they have what it takes to get hired and promoted, but they don’t have what it takes to do their jobs without draining the people who work with them.
Emotional vampires strengths and weaknesses are driven by a single insatiable need. Their careers and the people they work with are merely the source for gratifying that need. Unlike normal people, they have little or no empathy. To keep from being drained, you must recognize people with personality disorders and understand them well enough to step into their world and step out of the pattern they expect. Here are the ones most likely to cause you trouble:
- Antisocials want what they want when they want it. They’ll say whatever it takes to get it. In their world, everyone is a predator, so look out for yourself. The brightest antisocials are con artists; the less talented are bullies. They expect you to take their promises and threats at face value. To protect yourself, ignore their words, however persuasive, and pay attention to the objective evidence.
- Histrionics need attention and approval. They are consummate actors, who are most adept at fooling themselves. Histrionics look great and sound great, but are often bored or baffled by day-to-day responsibilities. In, their world, there is little depth. What it looks like is what it is. If you point out their hypocrisy, they can become dangerously passive aggressive. Instead, use their acting ability. Create a more productive role for them by acting yourself. For Histrionic bosses who would rather give motivational talks than set priorities, be an eager, but uncreative student, a little lost lamb to their shepherd. Keep asking them what they would do if they were you.
- Narcissists just want to live out their fantasy of being the greatest, smartest, all-around most wonderful people in the world. Don’t contradict them. And, don’t let irritation at their sense of entitlement get the better of you. If you are outraged by outrageous people, you will be the one who suffers. If you work for a narcissist, like it or not, you’ll have to suck up. If you want narcissists to listen to you, tell them what’s in it for them. If they want something from you, make them pay up front. Never believe promises or extend credit.A word of caution here: Your own expectations about how people should behave can make you more vulnerable to emotional vampires. If you are reluctant to use some of the techniques I’m describing because you think they are dishonest or manipulative, your own beliefs may be putting you at serious risk. Manipulation itself is not evil. Like Dr. K says, manipulating your environment was the reason you learned to communicate in the first place. The morality of manipulation depends on whether you use it to help people or hurt them. Take this from someone who, like all therapists, manipulates people for a living.
Instead of calling these techniques manipulation, think of them this way: At work, you want to be businesslike. That means thinking about what you want to happen and how best to make it happen. Sometimes your emotions can get in the way of your judgment. Nowhere is this more apparent than in dealing with the next class of emotional vampire.
- Obsessive-Compulsives want safety. They are terrified of mistakes. Their fear turns them into what many people think of as micromanaging control freaks. If you think of them this way, you may be letting your inner teenager make your business decisions. To keep from being drained, you can learn to be a control freak whisperer by seeing their fear rather than your irritation. Don’t frighten them by being surly. Instead, try in word and deed to reassure them that you take your job as seriously as they take theirs. Then, they might go off and micromanage someone else.
Emotional vampires are experts at using people’s own emotions – especially fear, anger and greed – to control them. The secret to protecting yourself is to think carefully before you act.
Please NOTE: Albert J. Bernstein PhD is a Clinical Psychologist, Speaker and Business Consultant, and author of Emotional Vampires At Work, which can be purchased here. He is guest blogging Dr. K’s blog while Dr. K takes a blogging sabbatical. Dr. K will return in July.