For the past few months Kanye West has been in social exile. Since bursting onto the scene with his debut album The College Dropout in 2004, Mr. West has been a fixture in the cultural zeitgeist. One of the biggest criticisms about him has been that Kanye is self-absorbed. He is all about himself and how great he is, and he makes sure you know it. Kanye is your classic narcissist.
On “Last Call” from The College Dropout he rapped: “Is Kanye the most overlooked? Yes Sir!” He was a young, hungry rapper just trying to make a name for himself but felt slighted by the industry that refused to give him a shot, a common theme throughout the album. In 2018 on the album Ye, he declares: “I love myself way more than I love you.” In 2013, he went on a press tour declaring himself the new Walt Disney and Andy Warhol, the most impactful artist of his generation.
In recent months, Kanye and his love of self has come under fire. After a series of tweets and interviews declaring himself a free thinker, he went on TMZ and claimed that slavery was a choice. For many, that was the final straw. The culture has had enough of Kanye and his narcissism.We like to limit narcissism to people who think they are pretty or handsome but, in truth, it is much deeper than that.
I am a narcissist too. I am self-centered. I am always thinking about myself. I want to be first, and I probably have an inaccurate self-perception. I think about me a lot. I get upset by things that inconvenience me. I hate to have my time intruded on. I think more highly of myself than I should (ask my wife).
Narcissism is an excessive interest in oneself. It can also be defined as extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one’s own talents and craving for admiration. So when Ye declares himself Andy Warhol, he is showing us what it looks like to see yourself as much bigger than you are (although there is an argument that can be made in his favor).
But Kanye isn’t the only one who thinks of himself as bigger than he ought. I can confess that I am a narcissist. It’s not a point of pride but moreso a cautionary tale. When Augustine wrote his Confessions he had a similar intent. He used his life story, the mistakes he made, and the sins he wrestled with to point others to Jesus. Like many of us, Augustine was at constant war within himself. Plagued by former sins and a sordid history, Augustine was a man looking for a way forward. Focused on ourselves and our own happiness, many of us are looking for a way forward by looking in—but that is the wrong direction.
I’m Not Alone
You’re probably a narcissist too. This is the air we breathe. We are raised like this. We are a me-first people in a time of the selfie. Think about the things that make you angry; how often are you frustrated when things aren’t going your way? So many of our emotions and feelings are centered around ourselves as though we are the sun and everything we come in contact with are the planets orbiting. We try to move through life in a way that is the easiest for us, with minimal hassle, and whatever will bring us the most joy. The American Dream is built around obtaining a perfect, neat little life for ourselves.
Augustine too searched for an easy and satisfying life. He thought choosing sinful pleasures would bring him joy. He thought choosing himself was the answer. This is what narcissism does; it makes us believe that choosing ourselves is the answer.
We like to limit narcissism to people who think they are pretty or handsome but, in truth, it is much deeper than that. The essence of narcissism is self-absorption, and even if you don’t think you’re the prettiest or most handsome, or the best rapper alive, there is a good chance on some level you’re self-absorbed.
It’s easy to attack and be disgusted by the pretty girl who is willing to admit she’s pretty or the big guy at the gym flexing his muscles. In fact, it’s easy to attack and shun Kanye for all of his rants and ravings. It is a lot harder to do the hard work of introspection and keep that same energy when you find yourself trying to escape that conversation with your annoying coworker. It’s hard to see your own selfishness when you’re upset at the Starbucks employee for messing up your order or spelling your name wrong (in fairness, they seem to be elite-level misspellers).
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
The answer to our narcissism, however, is not a knee-jerk avoidance of self. There is a time when you probably need to be a little more self-focused. Self-care is critical to our survival as humans. That means, sometimes, you will have to put yourself first. There will be times that it is ok to say no to others and refuse to allow people to take advantage of you. There is also a healthy level of confidence that each person should have, rooted in our God-given worth. As the old saying goes, nobody will believe in you if you don’t believe in yourself.
But even a small dose of narcissism creates a fairly unlikable person. Narcissists tend to use people, as they see others as pawns to help achieve their own goals and desires. People don’t like being around narcissists because they dominate conversations and oftentimes find a way to bring every topic back around to themselves.
The worst cases of narcissism result in you becoming your own god. On the 2013 album Yeezus, Kanye has a song titled “I Am a God.” Although you may not think Kanye qualifies, the worst of our narcissism can fool us into his line of thinking. This is dangerous because, to be honest, you make a terrible god. You believe you can save yourself, That true strength lies within you, and so on. But in reality, nobody has ever lied to you more than you. And yet, the narcissist continues to look inward for hope, grasping at something that isn’t there.
I don’t know the answer to curing narcissism—if I did I would have fixed my own by now—but I do have some ideas.
There is much to be learned about the world around us if we would just listen more. The narcissist who is constantly drawing the conversation back to himself would benefit greatly from choosing to say less and listen more.
Consider the feelings of others.
I heard a long time ago that empathy will take you a long way in this world. When the narcissist is able to put herself in the shoes of another, she is able to experience compassion. Compassion for others is what keeps us from being so self-focused and allows us to love more deeply and richly.
Look up and not in.
Turning inward and focusing on ourselves is only going to lead us back to ourselves, but if we were to look up and see there is One who is infinitely greater than we are, we can experience freedom. So much of our focus on ourselves is simply because we want to get things right, we want the pressure taken off of us. We do everything we can to achieve that goal. We work as hard as we can, we only befriend people who are going to benefit us, we want our kids to be beautiful little representations of us out in this world. Carrying this weight is exhausting. Jesus offers a trade: our burden for his. His easy, light burden of Lordship for our demanding, heavy burden of self.
Augustine understood this. After a life of seeking satisfaction in self and sex, he saw the emptiness therein. After trying false religions and trusting in astrology, he saw the emptiness that lies there too. It was when he came face to face with Jesus that Augustine saw the world anew. Likewise, when we come face to face Jesus, we will also see what Augustine saw. We all need this new way of seeing—even Kanye.
For us narcissists, if we can yield our self-absorbed pursuits to Jesus, then we can be free to live radically generous lives. Generous with more than our time and money—also generous with our emotions and love. It’s time we put the mirror of self-focus down, take the camera off of selfie mode, and begin to see the world through a lens that isn’t all about us.