False Friends, True Friendship, and Guarding Your Heart

We use the word “friend” too lightly, and we do so at our peril. My message today is that true friendship is rare and important, while false friendship is common and dangerous. Let me tell you a story…

Victor, the Victimized Vampire

Victor and I have known one another for years. I have long called him “friend”. Whenever we are together with other people, he frequently praises me for the quality of our friendship. Who does not like to hear such praise? But there is a problem.

Victor is a consummate master of the art of Victimhood. He is frequently beset by life's circumstances, accidents, tragedies, and illnesses. And in some perverse way, he seems to enjoy the attention that comes from being victimized like this.

“I put so much work into this project,” he said to me on the phone recently. “And now they are going to tear it all down.”

He had just described for me a scenario in which he, the apparent hero of the story, had poured his life's energy and passion into a project. He had devoted over five years to this work. But now that it was in the marketplace, the response was… crickets. Worse than if he had been attacked or vilified, he was being ignored. But Victor saw even this as an attack on his value as a person.

I chose my next words carefully.

“Well, this was really important to you. What are you going to do about it?”

I was trying to lead him into thinking through some positive actions he might take to turn the situation around. I took a deep breath, preparing myself for what I knew the answer would be.

“There's nothing I can do, Ray. This is just how the world works. At least my world. I don't know why I expected anything else.”

That's the moment I knew I would have to drive a stake through Victor's heart.

Victimized Vampires And How to Deal with Them

I don't mean a literal stake, of course. That would be horrific, not to mention illegal.

And I don't mean that Victor is a literal vampire, at least not the kind who bites you on the neck and exsanguinates you.

What I mean is, Victor was looking for me to validate his status as a “victim”, something he knew he could count on me to do, because of the countless times in the past when I have played my part in this codependent drama.

What Victor did not realize is that I have changed since the last drama we enjoyed together. I have chosen to stop participating in these dramas.

After decades of being the willing blood donor for people like Victor, these Victimize Vampires who seem to extract a sort of twisted collateral benefit from their continuously tragic lives, I have decided to opt out.

To recognize them for the Vampires they are, and as soon as that recognition takes place, to put a stake through their heart, so they can no longer plague me, no longer suck me into their drama and drain the life out of me.

How to Stake a Vampire

I call them vampires as a metaphor. I'm pretty sure you understand this already, but I want to be certain.

I'm talking about people who pretend to be your friend, who may even believe they are your friend, people whom you think of as friends, but who in the end are only in the relationship to drain you of your life force. To suck dry your reserves of energy, love, patience, and anything else they can get from you.

The bad news is, just like the vampires in Bram Stoker's novel, Dracula, the only way these monsters can gain access to your life is for you to invite them in.

And just like in Stoker's work, once the monster is in your house there is only one way to deal with it, and that is with decisive finality. In Dracula, this meant driving a stake through the monster's heart.

In our daily life, however, we can't be quite so extreme. These people are, after all, not really monsters… they too are God's children, though we must recognize they are plagued with the disease called Victimhood. And we must guard our hearts and minds, lest we become infected ourselves.

So instead of putting a stake in their hearts, we must banish them from our house.

Serve the Many, Befriend the Few

How many actual friends do you have? If you answer with a large number, a number larger than 10 or 12, I propose to you that it may be time to recalibrate your definition of the word “friend”.

Friendship is not a casual covenant. Just because you know someone, and share no enmity with them, does not mean you're friends. True friendship runs deeper. In John 15:13, Jesus says, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”

Would you lay down your life for everyone you currently call “friend”?

Please note that I'm not suggesting we avoid serving people. I'm not suggesting that we don't love them. But I am proposing that we need a stronger, more accurate definition of what it means to be a “friend.”

Jesus himself modeled for us the difference between serving people and choosing friends. While the Lord served the world, and ministered to great crowds of thousands of people, he chose as his friends only 12. And even out of those 12 disciples, he had an “inner circle” of just three. Three friends with whom he shared his deepest thoughts, and with whom he revealed his most closely guarded secrets. He served many, but befriended only a few.

When you befriend a person, in the spirit of true friendship, you open your heart to them. You make yourself vulnerable to them. This is a decision you cannot take lightly. Serve everyone, but be very careful who who you allow access to your heart.

In Letters from a Stoic, by Seneca the Younger, the great Roman philosopher writes:

“If you are looking on anyone as a friend when you do not trust him as your trust yourself, you are making a grave mistake, and have failed to grasp the full force of true friendship.”

“After friendship is formed, you must trust, but before you must judge. Those people who… judge a man after they have made him their friend instead of the other way around, certainly put the cart before the horse. Think for a long time whether or not you should admit a given person to your friendship.”

Redefine the Relationship Without Making a Mess

A word of caution: I don't recommend you start calling people in your life who you now recognize as vampires, and tell them, “I have realized that you are an emotional vampire, and I need to banish you from my house. I still love you, and just be glad that I didn't have to drive a stake through your heart.”

I suggest, in fact, not even saying, “I have realized we're not truly friends, we are merely acquaintances, and you are victimizing me.”

So what do I suggest you do about these people? These people in your life to whom you have given access to your heart, and whom you now realize must have that excess revoked?

The good news is, this is an internal decision that does not require an announcement or a memo. Simply decide to re-categorize the relationship as “acquaintance”, instead of categorizing it as a “friendship”. And then, depending on the severity of the damage this person is capable of doing to your life, you must decide how to lovingly confront them the next time the issue comes up.

When Victor began playing out his “victim script” with me, explaining how life was just against him, there was nothing he could do about it, and that's the way it always goes from, I knew it was time to draw a new boundary.

I said, “I understand you're hurting. I'm sorry about that. I'm ready to support you by talking about what you can do to turn this situation around, or to learn from it. But what I'm no longer willing to do is pretend you are a powerless victim. You are not. Would you like to talk about what you're going to do about the situation?”

Not surprisingly, Victor did not want to have that conversation. He was offended what he felt was my judgmental attitude, and in fact questioned my faith.

“You call yourself a Christian.”

Victimized Vampires always know how to go for your jugular.

When they sense they are being invited out of your house, Victimized Vampires usually respond with fear, anger, and manipulative techniques designed to cause you to feel guilty. They will fight furiously to get you back into their drama.

You Have the Power, and Only You Can Choose to Use It

The important thing to remember is you do have the power to decide who you will admit to your inner circle. Who you will actually be vulnerable to. Who will actually be your friend.

There comes a time in some relationships worse necessary to move them to the outer circle, to realize that they are merely acquaintances, people God calls you to love and whom you are called to serve (as long as such service does not harm you or your family, nor distract you from your mission and responsibilities).

Just because people with a victim mindset decide you should solve their problem does not mean it's true. Understand that you have the power to set the terms of the relationship, and that you can do so in a way that is morally correct, spiritually pure, and protects your most valuable asset: your heart.

Question: do you have any Victimized Vampires in your life, and if so, what are you going to do about it? You're welcome to comment below.

Ray Edwards is a world-renowned copywriter and communications strategist, writing for some of the most powerful voices in leadership and business including New York Times bestselling authors Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen (Chicken Soup for the Soul) and Tony Robbins. Ray is a sought-after speaker and author, hosts a popular weekly podcast, and blogs at RayEdwards.com.

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  • Ray, as is probably true for most of us, I’ve experienced my fair share of “vampires.” I appreciate the insights you give into this and the permission to put up some boundaries from those who would seek to zap us of our emotional strength.

    Like you, I feel that we all have choices regarding what we make of the difficulties in our lives. I can actually see good in everything that I’ve experienced. In fact, there has been at least one positive outcome to every difficult thing I’ve ever gone through. Viewing my setbacks in this way has definitely helped me to live a happier, most positive and I believe more successful life.

    My one struggle with all of this is that I can be a bit harsh sometimes in my judgment of others. My attitude can be, “get a grip!” or “snap out of it!” In other words, I have a very low tolerance level for those I perceive to have a victim mentality. I wonder if sometimes I’m too quick to judge in this regard.

  • Ssuan

    One vampire walked out of my life from their choice. They divorced me and now looking back I am very grateful for the freedom from having to live with the burden of their fears. They struggled to take responsibility and do what was necessary to make our house a home and then could not cope with my reaction i.e. submission to the point of being a doormat.

    I listened to the doctor say they would not help themselves so that their fear was not so life limiting. I listened to them say that the doctor was not helping them. Eventually I was airlifted out and given a new life. A few miracles on the way like homes turning up when needed but a lot of regret on my part that they decided to stay as they were and not change despite all that I and others tried to do for them.

  • Ray – I love this post. When I work with someone one of the first things we do is reframe how they are allowed to talk. Instead of “I have to go to work on Monday” it becomes “I get to go to work on Monday.” I will not listen to the things they “have” to do because they have no choice – or because of the government, their spouse or other circumstances.

  • Rita Stevens

    You have so aptly described someone in my life. She often told me that she did not know what she would do, if I no longer wanted to be her friend, cause she so needed me in her life. I could easily reply that I would not decide to not be her friend and mean it fully. Ultimately, she was the one who broke the tie by taking offense at my “disloyalty”. In all honesty, this brought me a great relief. Our codependent relationship was harmful to both of us. Thanks for sharing your insight!

  • I have someone in my life like this — the trouble is this person thinks of me as a “best friend” and often says so. It’s not mutual, mostly because of the chronic martydom you describe here. When this person can’t get me on the phone (sometime I don’t pick up when I see who it is and I don’t feel I can handle the negativity at the moment) I receive a whiny or even weepy message on my voicemail. I basically just put with it because it would be too hurtful to “come clean” and I already treat this person more like an acquaintance, even though we’ve known each other a long time and really do care about each other. The vampire behavior seems more a habit than anything else. I do my best not to feed it!

  • Paul Vandermill

    Greetings Ray,

    This is a great post. Thank you for the insight into how to manage such people. Victor and his ilk really do drain those around them and come back for more as long as they are permitted. It’s almost an addiction to the energy of others.

  • Good post. I read a lot of books, attended a support group for a number of years and had my own issues to deal with first. I was sick and tired of being sick and tired and finally realized that I could not change others–I had to make my own changes. I was Victor and I reflected Victor’s behavior in my life. A few books were very instrumental in opening my own eyes: Controlling People. Tapping Into Wealth. Afformations. Train Your Brain. Once I had the insight into two particular child incidents where I truly was a victim, I looked at the results of my life and finally closed the door to the past. I am no longer a victim. I am a VICTOR. And guess what. I’m not the only one who changed–someone else in my life did to. Thanks for this great post.

  • Hi Ray, we’ve spoken and written and emailed. I have identified with all characters mentioned along the way as we all do to learn. My wife, now with Jesus some twenty years by our standard of time, said to me you never seem to quit and even bought me a sign that said “Don’t Quit”. She felt I never would but ‘everyone needs reminding once in awhile’, she would say. She left n’ my common sense left with her. My pick myself up and move forward got up and left too! It would come and go being blown about like tumbleweed in a dust storm! More cancers came along with many strokes and MI’s and and things I am trying to forget. I joke the Devil doesn’t want me because I might screw up his plans. Jesus already did that! I have been told that He isn’t done with me yet! My response is so what do you want already! I know I want to die as so many times before. Nevertheless, I would start to get going again and wonder how did I do that. Finally I am learning that He really is carrying me a lot at times and smiling at me other times. I hope that I’ll get another chance to create a little bigger and better legacy for my grandchildren and their parents!

    Sending love and blessings to you Ray and your family. I know a bit of what you’ve been through of late and it’s good to see someone carried besides me …. I think you’re worth it along with others who need to be told! Someday I hope I can feel that way a little more than I do about me! It reminds me of my grandfather saying if you can’t say something good then shut up! I think my wife Connie said that too while she often carried me! I’m done being a disappointment again … Glad to say hi and I’d best be getting on as it’s getting late. Sending some hugs and smiles to you all! =)

  • Ray, God keeps speaking to me for days now Phil. 4:6-8 “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” I think it is so much more important to guard our hearts than we often realize. Thanks for another angle to make sure I am guarding my heart. Others need to read this. I will be sharing it. Blessings!

    • Thank you Laura, that means so much, especially coming from you!

  • Good points and guidelines in your article. Learning to walk this out when dealing with myself and others I work with. It is one thing to set a boundary, ” no I can’t do that”. yet another to do so in love with another who is bent on going after your jugular. Yet, both are so needed.

  • Fred

    This piece on False Friends, True Friendship, and Guarding Your Heart has been both timely and insightful. Thank you Ray for giving us the courage to deal with this issue that affect so many people around the world. Sometimes we stick in these Victimized vampire relationships thinking we have no power to change the situation and end up carrying huge burdens for people who neither recognize nor appreciate the sacrifice in terms of time, or emotional stress we go through to accommodate them. My first assignment is to differentiate between who my friends are and my acquaintances. Thank you