The Mask of the Psychopath

What is the mask of a psychopath?

Psychopaths wear a ‘mask’ — a fake persona — to hide who they really are. They construct different masks for different people and situations, and use those masks to manipulate and get what they want. They are astute observers of human nature who size us up quickly. They pretend to share our beliefs and our preferences, which makes them likeable. They mimic our emotions. They easily see our vulnerabilities and know just what we need, and then they pretend to give it to us. Actually, their disguise enables them to get what they need.

The psychopath’s mask — which is what allows him to go undetected — stems from his lack of an identity.

Having an identity restricts a person to acting in ways that are in accordance with the characteristics of that identity.  For example, if someone is (or at least believes that she is) shy and reserved, she will have a hard time being outgoing in most situations. She believes that’s just the way she is, and that may be true. If you ask her to describe her personality, she’ll say “I’m shy and quiet. I’m an  introvert.”

Since the psychopath has only the vaguest sense of identity  (if he or she has one at all), he is totally free from the hindrances and restrictions an identity confers.

Instead, he assumes whatever persona will work to get him whatever it is he wants from any given person at any given time. This persona he assumes is the “mask.” This mask is very convincing! In Hervey Cleckley’s pivotal book,  The Mask of Sanity, he says this about psychopaths and their masks:

“There is nothing at all odd or queer about him, and in every respect he tends to embody the concept of a well-adjusted, happy person. Nor does he, on the other hand, seem to be artificially exerting himself like one who is covering up or who wants to sell you a bill of goods. He would seldom be confused with the professional backslapper or someone who is trying to ingratiate himself for a concealed purpose. Signs of affectation or excessive affability are not characteristic. He looks like the real thing.”

One way the psychopath uses this mask to great effect is to create the “soul mate” connection you believed you had in the beginning of the relationship.

Here’s how that happens, according to Marriage counselor Gary Cundiff, MFT. He believes that psychopaths select targets based on their best qualities. Then, the predators morph themselves into copies of their targets, so that they appear to be perfect partners:

“Using each piece of information, they create the disguise — a mask carefully constructed to look like their prospective target. Flawlessly, they weave a picture of their mark… precisely reflecting the brightest, most honorable aspects of your personality, sewing in the most desirable and wanted details, literally stealing your persona, mirroring this image back, without the defects of character, flaws and shortcomings…The attraction is irresistible. People are attracted to those who are similar to themselves. By transforming themselves into a reflection of their prospective prey, the psychopath becomes the most alluring figure imaginable, and the propensity to trust that person becomes compelling.”

As a result, “You experience a sense of oneness like none other. At the emotional center of this connection is intensity never felt before, making the appeal addictive,” Cundiff writes.

The mask a psychopath wears is only a superficial disguise, held in place by lies and manipulation. When we find out the truth — they were never who  or what we believed them to be — the feelings of betrayal are overwhelming.

♥ Thank you for reading.


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28 thoughts on “The Mask of the Psychopath”

  1. Bliss

    I agree with what you say about how the mask is built and that it’s purpose is to hook people. Based on personal experience and studying, I have a different opinion about the reason the mask is built. I believe that it is more about the “wolf in sheep’s mask” effect rather than having NO identity or weak identity.
    If the psychopath showed you his real self (real identity), his lower self, his cruelty, his pure ego where he lives constantly and his true intentions … he knows you would run away fast !!! So in order to have any kind of relationships at all, he develops his masks.
    I believe psychopaths loathe themselves and also create a mask for themselves in order to look at themselves in the mirror and be able to like what they see and to justify how great they are that they have a right to abuse and take from you. Psychopaths seem to not believe how horrible they are. They live in a state of denial and just can’t understand when people tell them that they are a liar, cheater, manipulator, abuser etc. they are very fragile in that way. Their ego is their weakness.
    On the surface, they want to believe that they are a good person, but deep down, they believe they are disgusting.
    I think that psychopaths don’t get help because if they were to look at how much they have hurt people and themselves that it would wound their ego so much that they would die. They are pure ego, if you bust their ego bubble, they would be annihilated. The mask is how they survive.
    Why is the psychopath like this ??
    I believe that the psychopath is like this because he was so wounded as a small child by both of his parents that he was forced to develop a mask to seek and gain the approval of his parents in order to survive.
    It is a known fact that many people who are abused go on to become abusers themselves, therefore it is necessary to have compassion for psychopaths, but from a distance …. a great distance. And don’t let your compassion suck you back in to thinking that you can fix them….. Run !!!

    I wanted to say this about having compassion for psychopaths because it is so easy that when we are hurt to turn around and throw stones and hurt them back. Don’t sink down to their level. Don’t become just as bad as them. Just run away, far away and protect yourself, heal yourself. After you learn about psychopaths and what happened to you, just focus on you :-)
    Thanks to websites and people like these who put these websites up for us to learn how to protect and heal ourselves, and to Core Energetics therapy, I have come a long way in my healing process.

    1. Admin

      Your opinions are based entirely on the way *you* see the world. You’re making the fundamental error — you can’t imagine that some people are so different from you that they see the world in an entirely different way.

      “I believe that it is more about the “wolf in sheep’s mask” effect rather than having NO identity or weak identity. If the psychopath showed you his real self (real identity), his lower self, his cruelty, his pure ego where he lives constantly and his true intentions … he knows you would run away fast !!!” Ask a psychopath — they will tell you they don’t have an identity, or have only the “vaguest sense” of one. Or ask some psychopathy experts; they’ll tell you the same thing.

      “I believe psychopaths loathe themselves” You want o believe this, but psychopaths think very highly of themselves, to the point that they think they are far superior.

      “They live in a state of denial” No, they don’t. They have no clue, no insight into their own disorder, because they can’t. It makes them blind to themselves.

      “I think that psychopaths don’t get help because if they were to look at how much they have hurt people and themselves that it would wound their ego so much that they would die.” You want to believe he has some remorse and it makes you feel better. If it works, go with it.

      If you want to continue to believe these things, go ahead. But if you want to have a chance of truly understanding what you went through and avoiding it in the future, please continue learning. Watch the video “I am fishead.” if you want to understand. If you don’t, I can’t blame you.

      Best wishes.

  2. JSvictim

    I love Dr. Simon’s comparison between a cat who is afraid of the pit bull coming down the street and puffs it’s self up and makes it’s self ready to defend it’s self and the cat who is stalking a mouse to kill and eat, psychopaths being the second cat.
    I’m somewhere in the middle of Bliss and your opinion Admin. I KNOW you are right Admin……but I also think there is another component that is more along what Bliss is saying AND Dr Simon believes there are varying degrees of the disorder.
    AND, it’s just another aspect that demonstrates how crazy making the whole subject, our experience, them, recovery, etc. is. It’s such a fuster cluck of WTF’s that it would seem that there is really NO understanding it in it’s entirety.
    They are showing that to some degree P’s are capable of caring and empathy but they choose and are in control of who what and when they display it and “feel” it.

    I think their entitlement issues make they self justified in just about any behavior they CHOOSE to display. They can justify ANYTHING they do and if they apologize for something it’s only so they can continue to get what they want from that person.

    My Spath’s mother totally props him up and perpetuates everything that is wrong with him and she is as disordered as he is. I call her house, The Hotel Dr. Phil.

  3. Anna

    A psychopath apologize? They loathe themselves? Feel compassion for them? Ha! When I questioned a large purchase he made that would only be useful to himself, he said to me “I deserve it!” These people (if you can call them that) are pure evil and they enjoy being devilish. They are for the most part sadists and will stop at nothing in the pursuit of destruction of a human being once they set their eyes on one. That is their only aim! That is all they do all day… think, plan, act, mask, lie… they will wait and pretend as long as necessary until they reach their goal.
    The P whilst he was with me, was chasing a woman whose husband had had a serious accident having fallen down a mine shaft. He saw an opportunity and doubled his attention and called her (under the pretence he wanted news of her husband’s health) each morning at 7.00am, visited their house daily, flirting with her in front of her husband. The husband has deteriorated, became reclusive, depressed… P is waiting for him to die.. That is the truth. Can you see what will happen next? He will end up fleecing her!!!

    1. Admin

      That’s beyond horrible, what he’s doing to this man… and some day after he dies and she realizes the truth, it’s going to be awful. They are very good at killing two birds with one stone!

      1. Christine

        Hello Adelyn,
        I know you communicate with many, many people, so I don’t take for granted that you will remember me. I decided to follow the “Road Map to Healing” and wanted to read this post about the mask of a psychopath. I saw that you suggested to “Bliss” that she watch the documentary, “Fishead”. I was curious about it, so I have just finished watching it.

        I thought the study on how we regard others creates an effect on others who respond in kind and the good grows into a network of goodness which if perpetuated, can change a culture was interesting. It seemed this may have been included, in order to end on a positive, hopeful note.

        I couldn’t help but think that a psychopath is an anomaly, and if he/she came across a person of good will, a moral person, that their instinct would be to try to destroy that good person, and the network of “goodness” would be disrupted by their evil response. If you recall, it was a psychopathic psychiatrist that harmed me, and changed the entire trajectory of my life. I am now dealing with PTSD as a consequence of what he did, as well as the actions of those within the psychiatric community who “threw me under the bus”. What is troubling to me is that I have so little connection to others now. My reaction has been to withdraw and isolate myself, partly to protect myself and also because I feel so alone in what happened, and have had little understanding from everyone…from therapists to close family members.

        He wanted to destroy me, and I have thought that because I remained alive, and he committed suicide, there was some kind of victory in that. But I’m feeling that I have been wrong, because he very effectively has caused my disconnection from any kind of good networking. At this point it is hard for me to see myself ever reconnecting and contributing anything of worth. I guess I can hope that is not true, but after so many years of hoping for some good to come of it all…I am growing weary of trying. It is not enough to just be alive to overcome him if I am unable to relate normally to others.

        Did you reach an impasse as I have in your path to healing? If so, how were you able to continue to move forward? Of course, I am in therapy with a new therapist (again). If I had given up totally I wouldn’t be in therapy…but I just need to have some encouragement from another person who had been there and “gets” it.

        Thank you for taking the time to read and consider my question.


        1. Adelyn Birch

          Of course I remember you, Christine. I’m glad to hear you haven’t given up! Healing is possible, and it will happen; you’re still in the process of finding out what will enable you to do that.

          “It is hard for me to see myself ever reconnecting and contributing anything of worth.” What a depressing way to think about yourself and your life! I’m sorry you’re feeling that way. You’re absolutely right when you say it’s not true. The only power in it is that you believe it. Your abuser had a profound effect on your sense of self-worth. All abusers crush it, because that’s what enables them to have control over us. Underneath all of your trauma is *you.* Imagine how you were on the day you were born, before anyone hurt you. Think about the value and worth and preciousness and potential you had as that infant. You were born primed and ready to receive love, and to give it. You are still that very same person, with all the same innate qualities and potential. Now, imagine if you could shed all the negative thoughts and beliefs you have that resulted from the bad experiences in your past, that continue to affect you; and that by shedding them, you were able to return to your core self and realize who and what you really are. That would be amazing, wouldn’t it? You can actually do that; it’s what healing is all about, really. It’s about finding the truth.

          Words from my very first blog post:

          “Faith in yourself is still within you, even if you fear you’ve lost it. Maybe it’s been covered over by the psychopath’s shovels full of sh*t, but it’s there. Reclaim it as your own.”

          I was talking to myself, because I never knew anyone would ever find this website. Knowing that I’d been covered in shovels full of sh*t—and refusing to let myself stay that way—was exactly how I was able to move forward.

          Here’s a post for you that I think might apply to what you’re going through now:

          Want To Reclaim Your Power? Re-Write Your Story!


        2. Pamela B.

          Christine, I wish there were a way to communicate directly. My experience is so like you describe and it’s nearly impossible to find mirroring. My psychiatrist/mentor of ten years became seductive after a decade of my having been the “star” in the group of highly educated, successful people who came to him (many my own friends). When I resisted what was actually very powerful seduction (I thought he’d think less of me if I fell for it), he went Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde insane with all the considerable gaslighting, devaluation, shaming and double-whammy control tactics in his sophisticated arsenal. This was 1978 and the entire psychiatric community here “threw me under the bus” as my story was so unbelievable–long before narcissism, PTSD, abuse of power, and so on were part of the mental health dialogue. Only a handful of literature available at the time to help me hold on and not easy to come by as this was pre-internet search era. This website/blog (thank you AB) have been very helpful, along with two others I’ve found, but the nuances of this particular trauma where the other person actually has the authority to declare you crazy and, in my time, to even have you committed “as a danger to yourself” is not captured except in writings about cults and it’s been hard for me to see how a very culturally accepted experience of trusting a highly respected psychiatrist fitted the “cult” experience (it does, actually, but would be great if there were an entire website/forum devoted to bringing together those of us with this particular experience). If I’d fallen for his seduction I’d have had some support out there and a better chance at surviving, but there are no other stories I’ve found of the consequences of resisting a psychopath within a deeply attached so-called “healing” relationship. Just know there are others of us out here even if we have no way to connect. I also saw your comment on A Grin Without A Cat and this particular blog post was so meaningful to me. Wishing you well.

          1. Adelyn Birch

            It’s such a terrible betrayal, and I’m sorry it happened to you, Pamela. You have a great idea about there being a website/forum devoted to those of you who’ve had similar experiences… perhaps you’re just the right person to create it!?

            I don’t know if you saw this post: First, Do No Harm: Abusive Psychotherapists

            1. Pamela Brooke

              I did. And thank you for it. Much to think about.

          2. Christine

            Hello Pamela,
            Thank you so much for sharing your experience with me. I have never communicated with anyone who has been manipulated and abused by a psychopathic psychiatrist. I entered “therapy” with him in the fall of 1979, so our time period of suffering is close. I was a University student, 28 years old. This man also approached me for sexual exploitation within the first year. He was very authoritarian, and I was too afraid to confront him directly. I asked for a consultation soon after this happened; I guess I thought that would be safer. He referred me to another psychiatrist. When I told this psychiatrist what he had said to me, his words were, “You must understand, Dr. G is human, and he has feelings, too.”

            So I returned to Dr. G, fearful of what he might say about my “outing” him in the consultation. He did not. I remained uneasy, but I thought that at least he knew I wasn’t there to be sexually involved with him. He never approached me about it again. I have wondered if it angered him (as it did your P). I didn’t know that he could covertly harm me…but I know now that he set about to destroy me. He had so much power…drugs, repeated hospitalizations. I began to “fragment” and became suicidal. It only ended in the fall of 1985 (after six years) when he killed himself. The aftermath only caused me worse suffering and damage.

            I guess this is not the place to share this with you, and I hope Adelyn will forgive me.

            I knew that there surely had to be others…once again, I am grateful that you reached out to me.


            1. Adelyn Birch

              You can share here; it’s fine with me.

            2. Pamela Brooke

              Christine, what a very convoluted, complicated and chilling experience. Devastating. There is a website called Surviving Therapist Abuse with Michelle M’s story (referenced in Adelyn’s post above on abusive psychotherapists) and Michelle also has a Facebook group called Narcissistic Victim Syndrome. What each of us needs to heal from the neurological as well as the psychological damage of these experiences is not universal, sadly, but there’s lots of help out there for our own unique “pick and choose” journeys. I find the ideas and the depth of thought on this blog to be so valuable in both inspiration and encouragement. The Alice In Wonderland, Little Red Riding Hood and Dante references have been wonderful content and context for my own bizarre (and literary) life–thanks again to Adelyn!

              1. Adelyn Birch

                Thank you, Pamela! It feels archetypal to me… the repeating pattern, and the journey.

              2. Pamela Brooke

                Just saw this. Yes! Archetypal and love the ways you’ve tapped into this. Also love the metaphor of the Empty Boat. I often feel I’ve trivialized myself when I try to share the circumstantial details of my experience, but when I link to the archetypal metaphors that capture the essence of that experience I feel supported and a wee bit less dehumanized.

              3. Adelyn Birch

                Well said, Pamela. I believe seeing it this way re-connects us with humanity in a sense, after being singled out and treated without humanity. It fosters self-compassion; one of its core components is recognizing what happened to us is a shared human experience (or at least shared by many others), and that helps us to realize we’re not alone. “This trauma comes with a sense of being cut off from normal life and from the rest of humanity. But part of self-compassion entails feeling a sense of common humanity, which is the understanding that your feelings and experiences are not completely unique. By acknowledging we’re not the only one, we find strength in numbers.”

              4. Christine

                Pamela, I have viewed the website you referenced and gleaned some good information there. I realize that we each individually may respond differently…I don’t see how it could be otherwise.

                I appreciated what you shared, although our stories are quite different. You seem to have rebounded from your trauma and that gives me hope.


              5. Pamela Brooke

                Thanks Christine. Just now saw your note. At the end of 2009 I discovered Ann Weiser Cornell’s website and her use of inter-relationship focusing to reach the parts of self that were in deep hiding and also Richard Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems (IFS) which helps reintegrate our traumatized and scattered parts. And, of course, all the recent work on trauma, PTSD, depersonalization, etc. I’ve always known intellectually that I was not the wolf in my own story, but emotionally I felt blame and shame. I’m still not out of the hole, am still dissociated, am still avoidant and isolated in many ways, but (like you), little by little am getting there. We share a timeline and the sadness that comes from so many lost years without help or resources. Wish the internet had come about several decades earlier!!! (But glad it’s here now). Thank you for the communication and the sharing.

              6. Adelyn Birch

                Those are the things all of us share, to one degree or another, even if the details of our circumstances differ.

              7. Christine

                Please forgive my misjudging your condition and continuing challenges! You just sound so “together”! I still feel I cannot relate to others and have difficulty understanding how the archetypical stories are helpful, except perhaps that they exist, which is evidence that others have understood this experience. I am living in a culture very different from where I was before and after the trauma. It is a rural area near Appalachia…very clannish. So I am a “different bird” here, and it is hard to find much in common with people. Already feeling like an outsider only adds to my isolation and reluctance to form relationships.

                Thank you for mentioning other places that you have found helpful…I will research them.

                I am diagnosed now with complex PTSD and being around others…really the lightest stress, can trigger my symptoms, so I just stay here in my own little world where I am comfortable and at peace.

                I am trying to gather the courage to take art classes offered at a small liberal arts college. My therapist is helping me take “baby steps” towards PTG (post traumatic growth), so I have hope that I can heal.


              8. Adelyn Birch

                Christine, I believe they’re helpful in a number of ways. One is knowing that we’re not alone, as you mentioned. This kind of victimization is very isolating, but when you can see yourself and your experience as part of a larger story that many others share, one that has been in existence since the beginning of time, it helps connect you to the rest of humanity again. They also help us to better understand our experiences.

                “Carl Jung taught that symbols are used to describe what cannot be fully explained with words. He defined archetypes as images and emotions that occur concurrently and noted that, ‘archetypes come to life only when one patiently tries to discover why and in what fashion they are meaningful to a living individual’. Through an investigation of the use of archetypes in stories, one is able to identify a more profound meaning than what is seen superficially. This work is both incredibly personal, but also collective since symbols identify a relationship connecting all humans.

                Archetypes and stories can help people gain a deeper understanding of their experiences.”

                from Archetypes, Hurt and Healing: This Bird Wants to Fly

  4. Christine

    I see. Thank you, Adelyn for explaining further. It’s funny, there was a doctor who insistently wanted to know what happened to me. I was helpless to explain. I had no words. When I didn’t answer, he got up, frustrated with me, and walked off making a derogatory remark.

    I managed for a time to share some art I had done with an art therapist. I have no artistic training, but I had begun making pictures with dots. Colors were significant. They were rhythmic, sometimes forming figures or strange flowers. There we also images…dark and frightening that came out of me. I put it this way because I didn’t consciously determine what I would produce, but it would begin with one line of dots and turn and space or intensify into changing colors and forms. The art therapist seemed fascinated by what I did, but I honestly didn’t know how to explain or put into words their significance.

    When I met my present husband, he wanted me to stop seeing her. He couldn’t see any value in my doing it, said she was using me (?) and taking my money. So I told her I wanted to stop and asked to take with me what I had done. She became quite upset, saying, “You can’t leave! You are a mystic!” I didn’t understand what she said; mystic? So it ended.
    I kept the work for a time, then became frightened by some of the images and trashed it all. Later, four years ago when I began therapy with the psychologist from NYC, and finally had someone who would listen to my story, I wished I had kept them. Some I have a mental image of them even now.

    I printed the article you referenced and will spend some time reading it.


    1. Adelyn Birch

      It is so hard to explain, especially in a way that others can really grasp the betrayal and the effect it has. One of the things I needed most (and everyone else needs) was for someone to understand, to really get it, because without that, they really can’t empathize, so they can’t offer the kind of support needed. I couldn’t seem to explain it so people close to me could understand. Others who had been through it were the only ones who truly got it.

      Your dot pictures do sound fascinating, as do the other images. They probably speak for themselves. That’s the beauty of art; it can say things without words, which are limiting. It’s strange that the therapist called you a mystic! It sounds like she was getting at least as much out of your therapy as you were.

      1. Christine

        Well, it was feeling a little voyeuristic on her part! This is an intensely personal experience for me…not the kind of thing I can share. Seems like there is still a feeling of shame…that somehow I am responsible for what happened. Anyway, I deeply fear being accused of that. Also, since I have so much memory loss of the time I spent with him…there is a fear of not knowing what happened, what I did. The feeling is: Where was I?

        Do you know, is “The Bird That Wants to Fly”, a book? I am not an intellectual, but perhaps there are such books? Jung’s writings would be intimidating! Thanks for making time to write to me! :)

        1. Adelyn Birch

          Yes, it is a book!

          “Bird That Wants to Fly is the story of a sad bird who has decided to walk instead of fly. About to step into a puddle as she can not change direction, bird is amazed to see the words “beautiful animal that I am” in the water. When she looks up she sees a blue eyed horse with blue mascara and a pink mane looking down at her. The horse asks, “Why are you walking not flying? Doesn’t it take longer that way?” Beautifully illustrated, this archetypal story of resilience and transformation offers healing for children and adults who have been traumatized.”

          It sounds good!

          1. Adelyn Birch

            I just ordered a copy.

            1. Christine

              I was just thinking of ordering it myself! Smile.Amazon, here I come!

              Thank you, Adelyn.


              1. Adelyn Birch

                Good! We’ll compare notes.

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