When I was researching personality disorders, one person came up with the following question:
If you recognize Narcissist or Borderline thinking in yourself, but you don’t act on it—instead, you recognize it, acknowledge them, and deal with it within yourself…does that make you Borderline or Narcissist? Meaning, if I identify with a lot of the feelings and emotional reactions common in personality disorders, does that mean that I have a personality disorder, even if I recognize them as irrational and refuse to act on them?
The therapist basically answered that the thoughts or feelings themselves—that initial pang of envy, that initial inner flash of rage, that initial sense of being knocked off balance when your black-and-white opinions are upset—these are actually pretty normal. She explained that the main problem is when these feelings mushroom out of control without the person realizing what’s going on.
She also recommended that the Borderline/Narcissist feelings be addressed at their root.
But there’s more to it than that.
Your Thoughts & Actions vs. Your Feelings & Inclinations
A midrash about Moshe Rabbeinu relates that a life-like portrait of Moshe Rabbeinu was made and sent to wise men skilled in facial analysis. Shockingly, they reported seeing several very negative traits reflected in Moshe Rabbeinu’s features, including arrogance even though Moshe Rabbeinu was the humblest man who ever lived. Yet when asked about this later, Moshe Rabbeinu answered that yes, he had these traits but had worked to rectify them.
The truth is that there is a world of difference between someone who says, “This person didn’t say hi to me when she passed by…how dare she! I HATE HER GUTS! Who does she think she is, snubbing me like that—especially in public!!!” And then telling the incident over like this to another person, justifying the lashon hara as “l’toelet” because she’s so overwrought by the experience and needs to get it off her chest or else she can’t function—and anyway, the other person deserves it because she publicly insulted and humiliated her…
…and someone who says, “This person didn’t say hi to me when she passed by…ouch! I hate this kind of thing. It always throws me off. Anyway, I wonder what that’s all about…did she really not see me? Maybe…or maybe she’s distracted? Or maybe she doesn’t like me, but for a reason. Maybe I did something wrong.” (Hatred starts welling up.) “No, I don’t want to hate her. That’s so stupid! Maybe everything’s actually fine and it’s an innocent oversight. Or maybe I really did do something offensive. (Doesn’t do anything nor plan to do anything to “retaliate” because doesn’t like hurting people.) Gosh, I really hate this kind of thing. I hate feeling so crazy and getting thrown off balance by such little things. Normal people don’t feel this way.”
The second person is aware that such an extreme reaction of hurt and hate is not appropriate. The second person is also aware that there exist a variety of reasons to explain the snub—one of which might even be the fault of the second person. The second person also feels enough compassion to want to avoid hurting the one who possibly snubbed her and who may actually be an innocent person.
Once, I had a neighbor who said, “There are so many snobby people in this building. When we pass each other in the stairwell, they don’t even say hi!”
I was confused. “You mean that they don’t respond to your greeting?”
She immediately tossed her head and looked away, mumbling something.
“Do you say hi to them?” I asked.
She made a scoffing noise. “Oh, so I have to be the one to say hi to everybody?!”
Now, a lot of people actually do feel uncomfortable when they pass acquaintances, and the acquaintance or neighbor ignores them. Yet these same people are able to rationalize, “Well, I didn’t greet them either.” And they may even feel silly for having feelings of resentment or hurt, realizing on their own that it’s pretty narcissistic and irrational to not only expect people to greet them first, but to even feel outraged and offended when they never extend the same courtesy.
So it’s not the fact that you have the feeling or are inclined to certain behaviors.
It’s how you think about these feelings and behaviors and what you do with them that defines who you are and whether you are on a path of growth.
- If you can recognize that a certain emotional reaction is irrational or out of proportion to the inciting incident—then GREAT!
- And if, based on that awareness, you desire restrain your behavior because you don’t want to hurt anybody or humiliate yourself—then GREAT!
However, the Jewish way goes deeper than that.
How to Really Straighten Out Your Flaws and Your Flawed Thinking
While recognizing that your own initial reaction is unreasonable and judging the “offender” favorably are both very good, the awareness that the alleged offense is from Hashem (whether the person meant to offend you or not) is of prime importance.
And further recognizing that the “offense” is to your benefit (again, whether the person meant it or not), either as an atonement to clean your Heavenly Slate and pave the way for a Lovely Eternity or as a message of some sort (or both).
You can’t help having the inborn traits you have or the having had the experiences that trigger irrational or extreme emotions.
Those were forced upon you. You never had a choice.
But how you deal with them is what eventually makes you great.