Most of us know someone that sucks the life right out of our soul! Like a dry sponge, they absorb everything in their path leaving the people in their wake empty and dry. It’s that person you try to avoid at all cost, and the one who makes you thank God for caller-ID. You know you’re supposed to be loving, accepting, kind, and selfless, but the truth is some people can be so difficult to be around that you’d rather die for them than live with them.
What do you do with the person who is always in need and rarely, if ever, gives anything back? How can we deal with people who are immature, self-centered, guilt-inducing, and smothering?
When Laura and I were first married, we lived in an apartment. The neighbors on one side of us were friends of ours from high school, and they were great. On the other side of us was a young couple; they were nice people, but they were also a real challenge. We’ll call them Harry and Mary.
I enjoyed Harry because he was a kind and simple guy. He had this big infectious laugh and never seemed to have a bad day. Mary, on the other hand, was insecure and needy. She soaked up everything and everyone around her like a dry sponge. She wasn’t mean, vile, or harsh, but she was like a leech that would emotionally grab on to people and drain the bone marrow right out of them. We felt uncomfortable around her and guilty for avoiding her, but we didn’t know what else to do. The day they moved away was a happy day for us (sad, but true).
Do you have someone like this in your life? Probably. So let’s begin with the anatomy of a sponge.
The four most common characteristics of a sponge:
They attach themselves to someone like gum stuck to the bottom of a shoe. They are smothering and panic when they sense any distance in a relationship. Often, they hover over you in a vain attempt to stay close, and in doing so they ironically and negatively affect the very closeness they desperately desire.
Sponges are often broke, down on their luck, and never seem to be able to get ahead. This is not to say that all poor people are sponges, but lots of sponges are poor and needy. For whatever reason, they tend to live financially belly up most of the time. What’s worse, they are so concerned about their own needs that they rarely look beyond themselves. They are so consumed by their own situation that they find it nearly impossible to think about and care for others.
Sponges are experts at one thing: making you feel guilty if you don’t help them in the way they want you to help them and when they demand it! They take and take, yet seldom give anything in return. But the second you attempt to draw a boundary, they will attempt to make you feel horribly guilty.
Crisis is pretty much what they live for, and it’s what gets them out of bed in the morning. It’s a part of their identity, and they wouldn’t know what to do without an emergency. Why? Because they know that a personal catastrophe can bring out the most help and attention from others, and attention is what they crave. Tragically, they go from one crisis to another, from one disaster or calamity to another, and they live in a perpetual state of emergency and find strange comfort because of it.
Okay, this is who they are, but let’s take a look at what we can do.
Surviving and really helping the sponge:
1. Empathize, don’t just sympathize.
Here’s a little insight that can make a big difference:
- Sympathy is to feel sorry for or to feel bad for someone else. The focus of sympathy is sharing the feelings of others, especially feelings of sorrow and anguish.
- Empathy is to identify with and to understand another’s situation, feelings, and motives.
The two sound alike, but there are important differences. To empathize means we are going beyond just feeling what they are feeling, and we are understanding why they feel the way they do. We’re not just understanding their situation and feelings, we are understanding their motives.
We tend to feel bad for the sponge because we see their plight and hear their grief, so we’re sympathetic to their needs and try to do something to help. But it is crucial to understand what is driving the sponge. Often, their presenting needs may not be the true or deeper needs.
If all you do is sympathize, you only feel what they’re feeling and are then reacting in some way to try and make them feel better. But if you empathize, you’re objectively analyzing their problems with a view to helping them meet the true need in their lives. Your goal should be to help them be better, not just feel better.
Years ago, my wife had a friendship with a needy woman who thought Laura walked on water (she does, of course, but only for me!). This woman monopolized her time and was very demanding of Laura’s attention. If you know Laura, you know she is sweet and kind, but she knew that something had to be done. God gave her some amazing insight into why this woman was the way she was, and that gave her a way to help this woman to grow and change. The process wasn’t easy, but it was good for all.
2. Confront when necessary.
Often when you see and understand the why, you become aware of a character flaw or sin in the life of a sponge. It’s always necessary to face and deal with your own sin first (to remove the log from your own eye before you attempt to help anyone else), but assuming you’ve done so, there is a place for humble and gentle rebuke.
“He who listens to a life-giving rebuke will be at home among the wise.” Proverbs 15:31 (NIV)
“Better is open rebuke than hidden love.” Proverbs 27:5 (NIV)
“Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently.” Galatians 6:1 (NIV)
We have a God-given responsibility to “speak the truth in love” for the purpose of mutual edification. There is a place for godly confrontation. Think of it as holding up a mirror to help the sponge see what they are doing and how it is harmful to them and others.
I cannot stress enough how important it is to do this gently and in love. Remember, as a general rule, sponges typically suffer from low self-worth. In their hearts, they tend to believe that they are worthless failures. So try hard to speak into their lives in such a way that builds rather than destroys. Be sure to affirm their value to you and God as you confront and correct.
3. Learn to say no, and don’t feel guilty about it.
It’s okay and good to establish healthy boundaries. It is frustrating and miserable to be in a relationship without any guardrails.
You are not the Savior, but Jesus is. Sometimes we suffer from a Messiah complex and we think we’ve got to fix people. When it’s all said and done, you are responsible for what you do with your time and energy, and to manage those resources in a manner that honors God. You can’t save anyone.
Yes, God calls you to lay down your life for others. And yes, you are to serve sacrificially. But your needs are also important to God, and you cannot give or serve out of a vacuum of emptiness! Even Jesus withdrew from the crowds because He needed time alone to rest and refresh. (Check out Matthew 14.) If the Son of God found it necessary and wise to draw some boundaries and to take care of His own life and soul, then I want to suggest you follow His example.
Do the right thing for the sponge, and it will probably cost you to do so. But that does not mean you ignore your legitimate needs or your family in the process. Love and serve the sponge in your life, but sometimes that means saying no. Just because you can help doesn’t mean you always should.