Help! I’m Dealing with a Narcissist!

images“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:[1]  

  1. Feels a grandiose sense of self-important.
  2. Has fantasies of being famous.
  3. Is convinced he or she is unique and special.
  4. Requires absolute devotion and admiration.
  5. Has a sense of entitlement.
  6. 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?”[2]  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,[3] 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.


[1] Based on, What is a Narcissistic Sociopath and How to Spot One.

[2] Bamidbar/Numbers 16:3.

[3] Put out by the Arbinger Institute.

Korach – The Power of the Question

“…And for the child who does not know how to ask,

you must teach him how…”

– Passover Haggadah

Power Struggles

The Torah portion, “Korach,” is the name of one of the most famous attempted power-grabbers in Jewish history. In the story line, the priestly honors and appointments were doled out long ago to Moses and his brother Aaron. Korach, their cousin, was left out of this honor society and was resentful. However, Moses was untouchable as a leader, and so Korach kept his bitterness to himself.  

Times had changed, however. After the incident with the spies in the previous Torah portion of “Shelach,” when the people knew they were not going into the land of Israel but were condemned to die in the desert, it was a time of crisis and unrest. Moses’ ratings were down, thus giving Korach the perfect opportunity to capitalize on the situation and to try to usurp Moses as the leader.

 And Korach did so by posing a simple question to Moses and Aaron: “The entire community is holy, and God is within them; why do you raise yourselves over the congregation of God?” That doesn’t sound too bad – does it? Korach is saying, “If we’re all holy, then what makes you guys so special?  I’m every bit as special as you.” Korach even got a few hundred guys to agree with him because his platform was essentially that he was the champion for the masses, he stood for the little guy, and that everyone is equal – perhaps the first Jewish communist.

 But Korach wasn’t looking to make everyone the same. He wasn’t looking to make this an equal opportunity procedure. This wasn’t the Biblical version of: “I’m holy. You’re holy. And that’s OK.” Korach wanted to be the High Priest, and assuming he was to overthrow Moshe and appoint himself, by the time his groupies figured out that nothing changed for them, well you know what happens in takeovers.

Selective Questioning

As fascinating as the story line is (and to find out what happened to Korach, read The Book), what interests me is the use of the question. When Korach asked, “What makes you holier than me?” it wasn’t an honest inquiry at all. He was looking to find fault with Moses, and he was trying to get others to join in, to see reality his way, and he did it through the use of questions, because – and this is important to understand – the reality that we see depends on the questions that we ask.

 Why is that? Our brains take in billions of bits of information per second, but it can only process about 60 bits per second, less than an infinitesimal sliver. You know how people can experience the same thing so differently? That is because they are focusing on their selective 60 bits per second. And I use the word “selective” deliberately. We can actually select which sliver to focus on, and the way we do that is by the questions we ask.

Isidore Rabi, winner of a Nobel Prize in physics, was once asked why he became a scientist. He replied, “My mother made me a scientist without even knowing it. Every other child would come home from school and be asked, ‘What did you learn today?’ But my mother wanted to know something else. ‘Izzy,’ she always used to say, ‘did you ask a good question today?’ That made the difference.”

Let’s look at relationships. In the infatuation or romantic phase of a relationship, the part of the brain associated with critical thinking is dysfunctional. When that part of our brain comes back on-line, and critical thinking resumes, we start asking ourselves – “What’s wrong with my spouse? What’s wrong here? What happened to the person I married, etc.?”

And when we turn these questions inward we create inner shame. The brain doesn’t like unanswered questions and so when you ask a negative question (What’s wrong with me?), your brain will only supply a negative answer (I’m such a loser, mess, etc.).

 And while we mustn’t turn a blind eye to problems, the tendency to focus only on the problems–to allot our 60-bit sliver of reality to the negative–shuts out all of the good and wonderful aspects of a relationship. It’s as if we are wearing blinders, and if we can’t see it, then these things don’t exist, even if they are right in front of us. Incidentally, I think this is one of the main reasons relationships fail or suffer, because we become very good at being fault-finders, and we lose the ability to see the good.

Changing What We See

Therefore, if the questions we ask create the reality we see, it stands to reason that we can change our reality by asking better questions. When you change your question, you change what you are looking for. By understanding this dynamic, you can engineer a more positive life and relationships.

 Chassidic thought teaches that there is a seed of greatness in every moment and a spark of holiness in everything – even more so in people. Try looking for it with positive questions. “What is working? What is going well? What is there to be grateful for? When are things good and what factors make it happen? What’s my role in that? What do I do well and how can I do more of that? What are the blessings in this situation? How is this situation calling for me to serve, to act, to change, to grow?”

Here’s the secret, and it’s a phrase well worn into me by Tal Ben Shahar: “When we see the good, the good appreciates.” And we see the good by asking good questions. When Korach looked at Moses, all he could ask was why was he not getting what he wanted, why others were being elevated over him, and why was he being denied what he thought was coming to him. In a situation flowing with lemonade, all Korach could do was make lemons. Let us not make the same mistake. Let us look for the good, see the good, and enjoy the many blessings in our lives.

Internalize & Actualize:

  1. We all have someone in our lives that makes us jealous. Think about that person and then write down the questions that pop into your mind (ie. “why her and not me?). Now…take those very same questions and ask change them around to focus on positive growth and development for yourself.
  1. Think about a question you have asked yourself (or another) that had a transformative effect on who you are today. What about the question or answer was made such an impact?
  1. Being able to question another or our situation takes a lot of strength. What questions do you have for yourself that perhaps you have been avoiding asking? Write down three questions that you may not yet have the answers for but can begin to work on.