Organic Discipleship - Helping Self-Absorbed People

From the book:

We may have disciples who virtually never stop thinking about themselves. When alone, their thought life centers endlessly around self. Depression and defeat usually result. Even when with other people, someone who is self-absorbed either cannot stop talking about themselves, or sits withdrawn, wondering what others think of them.

How can we help such people? Typical steps include:

Awareness and understanding. Self-centeredness is wrong. Disciples must first set a goal to overcome self-absorption based on biblical teaching and God’s power. They need to learn what others-centeredness means and why a life of self-giving love leads to fulfillment.

Practical ideas. We suggest specific actions, or field assignments, that might help disciples make progress in learning how to center their attention on others. These could be actions taken in conversation with others, or times of guided reflection on others while alone.

Support and encouragement. We check back to see how the field assignment went, discussing problems encountered or successes. Then suggest a next step for further progress.

Working with self-absorbed people is slow, patient work. Only regular checkups on how the problem is coming, along with a stream of suggested countermeasures will likely result in lasting change.

Eventually, we should begin to notice that the person “takes off” in the sense that she realizes how to continue developing others-centeredness on her own, without detailed coaching. We are left in a position where we can use generous amounts of encouragement to press on.

Anyone who is extremely self-absorbed will likely continue to struggle with that tendency the rest of her life. But we have seen some remarkable and permanent turn-arounds. What a fantastic victory; to see someone tied up within herself become someone who can creatively move into other people’s lives in a loving way! This is such a powerful gift to bestow, that we will feel gratified years afterward knowing that we had a part in it.

More on self-absorption:

The first thing to realize is that while self-absorption is sinful, most people are not fully aware they have the problem. If they are aware, they may see nothing wrong with it. Awareness becomes our first goal. Some good biblical teaching about the evils of self-centeredness and the virtue of other-centeredness might be a good place to start. Ephesians 4 is a good text to study contrasting the self-centered “way of the nations” with the other-centered “new life.” Each feature of the new life involves trading in our taking values for giving values. For instance “Those who steal should steal no longer,”—what could be more selfish than seeing something we want and taking it? Instead Paul says such a person should “do something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.” (Eph. 4:28) Here is an unexpected reason for maximizing our income: so that we can give more. And so on it goes: Exchanging selfish bitterness for forgiveness, exchanging our own conclusions (the vanity of our minds, vs. 17) for mental transformation (vs. 23), and so on.

In the context of such a study, it should be easy to ask how our disciple feels she is doing in this regard. Our observations can be added to anything she already sees, hoping to convince her that she needs change in this area. After a number of such conversations, interspersed with prayer and waiting for the Holy Spirit to bring a sense of conviction, we may well reach a point where our disciple begins to offer up comments about how she feels her self-absorption is really bad and needs to change. If we reach this point, we are in a position to move on with prescription.

Self-absorption is natural to the human condition. Other-centeredness is learned. We need to construct a life situation where she can begin to try taking her eyes off self for a matter of seconds or minutes to focus on another. We may suggest she have a conversation with a friend where she does nothing but explore the other for information, along the lines we suggested in our chapter on friendship building. We might say that afterward, we are going to ask pointed questions about the person she is exploring, and she needs to be ready with answers.

If the conversation happens, we can ask our questions: What did she learn about the other? What about this? What about that? The point is not just to hold the disciple accountable for having had a conversation centered on someone other than herself. We are really hoping that having this conversation, and succeeding conversations, will be rewarding enough in their own right that positive reinforcement will occur. Your disciple will probably begin noticing that others are far more responsive, and things go better in general when you focus on the other person. Meanwhile, we should continue to pursue a course of questioning about deeper issues she can explore in the other person, and in all likelihood, a new friendship will begin to develop. Our prayers together for the other person enhance a growing burden for the other.

In extreme cases, this may be the first time a person has ever had conversations focused completely on another. As the rest of us know, such conversations are far more rewarding than those where we talk about ourselves, hoping others will admire us. For such extreme cases, we may even need to script, or role-play parts of the conversation in advance. Self-absorbed people simply don’t know how to relate this way, and it won’t come naturally. On the other hand, once they get to a place where they are genuinely taking interest in another, they will likely be able to get back to that place again much more easily.