“When the healthy pursuit of self-interest and self-realization turns into self-absorption, other people can lose their intrinsic value in our eyes and become mere means to the fulfillment of our needs and desires.” – P.M. Forni, The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude
In my early days of being a divorce lawyer, I wanted to refer a troubled client to a therapist I knew, and I asked if she had experienced treating clients who were married to narcissists. “Hah!” she exclaimed, “Everyone tells me that their spouse is a narcissist.” The therapist was right, and since then, I realized it is a common accusation. But these days, outside of the divorce arena, we seem to hurl that term at every and anyone with whom we have a disagreement of a difference of opinion. And the narcissist is always the “other guy.” If I had titled this article, Help! I’m a Narcissist, no one would read it, or it would be forwarded to someone else to read, because the joke is on the narcissist – he or she is always the last to know. So, how do you know if you – or someone you love/hate is a narcissist? Here are some typical signs:
- Feels a grandiose sense of self-important.
- Has fantasies of being famous.
- Is convinced he or she is unique and special.
- Requires absolute devotion and admiration.
- Has a sense of entitlement.
- Cannot show empathy.
Korach – the Ultimate Narcissist
Korach, for whom this week’s Torah portion is named, was a cousin to Moses and Aaron. Earlier, when God doled out the priestly honors, Korach was not singled out in a way that was commensurate with his grandiose sense of self. After the “incident of the spies,” the Jewish people knew they were not going into the land of Israel but were condemned to die in the desert, and it was a period of crisis and unrest. Korach figured the time was ripe for him to overthrow Moses and Aaron, and he was able to manipulate 250 prominent leaders to take up his cause.
At first blush, Korach’s challenge sounds legitimate: “The entire community is holy, and God is within them; why do you raise yourselves over the congregation of God?” Basically, if everyone is holy, what makes Moses and Aaron different from anyone else?
Holiness does not mean sameness. Each of us possesses unique qualities and gifts, and we are assigned roles and tasks to express and fulfill our individual missions. Korach’s claim of “separate but equal” was only to foment resentment and enroll others to his cause (and to their unfortunate deaths). In truth, Korach only regarded himself as “holy” and “worthy;” Moses and Aaron were merely objects in his way, and assuming Korach would have achieved his goal of a takeover, his 250 “comrades” would have to be subservient to him.
In the Box versus Out of the Box Thinking
Whether or not one is a “full-fledged narcissist,” difficult encounters with others can bring on one or more narcissistic attributes. The Anatomy of Peace, describes this as “In the Box” versus “Out of the Box” mindsets or worldviews:
In the Box: I see people as objects. They are a vehicle for what I want, an obstacle in the way of what I want, or irrelevant to what I want (sense of entitlement). They don’t count like I count (sense of being unique and special). When I’m in the box, I can’t see what’s going on for the other person – nor do I really care (lack of empathy). I get into the box to justify myself. I blame or judge others, become “right” or see myself as different from them, which is the way I see the world. And I loop others into my self-serving visions (fantasies of power) to feed my ego (need for devotion and admiration).
Out of the Box: I see people as human beings, as others who have personal needs, wants and desires – just like I do. They count like I count. From this worldview, I get that they have fears and dreams – just like I do. I wonder what they need to feel OK. Instead of taking hardline positions, I can allow myself to talk about problem solving and meeting needs (including theirs).
The Korach Within
But Korach is not just “the other guy.” When we become triggered, or feel threatened, it’s almost instinctive to jump into that box, to hunker down, and to protect ourselves in our self-absorbed denial of any perspective but our own. What happens then, is that the other person reacts by jumping into his or her own box as well, creating a vicious downward spiral of negativity. This behavior does not end the conflict; it only prolongs the war. The next time that you are experiencing an upset do an internal check for any of these enumerated narcissistic characteristics. And ask yourself – Am I “in” or “out” of the box? Then choose where you want to be.
 Bamidbar/Numbers 16:3.