When the Wall Street Journal published the article, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior,” featuring excerpts from Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, it seemed everybody had a reaction — from agreement to judgment to anger. How can you say one culture has a better approach than another? How could you ever call your children “garbage”?
Later, Chua professed that her book had been misrepresented, and Tiger Mother was intended as a memoir; almost a confessional, of her attempts and failures in parenting. Self-mocking or not, Chua benefited from all the publicity. Her book shot up the New York Times bestseller list, and the WSJ article generated more than 7,000 comments, more than any other article in the history of the publication’s website.
What was revealed through this controversy, wasn’t too far from what was captured inside the pages of the book — that Chua, as one New York Times reviewer put it — “never fails to make herself [the] center of attention.” Here was one of the clearest examples of narcissism.
On a certain level, one might think, “Narcissism? What could be more selfless than parenting?” But it’s so easy to take something that should be about somebody else, and make it about oneself. And that’s at the heart of self-absorption: always wanting or needing to see oneself as the center of things.
Maybe it’s competitive parenting, in enrolling one’s children in every special class, hoping they will be considered “gifted” or “advanced,” because that’s a sign of one’s own success in raising them. Maybe it’s in pushing them to learn more quickly than they seem to be developing, because it’s embarrassing to always be “one step behind” in conversations with friends and colleagues. I once worked as a high school counselor, and still remember when one father asked me, “How many vocabulary words are you assigning to my friend’s children to learn? Give my son twice as many!”
This temptation can be insidious among Asian Americans. A healthy wish to provide one’s children with every opportunity one did not have, turns into competing to succeed through their achievements.
But narcissism doesn’t just appear in parenting. It shows up in dating relationships that use the other party for one’s own pleasure, image, or status. Or work projects that become about one’s own advancement in position or power within an organization. So if we can’t see how a relationship or project will help us, or if it doesn’t give us the regard or involvement we want for ourselves, the temptation is to disengage. The common question (before making decisions) becomes, “How will this help me?”
Or self-absorption can be found in everyday interactions. I once spent the better part of a 90 minute lunch listening to an acquaintance talk about himself, without him asking me even a single question. And I don’t think he even noticed! And this can happen online also, as people are tempted to over-focus on their own social media profile or website. Sometimes people seem to be so consumed by their own interests and world, that they struggle to see outside of that. It’s often not necessarily malicious. But the results can be toxic, if we don’t recognize and do something about it.
So what can we do, considering that all of us are prone to self-absorption? I think much wisdom can be found in the mythological tale that originated the term, “narcissism.”
According to the ancient Roman poet Ovid, Narcissus was a hunter renowned for his beauty, and exceptionally proud. Knowing this, the goddess Nemesis attracted him to a pool, where he saw his own reflection in the waters and fell in love with it. Unable to take his eyes off the beauty of his image, Narcissus died.
This story reveals one very simple lesson: when we are self-absorbed, we simply don’t recognize it. After all, that’s the very definition of self-absorption. We need to have people in our lives, who will help us identify the problem, and then have the courage to tell us.
In Narcissus’ tale, he had many followers, but their admiration only enabled his dysfunctionality, and ultimately his death. One of the most tragic characters in this myth (who few hear about) is Echo, a nymph who fell in love with Narcissus, following him around the woods. After he shunned her, she spent the rest of her life pining away in heartbreak, crying until all that was left was her voice.
When I read this story, I can’t help but think of all the pastors and ministry leaders who have influenced so many lives, but are some of the loneliest people on earth. Surrounded by followers who support (or repeat) their every word and position, as Echo did, they are crying out for friends who will challenge them and say what they really need to hear.
A great example of such a friend comes from one of my favorite movies, Shadowlands, about the life of author and philosopher C.S. Lewis (played by Anthony Hopkins). He had developed a relationship with Joy, a blunt American (played by Debra Winger) who was an admirer of his work. After they had grown closer together, Joy confronted Lewis about how much of his lifestyle served to boost his own ego, as a teacher and speaker and writer. She told him, “I’ve only now just seen it. How you’ve arranged a life for yourself, where no-one can touch you. Everyone that’s close to you is either younger than you, or weaker than you, or under your control… I don’t know that we are friends, not the way you have friends anyway.” She had identified the central problem of narcissism, which is thinking that other people exist to serve our needs, make us look better, or otherwise help us achieve what we want for ourselves. And that can be found in any parent, leader, or public figure, if they don’t take proper care.
Of course, Lewis didn’t like hearing Joy’s message, and it shook up his world in a good way, as he began to see his self-absorption. But this only happened because Joy loved him enough to see the insecure and lonely man behind the famous author. She saw that behind all his brilliant ideating, Lewis was just a child in the world of honest and intimate relationships.
I think leaders can learn a lot from Lewis’ example. You don’t have to be a renowned author to struggle with the challenges of a public platform that can lead to self-obsession — especially in this age of social media, blogs, and the Internet. You don’t have to be a brilliant philosopher to fall in love with your own ideas, skills, or doctrinal positions… whether you’re a leader in education, business, or ministry. How tempting is it to surround ourselves only with people who will tell us what we want to hear? How tempting is it treat other people as a supporting cast to our wishes and dreams, especially when they shower us with respect, attention, and encouragement?
But deep inside, we long for more than that, don’t we? We long to be known and loved for who we really are, in all our flaws and insecurities. We long to be in true community that challenges us to grow. We know that we need other people, not to further our ends, but because they teach us shades of life we couldn’t see on our own. What would it have looked like for Narcissus to have had a friend, like Lewis had in Joy, instead of Echo, who only enabled his vanity and isolation?
So what is the key to confronting toxic self-absorption? The first step is recognizing its presence, in whatever areas of your life it may appear. None of us are immune, and I have to constantly examine myself as I make decisions relating to my family, work, online activity, and much more. Do you have people in your life who will be truly honest with what they see in your life? Do you have mentors in your life, or anyone to help keep you accountable? Do you seek that out?
Second, as you identify your struggles, bring others into them. They may have no clue that you feel lonely or isolated, since they see you surrounded by friends and apparent support.
Finally, be willing to be a friend to others, who may be struggling with these things as well. Be willing to have the hard conversations.
The stakes are high. Don’t forget that the story of Narcissus is incredibly tragic, as it ends in his death. In some versions of the myth, he commits suicide. Self-absorption has its roots in too many stories of leaders who leave their congregations or jobs because of some affair or scandal, as they seek for an intimacy they couldn’t find. It results in too many parents who disown their children who never lived up to their expectations, and children who spend years healing from that trauma.
As humans, we were created to think not just of ourselves, but of other people. Healthy, mutual relationships testify to the incomparable joy that comes from caring for somebody more than ourselves. Through true intimacy, we grow far beyond what we could ourselves imagine. Through true community, our small worlds are expanded.
So what do you think? What else can help us recognize, and be set free from an unhealthy view of self and others?
Questions for further reflection or discussion:
In what areas of life (parenting, work, online interactions, etc.) do you find yourself the most prone to self-absorption? What are some of your honest struggles with this?
Before you make decisions (i.e. about your schedule, priorities, or work projects), how much do you find yourself wondering or asking, “What will this do for me?” How do you see this impacting your life and leadership?
Think of three people in your life who are not impressed by you, but regularly tell you the truth (i.e. are willing to disagree with you, say things you might not like to hear). What steps can you take to seek this out more? Do you have mentors who keep you accountable?
Knowing what you know about the dangers of isolation and self-absorption, who else in your life might be facing these temptations? How can you support them as a true friend? Consider sharing your own struggles with them, or addressing some of these issues in your family, team, or organization.