Collateral Narcissism

It’s Narcissist Friday!     


We used to say that if you worried about whether you were a Christian it was evidence that you already were. In other words, only a believer would be concerned about being a believer.

From time to time people tell me they are concerned about being narcissists. They look at themselves and see a variety of characteristics they don’t like. Now that they know about narcissism, they wonder if it might describe them. All they know is that they don’t like what they see in themselves. My first thought is that those who are concerned about being narcissists probably aren’t narcissists.

It isn’t unusual for people in relationships with narcissists to begin seeing narcissistic behaviors in themselves. In fact, those who are concerned about this have probably been infected by a narcissistic system, a sort of loop that pulls victims into the narcissist’s way of thinking.

For example, we know that narcissists drain people of energy, enthusiasm, and life. You spend a little time with your narcissist and come away feeling diminished somehow. The narcissist has taken something from you for himself. That’s how narcissists get their energy and passion. They take it from others.

But what do those others do when they are drained? Where do they refill their energy? Well, some look to still more others. You know what I mean. The dad yells at the mom, the mom yells at the kid, the kid yells at the dog. The common factor is the yelling. Narcissism, or abusive behavior, filters through the family or organization.

And how do you defend yourself against a narcissist? Being kind will just get you hurt. Sacrificing yourself will just feed the narcissist more. Standing up to the abuse may cause it to intensify. Instead, you build up defenses by not caring, being distant in heart or in body, and by depersonalizing the narcissist. We could argue that the only real protection against narcissism is narcissistic behavior.

Children of narcissists sometimes exhibit narcissistic behavior simply because that’s what they learned as they grew. The only things that worked were those things that used others. This is why organizations can become systemically narcissistic. Employees learn what gets people ahead. If they can’t find another place to work, they will have to learn how to play the game.

Think about this: narcissists desire a fantasy life where everyone serves them and adores them. So they set up, in whatever ways they can, a life where this happens. They begin to make changes almost right away: in their spouses, churches, workplaces, etc. The system they set up will look like the way they think. As they try to make everyone love and bow to them, they are also setting up a system where false love is received, false work is honored, and false morality is rewarded. People who can’t or won’t fit in are discarded or weakened until they change.

But listen: being caught up in the system does not mean that you are a narcissist. The narcissist is simply so large in that system that it becomes difficult for you to see yourself separate from him/her. You lose something of yourself in every exchange, but you gain something of the narcissist.

Yes, I know. That sounds frightening. But once you realize what is happening and decide you don’t like it, you are free to do something about it. You can choose to leave the system (and the narcissist) behind. You can choose to work to regain your identity. It will take work, but it can be done even within the system.

The point is that narcissists do tend to infect others with their thinking and behavior. But just because you are beginning to act like one does not mean you are one.  Perhaps worrying about whether you are a narcissist is evidence you are not.


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Seeing the Light

It’s Narcissist Friday!     


How long did it take you to see the light? Some have lamented that it took 40 years for them to see the truth and do something about it. So many wish they had separated from their narcissist before they had kids, signed that contract, moved their family for the new job. They kick themselves for not seeing the light sooner.

“Wasted time.” That’s what they call it. Time in which they could have been happy. Time in which they could have accomplished some of their dreams. Time that was lost to fear and sadness and turmoil.

Listen: I don’t believe that was wasted time! Every moment of my life has been used to bring me to where I am today. Maybe I didn’t accomplish all I wanted when I wanted, but I am here now and glad of it. I didn’t like all the things that have happened. I certainly didn’t choose some of those things. I wish some of those things hadn’t happened. The journey has not taken me where I thought it would, not even where I wanted to go, but it has brought me here. And it is still going.

I remember an old conversation where one person was encouraging the other to go back to school. The other said it would take four years to get a degree. “Do you know how old I will be in four years?” The first person responded: “How old will you be in four years if you don’t go back to school?”

Learning the truth, seeing the light, is good no matter how long it takes. You have accomplished so much more than most people. You have looked at your circumstances and have made a decision. Maybe you decided to make some drastic changes. Maybe you decided to stay in those circumstances with the new understanding you have. Whatever you decided, you did it. You made the decision. That alone says you are free.

We often hear of people who were imprisoned for a crime they didn’t commit. When the real perpetrator is discovered, the innocent person is set free. Sometimes they get a settlement for the time they wrongly spent in prison. I suppose some are angry, perhaps bitter, for the wasted time. But I am always impressed by those who say they are just grateful that the truth was finally discovered. Those are the ones who will continue their lives. Those are the winners.

I put many years of service into an organization, sacrificing time and energy, only to find that the organization cared little about me. They took the contribution I gave, then wrote me off. I have been through my anger, even with hints of bitterness, but the truth is that I grew and learned during those years. Yes, I was hurt. Yes, at times I wonder if the sacrifice was worthwhile. I can still feel the anger, if I want. (They still send me requests for money.) But I have moved on.

Whatever I went through was nothing compared to the pain some of you have felt in the years of marriage and family struggles. Your injuries are deep and the scars severe. But you are moving on. You have become free, either in or out of the relationship. I am humbled by your strength and determination. You have seen the light.

It’s always surprising how senseless regret can be. It’s not like you can go back to change anything. Nor should you regret what others have done to you. You didn’t do those things. You might mourn the losses you have experienced. You might grieve over what might have been. But those feelings eventually lessen and go away. Grief is a process of finding yourself after loss. It may take time, but it does happen. Keep moving on.

Regret is telling yourself that you should not have done certain things. Even if you are partially responsible for the troubles you have suffered, so what? You can’t undo them. Forgive yourself and find the way to health and better decisions. There is no reason to punish yourself, and you are not given the freedom to punish anyone else. Regret is a way of bringing up uncomfortable things of the past and feeling bad about them over and over. It is a form of self-punishment. Move on.

Are there things you wish hadn’t happened? Of course. Some of them were serious. Some hurt others. Most hurt you. But now you see the truth. Now the truth has set you free. So give yourself permission to move on.

Do you need permission from someone else? I hereby give you permission, in the name of the Lord, to move forward with your life. I am not going to tell you what that should look like, what you should do with your life. Let the Lord lead you. I simply say that you can move on.

Maybe it comes back again to the old Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, 
The courage to change the things I can, 
And wisdom to know the difference. 

And let me add one more line:

And the strength to move on with my life, leaving the regrets behind.


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It’s Narcissist Friday!     


Narcissists are cheaters. They cheat at big things and little things. Any advantage that will make them look smarter or superior in any way, they will take.

Actually, I am surprised this is not one of the nine clinical characteristics of the narcissist. Maybe it’s because others cheat as well, but I suspect all narcissists cheat. It may also be that cheating is not longer seen as a negative in an increasingly narcissistic culture.

You see, the narcissist is superior in his/her own mind. The rules don’t apply to them. They can choose what rules to follow and what rules to ignore. Things like speed limits, truth in advertising, accurate tax returns, and fair play are for other people. People who are not superior.

Almost everyone who has ever played a game with a narcissist has seen this. Unless the narcissist is actually superior in something, he will cheat. Your ball was out, he says. She will peek at your cards. The piece was to be moved seven places, but somehow the narcissist moved eight. He did “one more” push-up than you. Little dumb things. Some have said their narcissist even cheated while playing games with the kids.

So cheating in marriage, cheating on a resume, cheating a customer or client, or cheating in politics—all are just fun for the narcissist. Breaking the rules brings a rush to the narcissist. The fear of getting caught is nothing compared to the feeling of being superior.

You were taught that cheating proves nothing. The narcissist learned that cheating proves he is better. You were taught that cheaters always lose in the long run. The narcissist learned that tomorrow’s potential loss pales in the light of today’s win. You were taught that cheating was bad. The narcissist learned that silly moral standards keep you from being a winner.

The old word for someone who sees themselves as above the rules was “scofflaw.” A scofflaw laughed at the limits people placed on themselves. Arguments of fairness and safety meant nothing to the scofflaw. The word came out of Prohibition times. It actually came from a contest to pick a name for people who continued to drink when alcohol was illegal.

What happens when the narcissist is told not to do something? He almost has to find a way to do it. It might be drinking or stealing or parking in a certain place. The narcissist will stretch the rule to its absolute limit, and then just a little more. Just because the authorities don’t realize that the rules are for others, doesn’t mean the narcissist has to keep them. He will find a way.

Now, you might know a narcissist who knows every rule and insists that everyone must keep them all. He will make a big show of keeping them, but he will cheat. In some place, some hidden area, he will break the rules—just to prove to himself that he is superior. If we have learned anything over the past few years, we have learned that the strongest Bible-thumping preacher has secret sins. He cheats.

And everyone in the narcissist’s life knows this to be true. “Grandpa cheats!” the kids say. You stopped playing games with that friend a long time ago. The other workers hide their lunches or their client lists because they know what happens. The people at the gym don’t argue anymore when the narcissist claims more chin-ups or says the ball was out. People only play with the narcissist because they have to, or because they don’t know any better.

And if the narcissist is caught? “It was just a joke!” “I was just seeing if you could catch me.” “I would have won anyway.” “No, that’s not true!” “You are just whining because you lost.” “You were the one cheating.” You have probably heard all of those.

You see, even in little things, the narcissist must make himself feel superior.


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Borderline vs Narcissism


It’s Narcissist Friday!     


I have been reading a book that ties borderline and narcissistic personality disorders together as though they are the same. The author often uses a short-hand indication—BP/NP—to refer to both disorders together. In fact, the author considers both of them to be “mental illnesses.”

There are a limited number of personality and relationship disorder symptoms. It is easy to view a set of symptoms and come to an inaccurate conclusion. Non-professionals often jump to a diagnosis based on just a few observations. Professionals, however, are not supposed to do that. This author, a psychological professional, should either have a very good reason for making a connection like this, or should stop doing it. The two disorders are quite different.

To be fair, this author acknowledges the differences. The purpose of the book is to help those who have to care for people with these disorders. The “acting out” of these problems does often look the same.  Both project, manipulate, lie, and use others.  The caregivers may experience very similar stresses.  Yet, linking two different disorders together minimizes the peculiarities of each.

Now, I have to say at this point that I do not consider myself to be a psychological professional. I am a theologian and a counselor with many years of experience, but I do not hold advanced degrees in psychology. For me to suggest that a card-carrying professional is being irresponsible may be for me to step outside my jurisdiction. So you take my thoughts for what they are worth.

Borderline personality disorder is a recognized set of symptoms and is considered to be a mental disorder. It is characterized by emotional instability and self-damaging behavior and thinking. BPs are often considered hyper-reactive, anxious, and unpredictable by those who live with and work with them. They consider themselves to be empty and broken. They have difficulty maintaining relationships, and the relationships that continue in their lives are stressed and disturbed. BPs lean toward being self-abusive and even suicidal, with a higher degree of Munchhausen’s than the general population. They can be paranoid and impulsive. To put it in more general terms, BPs depersonalize and damage themselves. In doing so, they hurt the people around them.

Now, by all means, don’t just take my word for this. If this interests you, check it out. Just google “borderline personality disorder” and read the descriptions in Wikipedia or some of the mental health sites. Those who suffer from this disorder, along with their caregivers, suffer truly.

The jury is still out as to whether BP is a mental illness, and medications may be used to soften symptoms that would cause the person to harm themselves, but there is no treatment other than counseling and therapy. Some of the types of therapy used with BP are also used with narcissism. That appears to be the primary link between the two disorders.

Narcissism, on the other hand, is rarely considered a mental illness by professionals. In fact, some seem to doubt that it is even a disorder in the same way BP and others are. Some professionals consider narcissism to be more of a choice or a style, a personality type. The reason for this is that narcissists don’t appear to be in any danger of hurting themselves and can live healthy, even productive, lives as narcissists. The fact that others are hurt along the way is an “unfortunate consequence” of narcissistic choices.

Yes, there are similarities. Both narcissists and borderlines seem impulsive, emotionally unstable, and self-focused. But the differences are significant. Narcissists hurt others with intent to protect themselves. BPs hurt others as they hurt themselves. Narcissists will not admit to their brokenness. BPs see themselves as broken and act on that belief. While I suspect that many narcissists view life and relationships as empty, I doubt they view themselves in that light. BPs will often refer to being and feeling empty. Both dabble in magical thinking, fantasies of how life ought to be. In the narcissist’s dreams, however, we are all servants making his/her world great. BPs just long for a world that feels good.

If I had to pick one difference to underscore as definitive, I would say this: Borderlines depersonalize themselves. Narcissists depersonalize others. Perhaps an argument could be made that these are just two different ways of handling the same inner fears, but the people who deal with these disorders in relationships will see them as quite distinct.

Here’s another way of saying it: Narcissists have victims, while borderlines are victims. We don’t say that the narcissist is a victim of his disorder. His victims are the people he uses. But borderlines use and abuse others only because they are so victimized themselves.

This is simplistic and professionals would probably not like my assessments. My point here is that it helps no one to combine two obviously distinct disorders as though they were the same. It would be easy for me to believe that BP is a mental illness. The self-destructive behaviors alone indicate illness, rather than choice. Narcissism, on the other hand, seems so much more like a self-protective choice, a life where others are used and abused without regret in search of some personal goal.

Perhaps someday I will be proved wrong, but I still believe narcissism is a choice. Yes, it was made in response to early challenges. Yet it has been maintained by choice. Abusive and self-serving thinking seems right to the narcissist. The pain of others means nothing, because others mean nothing.

And every narcissist act is a choice.


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What about the Board?


It’s Narcissist Friday!     


Over and over we hear about pastors, organization leaders, and business leaders who are narcissists. We have seen serious abuses of position and people from these leaders. And one question that is asked when the abuses come to light is, “What about the board?” Most of these leaders have a board, a group of administrators, who should be watching over the actions of the leader. Why were they not doing their job?

For example, one leader of a large Christian organization is now being sued by several women for abuses that happened over the years. In several cases, these actions were brought out before, sometimes years before. This leader resigned, more than once, and was quickly returned to his position as though nothing had happened. There are allegations that the ministry directors, the “Board,” knew about the offenses. Yet, they allowed this leader back and little changed. Why didn’t they do their job?

It is a common story in business also. The board of directors appears to sit by idly while the new CEO makes changes that weaken the company almost to the point of closure. Investors, employees, and the rest of us ask, “Where is the board?” The only answer we can imagine is that the board agrees with the decisions.

Some people suggest that narcissism is a desirable characteristic in a leader. Businesses and organizations, even some churches, want leaders who will shoulder the hard decisions: ruthlessly downsizing employee numbers or taking over other companies, for example. Since narcissists are able to move forward without sympathy for the suffering of others, they are perfect candidates for leading serious change.

I know of one church where the pastor was hired to make the church grow. He warned the leadership that he would make decisions they would not like. He demanded full authority to hire and fire and spend money. He got everything he asked for, and they accepted his warnings. When he moved the church out of the community, sold the building, fired the existing staff and hired new, these leaders allowed all of it. The church grew but lost almost all of the original members, including most of the leaders who brought in the new pastor.

How does a narcissistic leader get by with so much? Why does the board allow these abuses? Well, sometimes the board is complicit from the beginning. The leader simply does what the board wanted to do but was unwilling. Since the narcissist willingly accepts the negative from people who don’t matter to him in order to gain the praise and admiration from those who do, the board gets its way without accountability.

But there may be other reasons a board will sit and allow a narcissistic leader to ruin an organization. First, we have to understand how a narcissist is hired. As I have already said, sometimes the narcissist does just what the board wanted to be done. But sometimes the narcissist comes across as so competent and so desirable that the board feels fortunate to find such a person. You and I would be surprised at how few boards do their homework when hiring a narcissist. The presentation of the candidate overwhelms common sense. Questions are left unasked. Documents are left unread. The information may be available, but ignored in the shining light of the narcissist.

Then, realizing they didn’t do their homework, board members often support the narcissist because they are too embarrassed to admit their failure. No matter what the narcissist does, they support him/her to avoid exposing themselves. This doesn’t only happen in churches or other small organizations. Large businesses have suffered from the same unwillingness to admit fault.

If the board members do begin to see actions or attitudes they don’t like, or if they dare to disagree with the narcissist, they may soon find themselves replaced. When you investigate the boards of most organizations led by narcissists, you will find that the narcissist had a controlling hand in appointing or nominating new members. Supporters from the past, sycophants from inside or outside the organization, are brought in primarily because they will not stand against the narcissist.

And when we ask why these new board members are so supportive of the narcissist, we may discover something truly disturbing. Some are so overwhelmed with admiration and love for the narcissist that they will never see the errors or abuses. They have always been available for the narcissist’s use. They will conspire against anyone who opposes the narcissist/hero, and they will vocally agree with any decision he suggests.

There may also be a darker side. Narcissists are adept at learning about others. They know the little (or big) compromises. They know what it will take to buy the loyalty of some people, and they know what scandals are in the lives others. Some have received “favors.” Others have received threats. By the time the narcissist chooses board members, those members will be unquestioningly loyal.

The board of directors, or whatever it is called in your organization, has the responsibility of representing the people and protecting the interests of the organization. You have a right to expect them to stand up to the narcissist when the abuses begin. But they probably won’t.


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It’s Narcissist Friday!     


There are many things about narcissism that seem to make no sense. Unless you can see the thinking patterns of the narcissist, the acting patterns may look random and confusing. You find yourself asking, “What in the world is this now?”

I don’t think I have ever met a self-employed narcissist. I suppose they might be out there, but most of them seem to work for companies or organizations. (Of course, a narcissist could own a company and consider himself self-employed, but I am referring to someone who actually works by himself.)  It would seem that they would like to work by themselves; after all, no one else will ever measure up. But narcissists don’t like working by themselves—because they actually would have to do the work.

No, the narcissist secretly loves the hierarchy of an organization or a business. They like structures they can see and understand. I have noted before how the narcissist can walk into a room and instantly categorize every person present. They know instinctively who is worth knowing and who can be ignored. They know which person has power and which does not. And they like knowing these things. These things are important to them.

I know that narcissists chafe in a hierarchy, unless they are at the top. They struggle with authority. They want to be the ones who are noticed and admired. If there is a “totem pole,” the narcissist hates having anyone higher. They are usually vocal about their frustrations.

At the same time, the hierarchy structure establishes the game plan for the narcissist. Knowing what the ladder looks like and how to move up sets the goals and strategy for the narcissist. The newly hired narcissist will understand that system better than most of those who have been with the organization for a long time. While the rest of the people just do their jobs, the narcissist is focused on climbing that ladder.

There are other things the narcissist likes about hierarchy. There is an inherent competition in any hierarchy. From the military to the church to the boardroom, people compete to be noticed and advanced. Narcissists not only love competition, they excel at it. As I have said before, all human interaction is competitive for the narcissist.

In a hierarchical system, rewards are offered as motivation. The reward might be advancement or recognition. The narcissist sees rewards as rightfully his. If someone else is rewarded, they didn’t work as hard as the narcissist and don’t deserve the reward. “Pretty soon,” the narcissist thinks, “that reward will be mine—as it should be.” This competition for rewards gives meaning to the narcissist. Simple work, for the sake of providing for a family or contributing to society, has no value for the narcissist. The only reason to try harder is to receive the reward.

The narcissist knows that two kinds of people get noticed in a hierarchy: the shining light and the squeaky wheel. If the narcissist cannot be the best, he/she will be the most critical. This is easily seen in organizations like the church. If the narcissist cannot be the most spiritual person because of superior service or knowledge, then he will be the most spiritual because he sees and points out the faults in others. It doesn’t matter to the narcissist that people like him; what matters is that they know him and respect him. He wants attention; he doesn’t really know what to do with love. Admiration is more important than gratitude. Besides, others will give love and gratitude when he reaches the top. On the way up, he just needs to be noticed.

Hierarchies also offer a clear system of authorities and servants. Those above are authorities; those below are servants. The narcissist will move quickly into any kind of leadership, just to have servants. She will become the leader of the committee, and the others will do the work. It will be clear that she is a leader. Soon, she will be head over a department, then the organization. Her servants will make this both possible and pleasurable.

Because everyone is vulnerable in a system based on performance, which almost all hierarchical groups are, the narcissist’s inadequacy is covered. Narcissists are notoriously poor at actually doing their jobs. They are great at getting others to do their work, and they excel in offering excuses or explanations for inferior work. We might expect that the narcissist would be especially vulnerable in a hierarchical system where everyone is watching. But that is exactly what covers the narcissist—everyone is watching everyone. Any failure, any compromise, any indiscretion can be exploited, and no one knows the dirt on others like the narcissist. The narcissist will be able to use the dirt of others to cover his own dirt. Timely comments, veiled threats, anonymous reports, ominous hints—these are weapons in the narcissist’s arsenal. Many people can relate how a narcissist climbed the ladder of the hierarchy simply because everyone was too compromised to confront him.

I understand that narcissists consistently complain about whatever hierarchies they are part of. They really do chafe under authority and struggle with the weaknesses they see in others. But they love the game. Notice what kinds of jobs narcissists have. Notice what kinds of churches and organizations they join. They need the challenge of being noticed in a group, of rising above others. A simple place where people care about each other and believe their work to be of value would be boring for the narcissist.

Here’s a short and fun clip I think you will understand and enjoy:




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It’s Narcissist Friday!     


Sometimes you might be surprised to hear a narcissist put himself/herself down. The popular definition of narcissism has something to do with bragging almost constantly, so we don’t usually expect narcissists to speak negatively about themselves or their abilities. However, that person you suspect is a narcissist may well lower himself in comparison to others at times. This can be confusing.

Why would a narcissist talk down about himself? Such an action, so out of sync with expected behavior, must have a purpose. Yes, and we call it “sandbagging.”

Sandbagging is a term used in competitive sports and games. Gamblers use the term to define the action of a player who suggests he has a low hand by only matching or passing, then raising when the pot is larger (also called “slow-play”). In racing, the term refers to someone who deliberately runs a slower qualifying race in order to convince others that he cannot perform as well. In chess and golf, sandbagging is to purposely play at a lower level in one game in order to gain a higher handicap for the next. A few years ago an Olympic badminton team was disqualified for intentionally playing at a lower level for the purpose of a higher handicap.

You get the idea. Sandbagging is hustling. Almost every form of competition has its hustlers, and sandbagging is a primary method of hustling. For the narcissist, every human interaction is competition.

For some competitors, the goal of sandbagging is the higher handicap. For others it is to influence the betting. For still others, it is to gain a better position. But what is the goal of the narcissist?

Here are some ideas:

1. The narcissist may use sandbagging to get out of work. Real work is anathema to the narcissist. They would rather use the work of others. So the narcissist might claim a physical limitation or a lack of ability to avoid an unpleasant job. “Oh, I am terrible at cleaning,” the narcissist says. So someone else will have to do it.

2. When the narcissist needs praise, and they do crave praise much like other addicts crave their drug, she might say something negative about herself so that you will disagree and lift her up. “I am such a terrible mom,” she may say. To which, of course, you must say, “Oh no, you have been a good mom.” So the praise is gained by a simple self-demeaning statement. (The irony here is that the narcissist doesn’t believe the negative, but says it; while you do believe the statement, but are put in a position to speak against it.)

3. Narcissists are not above simple hustling. To trick an opponent into thinking of the narcissist as less able, then overwhelm with superior ability, is narcissist glory. For example, Jack is invited to play racquetball. He has played all his life, but he says that he isn’t very good. Then he thoroughly enjoys beating his opponent. He has, in fact, beaten the opponent twice. Once by the deception; and once by superior play. Jack may even try to pass off his success as a total surprise, a fluke, just so he can do it again to the same opponent.

4. Some narcissists play the role of a victim so others will support them with help, money, and sympathy. They put themselves down to manipulate the feelings of others. They are disabled, or confused, or depressed, or shy, or whatever it will take to get you to do what they want. By the time you figure out that their negative claims don’t stand up to truth, you have been used.

5. Sometimes the narcissist will sandbag just for the sake of making you feel guilty for questioning or criticizing them. When you have dared to point out an error in something the narcissist has done, you may hear over and over how the narcissist just isn’t good at that. This is not an excuse to get you to do it, but a way of manipulating your feelings. If the narcissist got lost while driving, and you had to help find the right way, he may continually say that he is “so lousy” at directions. Each time you are made to feel ashamed for any criticism you may have felt, whether you shared it or not.

So, if you hear the narcissist putting himself or herself down, ask why. Believe me, there is a reason.


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