“She tells me I’m completely self-absorbed, that I’m acting like I’m the center of the world. I’ve spent our last three years trying to figure HER out and how to connect with her! How on Earth is that self-absorbed?”

Like what you are reading? For more stimulating stories, thought-provoking articles and new video announcements, sign up for our monthly newsletter.

David Burns, creator of TEAM-CBT (which stands for Testing, Empathy, Agenda Setting, Methods), teaches us that a key moment in diffusing a conflict comes when we use the Disarming Technique. Instead of defending ourselves, we lay down our shields and find something to agree with in what the other person has said. But however much we may tell ourselves we want a good relationship, many of us find this step challenging. How can we agree with something that feels so wrong and unfair? And what happens when we see the kernel of truth in an accusation?

“It wouldn’t be honest for me to agree with her that I’m completely self-absorbed.”

“I have to agree with you,” I tell my patient, and we both smile as he recognizes me using the disarming technique with him. “You aren’t completely self-absorbed, or you wouldn’t be trying to improve the relationship.”

He sits back in his chair, tilts his head and motions for me to keep talking.

“So, is there anything you could find to agree with in what she said. I mean, really whole-heartedly agree with?”

“Well, I can agree that she seems to think I’m self-absorbed!”

He’s making a common mistake in the disarming technique—we call this a ‘faux disarm.’ “How would you feel hearing that from someone?” I ask him. “Suppose I said to you, ‘Dave, I can see that you really seem to think I’m self-absorbed.’ Would you feel heard and validated?”

“Um, no,” he said with a touch of sulkiness. “I just don’t feel like I’m being self-absorbed! I’ve been working so hard to figure out how to connect with her. When she throws that at me, I feel so taken for granted.” The muscles in his jaw tightened. I see I may have pushed him too far. In TEAM-CBT, the correction for this is to ‘fall back’ to empathy and what is called ‘paradoxical agenda setting’ in which we support someone’s good reasons not to change.

“You have been working really hard on this,” I agree. “You said you feel taken for granted. I can imagine you must have felt pretty hurt and angry when she said that to you. And maybe you are also feeling hurt and even a little annoyed with me right now. Am I reading you right?”
He nods, silent, his face shifting from anger to sadness; his jaw relaxes. “I was a little annoyed at you, but I get it, you are trying to help me. It’s okay, let’s keep going.”

I’m hearing that he’s trusting me, so I move forward, but rather than continuing to push him directly as I did before, I shift to using paradox to support his resistance, and give voice to what I think is holding him back. “Maybe at a moment when you are feeling that hurt and angry, it’s understandable that you aren’t wanting to get close to her or see where she is coming from. Your priority is to protect yourself.”

This seems to have landed. He nods ruefully. “That’s right.” He puts his hands over his eyes for a moment, turns inward. “When she hurts me like that, I do want to defend myself.”

I stick with supporting his resistance. “Ouch. That makes sense to protect yourself from that pain.”

He doesn’t respond right away. I let the pause linger, sensing that something is shifting. “But I care about her, and I do want to understand where she is coming from, not just protect myself.”

He’s starting to convince me that he is ready to lay down his defensiveness, but I stay paradoxical to see if he’s really committed to working in that direction. “But is that wise? You said she hurts you.”

“It does hurt, but I don’t think she really wants to hurt me.”

“Where does the hurt come from?”

He makes a face. “Oh, you’d probably say it’s because I’m stuck on the idea that I should never be self-absorbed.”

I shrug an acknowledgment, “Yup, I probably would say that a belief like that would cause pain.”

He gives me a small smile. “Thanks, as it happens, I agree with you. And I get it. Of course, she’ll experience me as self-absorbed if all I’m doing is defending myself. But I don’t always do that. Isn’t she giving me one of those distortions you talk about, all-or-nothing thinking? I still don’t want to agree that I am completely self-absorbed.” He chews on this for another moment. “Maybe I don’t have to agree that I’m completely self-absorbed, just that I’m being self-absorbed at that moment?”

“I like where you are going with this—it sounds like you have found a kernel of truth in what she said. What would that sound like if you told her that?”

“Well, how about ‘Samantha, you are right, I’m being self-absorbed right now.’”

“Nice,” I respond. “How does it feel to imagine saying that to her?”

“It’s humbling,” he replies, and I see a mix of feelings on his face. “I feel sad realizing how many times I’ve been too busy defending myself to hear what she’s saying. No wonder she feels like I’m always being self-absorbed. And at the same time, I’m noticing that I’m actually starting to feel curious about what is going on with her. And that feels much better than defending myself.” His face opens as he looks at me. “Have you ever heard that expression, ‘I’m the piece of crap at the center of the world?’” I give a laugh, and he continues, “It’s a relief not to be the center of the world!” 

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Couples Therapy, Musings and Reflections