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Updated 19 July 2013

Saying no to a sponger

If you have a sponger in your family or circle of friends, it might be time for a bit of tough love, says Susan Erasmus.

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A Health24 user highlighted this serious problem this week on CyberShrink's forum: her brother simply refuses to work and sponges off everyone else – and is rude to all of them on top of everything else.

So what does one do in a situation such as this one? It's difficult for us to refuse to help family, or even close friends. We have a heightened sense of responsibility towards them, we love them, and simply forgive them their transgressions more easily than we do those of other people.

But some people abuse this.

We need to distinguish carefully between someone with a real problem, such as bipolar disorder,  or someone who has experienced a sudden divorce or retrenchment, and someone who is just downright lazy.

Spongers: skilled emotional manipulators
Many families contain a skilled manipulator, who knows how to gather round the enablers in the family group. Their behaviour falls into the category of what is called 'learned helplessness'. Often they are well-qualified and capable, but just don't much feel like working. Even if they have no qualifications, they could still deliver pizzas, wash cars, do babysitting – whatever. But why should they if someone else is footing the bill and taking all the responsibility?

I know we have a high unemployment rate, but rather than mooch around in front of the TV, and smoking endless cigarettes someone else has paid for, or drinking countless beers, it would be a good idea to go and do some voluntary work – at least in that way one gets some experience to put on a CV.

This is where the notion of 'tough love' comes in. In short, what it comes down to is that if we really love someone, we will not protect them from the consequences of their decisions. If you don't much feel like working, a night or two under the bridge might change your mind. There's nothing like being hungry and cold to motivate anyone hugely.

The real favour you can do for someone
By saying no, and not giving in to the inevitable emotional blackmail, you are doing that person the biggest favour imaginable. Sure, they'll be seriously miffed, but so what? Think about the alternative: an albatross around your neck for the next few decades. And no, this person will not get things together by themselves until you learn to say no. Why should they? They don't feel like doing it, because life is so much easier if someone else takes responsibility for them.

But what about you, your financial situation and future, your emotional well-being? Think about it, because these are the last things on the manipulator's mind. All that concerns them is what they can get out of you. To them, you are simply an ATM on legs. And no, if the situation were reversed, I am prepared to guarantee you that they will not come to your rescue. Maybe a token gesture, but nothing in the league you have done for them.

Tough love is also applicable to situations where you are dealing with drug addicts or alcoholics, or kids who won't leave the nest and so forth. Don't be scared to make rules and to stick to them – and whatever you do, don't cave in to demands.

If you play the role of rescuer, it simply enables this person to carry on in the same way. If you get something out of this, it's time for some serious self-reflection – and maybe also time to focus on yourself and your own needs.

Be strong – saying no takes real backbone. But remember you're not just doing it for yourself, it's the biggest favour you can do for the sponger in your life. One day they might even thank you.

Susan Erasmus is the deputy editor of Health24. Read more of her columns .

 

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