Is it him, or is it me? When up against a coworker who makes even minor interactions feel Sisyphean, it’s easy to blame ourselves. Maybe I haven’t adapted to this new workflow fast enough, we think. Maybe the editor was right to scream at me when I missed that typo. Maybe he’s just doing his job, and I’m not.
It’s one thing if you’re truly slacking at the office — but even then, shouts and screams aren’t appropriate. And as Albert J. Bernstein, a psychologist who specializes in prickly personality disorders, assures us: The odds are it isn’t your fault.
In Emotional Vampires at Work, Bernstein explains that passive-aggressive individuals, for instance, use “a particular kind of martial art that looks like just being nice but feels like being hit upside the head with a two-by-four.” If you work with someone who makes you feel awful even when you have absolutely no idea why, you might be up against a “vampire” — a person whose psych issue is couched so well behind an attractive façade, you assume it must be you who’s done wrong.
It’s an appealing framework, what Bernstein presents. And although his cartoonish book cover — a garlic-wreathed woman repels two fanged coworkers — may seem far from academic, Bernstein’s ideas come straight from the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which forms the core of all psych diagnoses in the United States. What’s clever about his work is its use of familiar concepts to address textbook personality disorders. “The material I present is serious,” Bernstein writes, “but that doesn’t mean I have to present it in a deadly serious manner.”
Although I sometimes snobbishly distinguish between self-help books and “real” books, largely because “self-help” has become synonymous with rah-rah-vague-motivational-quotes-oh-hey-come-attend-my-pricey-lecture, Bernstein’s work seems free of that fluff. It’s substantive information based on established personality types, coupled with a few quizzes and nuggets of help for readers flustered by coworkers. No matter what you label it, it’s psychological research, classic DSM diagnoses, described in an accessible way.
That Bernstein acknowledges his technique helps his case. “The melodramatic [vampire] metaphor is merely clinical psychology dressed up in a Halloween costume,” he explains, “but it does fit.” Like Dracula (or, fine, I’m old-school — make a Twilight reference if you’d like), people with personality disorders are dangerous to others and yet “much more exciting and attractive than other people.”
Indeed, when I think back to the coworkers and ex-boyfriends who’ve done the most damage, I can recall, at the very start, some lustrous, seductive quality that distracted me from the rest. Psychopaths, like vampires, are charming as hell. Studies show that we easily laugh, swoon, and otherwise go weak in their presence.
What’s worse, Bernstein points out, people with sharp edges can also seem rather regular for periods of time. Those with personality disorders, like Bram Stoker’s bloodsuckers, are not in attack mode every second. In the case of Dracula, he tends to wait till he’s hungry. In the case of your boss who throws a tantrum every few days, his own version of attack also surfaces when it needs to — when he thinks someone is thwarting him. “Everything changes when your needs conflict with theirs,” Bernstein writes of workplace vampires. “That’s when the fangs come out.”
One of the most useful aspects of Bernstein’s book is a simple point he makes about people with passive-aggressive, narcissistic, antisocial, “histrionic” (a sexist term that might soon change, and which is unfortunately based on an archaic idea of a womb that wanders through a woman’s body), obsessive-compulsive, and paranoid disorders. Simply put, they’re not necessarily aware they have a problem. What we see as irrational, fly-off-the-handle, or manipulative behavior, they simply don’t perceive.
That means it’s not a good idea to describe to someone their outbursts, or to point out that they said X and then Y. It may drive you crazy when the rules change based on someone’s whim. But the irrational person isn’t going to get it, Bernstein explains. There is no personality-disorder intervention the way there is for alcoholics or gamblers.
What there is, Bernstein posits, is our ability to think slowly — to not let a person press our proverbial buttons. “Teaching you to do that,” he writes, “…is why I wrote this book.” The boss who makes us feel small, scared, or about to burst often preys on our own weaknesses. We need to not react automatically the way our gut tells us to, even if that first instinct is to defend ourselves and our actions (or to crumple in a corner).
To yell back at a yeller doesn’t help, Bernstein explains. To over-apologize to a bully doesn’t, either. Instead, confronting a soul-crusher requires a careful recalibration, a long, deep breath, and some behavioral techniques tailored to each personality disorder. To deal with a passive-aggressive colleague, Bernstein writes, first note that his personality type goes hand in hand with feeling underappreciated. That means one needs to heap praise upon him — even if it seems overblown, and even if his passivity means he avoids doing the bulk of his work. Meanwhile, when you’re up against narcissists, Bernstein writes, leverage the fact that they often have a well-formed sense of humor, but never, ever forget that they lack empathy. Don’t expect them to care about other people the way that you might, and only talk to them in terms that will jive with their selfish goals. They won’t be nice just for nice’s sake.
“Remember, if you are outraged by outrageous people, you will be the one to suffer,” Bernstein writes. In describing the clinical effects of various psych conditions, Bernstein weaves together smart, sensible prose — and he takes the reader seriously. But if it’s whimsical vampires references that drive home his intelligent tips, then bring on the cartoons and garlic.
Emotional Vampires at Work: Dealing with Bosses and Coworkers Who Drain You Dry
McGraw-Hill Education, 2013
Hardcover, 258 pages
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Hirsch, M. (2013). Emotional Vampires at Work: Dealing with Bosses & Coworkers Who Drain You Dry. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 24, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/emotional-vampires-at-work-dealing-with-bosses-coworkers-who-drain-you-dry/00018031
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 1 Oct 2013
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