In the Bible-study group, the support group, the discipline group, or the fellowship group, an attitude of love and other-person-centeredness provides a Christlike atmosphere. This is why the small group leader must learn to be able to identify and deal with certain potentially disruptive personality types, such as the emotionally needy personality.
An emotionally needy personality, which may not be nearly as obvious as that of the dominating know-it-all, can be equally disruptive to the group. It can take much longer to recognize and requires much more discernment to identify.
The prime difficulties inherent in this particular personality type are that the individual’s needs often reflect legitimate needs of many others in the group, and those needs tap into the legitimate desires of believers to minister to a suffering brother or sister in Christ.
In truth, the emotionally needy person may be struggling with spiritual questions, relational problems, financial needs, or emotional battles. They may very well have had an abusive childhood, struggle with loneliness, or be out of money with bills yet to pay. But that’s not the main problem. Where the emotionally needy person becomes a distraction to the group is in their response to the efforts of the group to minister to them.
All of us at one time or another have had difficulties that we could share with brothers and sisters in Christ, as the group heeded the biblical injunction in Galatians 6:2 that “…we should bear one another’s ‘burden,’ ” which is better translated to mean an “overload.” We then were assisted in our present “overload” by members of the group. As the crisis passed, we were thankful to those who assisted us, and then we went on our way “bearing our own load,” as stated in verse 5.
But after a while, with much group effort to the emotionally needy individual, we begin to perceive that they are incapable of bearing their own load. In fact, we find to our chagrin that life itself to an emotionally needy person is constantly an overload. Now we are in a different ballpark—and now we must make some difficult choices.
For their benefit, and also the group’s, action must be taken when this type of person’s neediness begins to drain the spiritual, emotional, psychological, and physical resources of the group. When the situation gets to be this desperate, then something besides their true needs is at work.
Authors of various books on the subject have addressed this concept. Gerald and Marianne Cory, in their seminal text, Groups: Process and Practice, caution against playing the overly dependent member’s game by meeting their dependency needs. “The starting point for helping dependent people is to refuse to reinforce the helpless position by refusing to fill the dependency needs. At the same time, the leader should help such people realize the means they are using to keep themselves dependent” (p. 197).
Eric Berne, in his excellent books on psychological transactions between people, Games People Play and What Do You Say After You Say Hello, addresses the possible genesis of neediness as something other than simply the having of real needs. In Games People Play, which examines transactions between people in the short term, Dr. Berne suggests that these psychological games or transactions always have a psychological twist at the end.
One of these games is “Why don’t you…yes, but…” In this game the helper (read small group) tries everything to assist. “Why don’t you do (and something is suggested).” The emotionally needy person responds, “Yes, but I tried that and it doesn’t work.” This continues until the helper is ultimately defeated, realizing that nothing will help. That’s the payoff for the needy one. The helper is no smarter, no more capable, no better than the needy one—and they just proved it.
In What Do You Say After You Say Hello, the transactions are lifelong, called “Life Scripts.” Often these scripts are so obvious it is as if they are messages printed on a T-shirt. On the front one declares the problem; on the back one has the psychological kicker. The emotionally needy person’s shirt might read on the front, “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen.” The back will say “But You Better Believe I’m Going To Tell You…Over and Over and Over.”
Five ways of controlling others
Dr. Howard Halpern, in his intriguing book, How To Break Your Addiction To A Person, suggests five ways people attempt to control others. Number one, control through power—a hallmark of the know-it-all. Methods three through five are control through servitude, guilt, and jealousy.
But it’s the second way of controlling that is applicable here—control through weakness. Dr. Halpern says, “Some people can wield their weakness as coercively as another may wield a club. Their basic manifesto is, ‘I am weak, helpless, dependent, and will fall apart without you. Therefore, you must take care of me, do what I want you to do, be my reliable rock, and never leave me.’ ” Note the full-time, lifelong requirements of this position.
If initial and reasonable ministry to an individual is ineffective in meeting needs, then it’s very possible that person is either playing psychological games or, even worse, they are struggling with a lifelong condition of neediness or dependency as a major part of their identity. In either case, to continue to meet the dependency needs simply feeds and amplifies the dependency.
The kindest thing that can be done in that situation is to address the dependency. If an emotionally needy person is just overwhelmed by a present crisis, then addressing its effect on them and the group may very well alert them to the broader situation. If it’s not a game or a personality disorder, they will appreciate the confrontation and will want to work through it.
However, if it is a game or a disordered condition, it is likely little can be done at the level of the small group. In this case, referral to a Christian counselor or therapist who is trained in working in these areas is probably the best thing. After talking with them, the emotionally needy person should be allowed to continue in the group only if they are willing to seek professional help with their struggle. If they agree to counseling, they still should not be allowed to dominate the group with accounts of their progress. That, in itself, is a dependency event. If they refuse to get help, they should be asked to leave the group.
To some this will sound hard and not very Christlike. Not true. Jesus asked the paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda if he really wanted to be healed. Jesus told the woman caught in adultery to “Go and sin no more.” He was very direct with the Samaritan woman at the well as to her moral condition. Can we do less than lovingly confront those who are living in their psychological or spiritual prisons?
Certainly the small group leader will need the guidance and power of the Spirit of God to handle a very delicate situation well. Undoubtedly, we had rather be taken advantage of ten times than to miss a valid opportunity for ministry. In addition, we are to be very careful about our judgments of one another.
But in the love of Jesus Christ, through the guidance of the Spirit, and under the direction of God the Father, as people to whom a trust has been given, we can expect to minister appropriately and to lead lovingly. For, as Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 2:16, “We have the mind of Christ.”
This article originally appeared in COMMAND magazine, or an OCF Ministry Report.