Leeches: Just Say No (Online Vermin, Part 6)

(NOTE: This is an installment in my “Handling Online Vermin” series about addressing people with poor online communication habits. Series intro and index.)

By nature, I enjoy being helpful. I get jazzed whenever I can share knowledge, skills, or insight, or help someone with a difficult task or decision. I don’t always want to recognize that I am human and have limits of time, energy, and attention. Yet, if I don’t recognize and honor my own limits, I end up getting burned out.

Therefore, out of a sense of sheer self-preservation I’ve learned to recognize online leeches and scrape them off promptly…

Leeches: Online media promotes a culture of sharing. However, some people approach the internet with an exagerrated sense of entitlement. If you share your knowledge or resources by answering one question or helping solve one problem, leeches may slither close and expect you to answer every question and help solve every problem.

Leeches assume, they wheedle, they nag. They may get sarcastic or resentful when you don’t realign your priorities to match their desires. They drain your energy and offer little or nothing in return.

If you’re active in online communities and dicussion forums, or if you run a weblog, web site, or online publication, chances are you’ve already encountered at least some leeches.

When you spend a lot of time online, it becomes especially important to monitor your own mental and physical energy levels. In general, computers aren’t great for human health – they promote a physically sedentary lifestyle. But aside from that, when you spend a lot of time online your brain is actually working very hard, keeping up with all that new content and all those connections. It’s surprisingly easy online to fritter away energy that would be better spent in other areas of your life.

Leeches know this, and take advantage of it. They routinely borrow other people’s energy to solve their problems, make their decisions, do their work, and satisfy their curiosity. When they do this, the generous people on which they feed immediately begin to feel drained, and reticent to respond.


It takes time to recognize a leech. One or two interactions is not sufficient to make a judgement. Normally it requires five or more interactions to spot the pattern.

Watch for this: If you groan or start to feel drained, hesitant, or grouchy every time you hear from a certain online acquaintence – regardless of how energized you were feeling before the encounter – pay attention! This is an important warning sign. If you start feeling drained upon contact with this person under any circumstances, and if that reaction is consistent, you may be dealing with a leech.

Evaluate your last several interactions with the potential leech. Is this person always making a request and expecting a response that requires your energy? There may be other elements to your interactions, but leeches always manage to slip this in somehow.

What are you getting from this connection? True leeches offer nothing of value, or very little. Their goal is to absorb energy while expending as little as possible. Do you feel your connection with this person is truly reciprocal?


If, after careful consideration, you believe you’ve encountered a leech – PAUSE! Don’t assume your estimation is correct, because it is incredibly easy to mistake people in genuine need of assistance for leeches.

Remember compassion. Everyone needs help, guidance, and context at some point. We all benefit from the generosity of others, and we often cannot repay such favors immediately. However, people in genuine need generally want to repay the favor to the best of their ability, and will volunteer offers to do what they can.

In contrast, leeches commonly offer false sustenance: flattery. They tell you how much they admire you and look up to you. They sing your praises to others (often attracting other leeches to you in the process). They offer copious gratitude for the assistance you’ve offered. And yet… they always manage to stop short of actually offering any meaningful or comparable assistance or compensation. (This is rather like people who offer to pay freelance writers or designers with “publicity.”)

Flattery generally doesn’t require much energy, especially when it’s a habit. For leeches, flattery is a key tool of attachment. They are very sensitive creatures. When they sense that you might be starting to grow aware of their nature (and they will probably know that before you do), they’ll start flattering you to mislead you.

I’m not saying praise is always bad or false. It can be quite genuine, and everyone likes to hear nice things about themselves. I am no exception to this. However, when someone is helping you out, praise alone is not a sufficient response. At least, not as a routine matter of habit.


If you suspect you’ve encountered a leech, the next step is testing. Again, it is not appropriate to respond to people in genuine need as if they are leeches.

Resistive testing. This means declaring your boundaries with a clear, simple refusal. It may be tempting to simply start ignoring the potential leech’s requests, but ultimately that just prolongs their ability to feed on you. Plus, the “ignore” strategy can backfire – if you’re a fundamentally helpful person, ignoring requests goes against your nature and so is inherently draining.

The next time the potential leech makes a request, say no. You can be polite about it, but make sure your response includes the actual word “no.” Don’t hedge with excuses like “I can’t” or “I’d love to if I had time.” Just say no. Get it over with. It’s an amazingly cathartic and empowering experience.

Proactive testing. Another way to test whether a person is a leech is to make a request for genuine assistance, something that would require a real investment of energy, expertise, or time. Watch the response. If the assistance is offered promptly, wholeheartedly, and competently, that person is probably not a leech.

However, if the person deflects your request with flattery or a change of topic, or pleads a lack of ability or time, or halfheartedly offers a lame response, or takes a long time to respond… you’ve revealed a leech!


Say no. You may have already experimented with a clear refusal in the testing process. But if not, do it now. Respond with a clear “no” to any further request from the leech. You can be polite, but you must be clear.

Watch the chitchat. The leech may attempt to stay attached to you by acting friendly, usually through casual chitchat. If that’s acceptable to you, then fine. You don’t have to immediately cut off all communication – especially if that goes against your nature. However, you can choose to cut off all contact, if that suits you. It’s your right.

If you choose to allow futher contact from the leech, the important thing is to watch carefully for further requests. Usually, after a bout of soothing chitchat, the leech will again attempt to feed by making new requests. Hold your boundaries and keep saying no clearly.

At this point, most leeches will silently slither away. It’s usually easier for them to find new willing victims than to try to overcome resistance. Remember, by nature leeches prefer to do what’s easier.

However, some leeches have a strong ego. They can’t stand to be revealed and detached by their meal (you). To these leeches, the demands of their ego make it harder to stomach detachment than to let go and find a new meal. So they cling, and they sting.

A leech “stings” by attempting to guilt-trip you. They’ll insinuate (or say flat-out) that you’re cold, heartless, or unprofessional. Their flattery will suddenly become conditional, as if they’re asking you to prove yourself worthy of their praise. They may complain about your sudden uncooperativeness, even publicly.

Ignore these stings, and do not respond. If a leech starts stinging, that is the time to cut off all contact. Put the leech on your “ignore list” in any way possible (e-mail, IM, etc.) Do not respond to public comments. Remember that if you’re dealing with a leech, you do not have to justify yourself to anyone for detaching. Just do it, and get it over with. Soon enough, the clamor will die down.


Online leech encounters can be unbelievably draining. This experience can make you reticent to make any voluntary contributions to online communities and the individuals you meet there.

If your energy is low, it’s OK to lay low for awhile. Gather your strength again, and start participating in online interactions only when you feel ready.

Keep your heart and mind open. Recognize that online sharing and contributions benefit everyone, including you. Don’t let a leech encounter sour you completely on the online world. Just accept that unsavory aspect of the online ecosystem, learn how to deal with it efficiently, and move on.

NEXT: Burns: Touchy, Touchy!

PREVIOUSLY: Vermin and Compassion audio note

INDEX AND INTRO to this series…

6 thoughts on Leeches: Just Say No (Online Vermin, Part 6)

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  1. The series is great. But I think you could take out the word “online” because leeches and other vermin of these types appear in the real world too! 😉

    Good Stuff!

  2. Ah, my lovely analyst strikes again. You’ve just explained how to NOT be a chump. I don’t know: do I hate chumps as much as I hate those who chump them? Yeah. I hate chumps more. They enable the leeches. If there were no chumps, no masochists, no “everything and everybody’s fine and dandy” types, no naive losers, there could be no leeches.

    I’ve been a chump. I don’t think I’ve ever been a leech, a mooch, or a parasite, but perhaps to some degree at rare moments. But I’m usually doing what I want, on my own, without needing anyone else much.

    Amy, did you know that Barbara Streisand’s song “People”, the lyrics were originally “People. People who don’t need other people, are the luckiest people in the world.” ?

    This makes far more sense than “People who need people are…etc.”

    How stupid. Barb changed the original lyric, said it was too hard to sing all that with the melody. She shortened it, took out “don’t…other”. cool, huh? I am angry that she did that. sebadoh.

  3. Online Vermin Series
    Related to the idea of dealing with your email:

    Amy Gahran, over at Contentious, is on the sixth and next to last installment of her series concerning online vermin and how to deal with them.

    As we all spend more and more time on line, I think i…

  4. Online Vermin Series
    Related to the idea of dealing with your email:

    Amy Gahran, over at Contentious, is on the sixth and next to last installment of her series concerning online vermin and how to deal with them.

    As we all spend more and more time on line, I think i…

  5. Amy, I think this whole series fits in well with other conversations that seem to be popping up regarding how to manage email inboxes. If we limit our interactions with vermin, I’d bet we free up a lot of our time and inbox space too