It happens to us at different points in life. For me, it was around 40. What happened? I woke up and realized that I'd spent most of my life trying to do my best in all my many roles--wife, mother, daughter, professor, colleague, friend, neighbor--while neglecting one: self. In my priority system, at least the one implied by how I spent my time--"me time" was barely noticeable. Sure, I made sure to eat and even exercise, but when was I spending time developing new skills, learning about myself, or just relaxing and rejuvenating after expending most of my energy pleasing other people? Does this ring true for you?
Now, a bit older and wiser, I've come realize that while we have responsibilities to fulfill, the disposable time that remains is in our hands. I've also come to realize that time and energy--two precious resources--are imperfectly related. Some things we spend our time on actually give us energy, like a Zumba class, catching up with old friends, or meditating. The trick is to be mindful of these choices and their impact on our energy and emotional state. I've recently extended this mindfulness to people I spend my time with and realize that we are surrounded by people who suck the energy out of us. Maybe, upon reflection, you've noticed this as well.
Simplistically speaking, there are three types of people: those who suck the energy from you, those who give you energy, and those who have a neutral effect. Ideally, we choose to be with energy-givers, after all, in our manic, live to work, always-on world, we optimize when and where we can. Why would we knowingly choose people and situations that deplete our already compromised energy reserves? The problem is that we don't recognize the patterns until they're well formed. And because we've "accepted" the patterns, they persist. You know the friend who constantly complains about the kids, the spouse, the job? Energy-sucker. How about the family member who always condescends, puts you down, takes sarcastic shots at you? Energy-sucker. The friend with the terminal frown--a "half-empty" person who shares only negative observations on situations, judgments about others, and expectations about all the terrible things that could occur. We escape these interactions feeling inexplicably drained, and maybe even asking ourselves why, but the next time the friend calls, we sign up for more. Am I suggesting leaving town, changing your mobile number or perpetually ignoring these people? Of course not. But touching a hot stove burns, and we manage to adapt our behavior. Why not with energy suckers? We'll come back to that...
The first thing you notice about energy givers is their smile. In their presence, you can't help but smile back, with the positive mood naturally trailing behind. Energy givers are genuinely interested to hear what you have to say; they empathize with you, engage in your story. They're the ones who send you a random "I'm thinking about you" text message, stay up until 3am to listen to your sob story, and have the power to lift you out of your doldrums without expecting anything in return. They speak with passion about their work or hobbies, and rarely complain even when they have every right to. The energy-givers radiate a sense of positivity that is viral. Whereas interactions with energy suckers leave you with a feeling of despair, energy givers leaves you feeling refreshed and ready to rise above your own challenges.
What to do?
1. Be mindful. Any change requires awareness of the situation. Mindfulness is the opposite of going through the motions. Realizing that Aunt Meg--with her running commentary on your clothing, child-raising, and co-workers--is an energy sucker is as simple as recognizing how defeated and depleted you feel once the interaction ends.
2. Consciously decide. We get to choose how we spend our time. Just like our money, we can invest our time where we think we'll get the best ROI--whether that's financial, emotional, spiritual, physical, or intellectual. Does the "return" match the investment?
3. Take action. The simple solution is to stop doing what doesn't feel good. (For you, that might mean not answering/returning phone calls or "finding" an excuse for cancelling a date.) But that isn't always feasible or smart. Instead, decide on the terms of these interactions. From my over 20 years in the classroom, I've learned that very few people are comfortable with confrontation. Their automatic response to the condescending boss, judgmental family member, or continuously complaining friend is to ignore it and accept it as given (while complaining to others about it). Pointing out this behavior is about as comfortable as getting wisdom teeth extracted. But here's the thing: if you say nothing, you "say" it's OK to be treated this way and let your energy be sapped. The challenge is to offer feedback to the energy sapper in a way that doesn't cause defensiveness by blaming or demanding change. You might be pleasantly surprised at their response; the feedback may be "new" because it had never been offered before, and the sapper might have been unaware of the effect s/he has on others.
Here are two examples:
- "Aunt Meg, when you criticize the choices I make (e.g., work, school, children), it makes me feel unsupported by you and less willing to share with you what's going on in my life. I want us to have a good relationship, and I know you want what's best for me, but I need you to be open to the possibility that there are multiple paths to getting there."
- "Jason, you're a great friend. For the last few months, though, it seems that when we talk, you complain about your boss, your girlfriend, and your noisy neighbors, and when I share one of my challenges, you make light of it and guide the conversation back to you. I'm here for you, but I need to feel as though you are interested in listening to me as well."
Don't let your fear of confrontation keep you from deepening or improving your relationship with friends and loved ones who suck the energy from you. Be mindful, and choose people and situations that maintain or expand your energy reserves, while also committing to help energy suckers realize their effect on others. In so doing, you'll feel less depleted and might even help them become energy givers!