You may sometimes hear experts or people who have experienced psychopaths in their lives talk about “the mask” they wear, and how and when to spot when this mask sometimes falters. What do we mean when we talk about this mask in relation to psychopaths and other toxic people?
More specifically, we will extend the phrase a little to call it “The Mask of Sanity” to borrow the phrase from Hervey Cleckley’s excellent book on the topic. What does this term refer to?
The mask of sanity refers to the psychological facade or persona that all psychopaths must wear in order to present themselves to the world as a good, rational, moral, decent person instead of the destructive, toxic scheming person they actually are. It’s the charming front act they put on to deceive people they interact with about their true nature.
This mask is for sure better developed in some psychopaths than others and some are more adept than others at blending into society and “seeming” like a normal enough person to other people most of the time. Occasionally though, even for skilled psychopaths this facade does drop and they give away glimpses of their real character, and this is what we must look for when spotting these pathological personality types.
Let’s look at the issue in more detail below.
Psychopaths as Lifetime Actors (Constant Mask Up)
We will borrow an excellent term used by Joe Atwill that perfectly describes this tendency psychopaths have to pretend – that of Lifetime Actors. See here for an excellent discussion by Atwill on the concept of the lifetime actor.
He uses it more in the context of fake celebrities that project an image, persona or lifestyle to the public that bears no resemblance to who they actually are or the life they actually lead. Their entire image is a public relations stunt designed to portray them to their fans as an honest, sincere, authentic person when they are anything but that.
However, exactly the same principle can be brought down the micro level of how psychopaths interact with people in their lives on an everyday level. They are constantly acting; projecting an image of a certain person to their victims that is the opposite of who they really are.
It is part of the process of “wooing” and reeling in their victim, painting the picture of themselves as the perfect partner who walks and talks in step with everything they do. They are experts at creating this image of the perfect match and soulmate clone.
See Jackson Mackenzie’s Psychopath Free (see books section for link) and also Anthony Johnson’s excellent presentation on psychopathy, for a perfect description of how they do this. The whole process is of course totally fake and they will create a completely different soulmate clone for the next person they move onto. It is part of the act.
Nevertheless this is just one aspect of an overall tendency of psychopaths to be lifetime actors, in the sense they are constantly having to project a fake image of themselves to the people around them to conceal the destructive, toxic person they really are. This is what the Mask of Sanity refers to.
Some are better at creating and sustaining this mask than others. Some of the more violent unhinged psychopaths for example barely have any mask at all and immediately come off to normal people as “not right”. Others can blend perfectly well into society and even rise to the highest levels of business and politics.
Psychopaths can wear many different masks psychologically depending on the person or the situation, but all their masks are designed to conceal an inner fakeness and emptiness
However, the psychopath people tend to encounter in everyday life generally has learned to adjust to society’s norms just enough to blend in undetected, at least initially. Often even in these cases though they are sometimes “found out” as people begin to put two and two together about their lies, and they have to move on to a new area with new targets who are not yet wise to them.
Nevertheless psychopaths are often capable of producing a superficial initial charm and charisma that is capable of fooling even the most observant intelligent person. They can seem initially like the perfect friend, perfect partner, perfect job candidate, perfect businessman. They can be very warm and charming, come up with all the right answers, seem engaged and engaging, have all the right anecdotes and be the life and soul of the party.
This is all part of the pretense of the mask or image they are presenting to the world. It is designed to cover up an inner emptiness and fakeness that is characteristic of all psychopaths and sooner or later there will be subtle signs of this as the mask drops, which we will cover further below.
The Mask of Sanity in Romantic Relationships
Let’s cover some examples of how this mask of sanity can manifest in different contexts, firstly in romantic relationships – a personal favorite hunting ground of many psychopaths. They are brilliant at presenting and projecting the perfect image to people they are courting, of being everything you want them to be.
Here are some ways this can manifest in personal romantic relationships with a psychopaths
- They will often draw romantic partners in with their superficial charm and charisma, seeming engaging, confident and charming.
- They will often seem very sexually attuned to romantic partners early on.
- They can play the perfect match, seem like the perfect partner in the early stages.
- They can seem interesting in everything you’re interested in, and give you constant attention.
- They will often intensely mirror you.
- There will be a sense of walking and talking in rhythm with them, that’s you’ve found the perfect person who “gets” you and is into all the things you’re into.
All this is designed to create a fantasy image of them in the other person’s mind – that bears no resemblance to who they really are. Nevertheless, they can often keep the act up for weeks or months, because they put so much energy into it.
The Mask Of Sanity In The World Of Work
Another great example of the mask of sanity at work with psychopaths is the energy they put into this front act when trying to get their foot in the door in jobs. They put an enormous amount of energy into wooing potential employers at job interviews, again by creating this persona or mask of being anything the interviewer wants them to be.
Here are some examples of this:
- They often stride in with a confident, strong swagger, very well dressed, with a broad smile and firm handshake. They’ll be looking to make a good first impression.
- A superficial warmth and charisma the psychopath appears to exude, at least when you first meet them. Designed to get you captivated by them. Psychopaths can be very charismatic; the air can seem to buzz around them.
- A “slickness” and “coolness” that can easily take in more materialistic and shallow people especially. A social ability to “chit the chat” and seemingly do and say all the right things at the right time. Will often appear to be very engaged and engaging socially.
- Their charm and confidence is often characterized by a total lack of shyness, self consciousness, humility or self doubt. It is brazen and not afraid to approach or say anything.
- They’ll be very complimentary about the interviewer, boss, company and surroundings, perhaps suspiciously so, in order to ingratiate themselves as best as they can.
- They’ll often present an impressive looking CV, with extensive accomplishments, status and tenure (actually check up on what’s there though, and you’ll often find discrepancies and deception there with psychopaths).
- For Jobs – They put up a front that can be so charming and engaging that we are easily taken in by them, to the point where we forgo common sense precautions and just let them into our lives (“ah, just give him the job, we don’t need to get references, he’s alright”). Psychopaths are brilliant at charming their way in like that.
- Can appear very funny and captivating, tell great stories, anecdotes etc. Appears very extroverted, outgoing and sociable.
- In short, they can read people very quickly and very well, being everything you want them to be in that moment. Psychopaths are all about manipulating the perception of others, so they will rarely give a poor interview. They’ll be on top form and come across as very likeable, confident, interested and engaging.
Here are some common reactions manipulative psychopaths can generate in people interviewing them:
- “Wow, this guy’s so charming and engaging”
- “Wow, what a charismatic and powerful presence. This guy’s got some force of personality. He could drive us forward.”
- “He/she’s literally perfect for us! They’re the perfect match! We don’t need references; let’s just get them in as soon as possible.”
- “This guy is literally too good to be true.”
- “One could not ask for a better candidate. Perfect. Let’s take him on before the competition snaps him up.”
See our article on psychopaths getting into workplaces for more on this.
Again, they manage to generate this reaction in people so much because of the sheer amount of energy they put into this front act, this mask of sanity. They need to give people the impression that they are the opposite of what they actually are, and they often (temporarily) succeed because they work so hard at it.
Spotting A Psychopath – When The Mask Drops
Of course we all wear some of kind of mask or persona to some extent psychologically. We all have a face we present to the world and it is not often who we really are on a deep level. In today’s Western world there has to be some degree of acting or playing a role that most of us sign up to, even if it is just when we go to work and tell people what they want to hear.
However, normal people still have a realization that this is what they are doing, as well as a real self which they will show to people they trust in their intimate lives. We put the mask on to protect ourselves in the outside world but this mask drops around trusted company. We are comfortable being ourselves here because we are good people deep down when we strip off the mask.
The psychopath however does not have such a luxury, as they know they cannot bear to show who they really are to other people. They must constantly keep the mask up 24/7 as to let it drop would reveal to others a completely chaotic, disordered, inner world devoid of any empathy or real emotion. People would see them for who they really are, and in the case of a psychopath this would not be very pretty.
Psychopaths therefore must do everything they can to constantly keep this Mask of Sanity or pretense up, all day, every day, to everyone they meet. This is when we start to feel pity for the psychopath, as a normal person imagines what it must be like to have to do this all the time, and the constant effort and energy it must entail.
When The Mask of Sanity Drops
No person can keep this mask up constantly and so every now and then the mask will drop and the psychopath will reveal what’s really going in in their psyche, underneath all the marzipan they have laid on the top in the form of the mask or persona of the perfect person they have presented to you.
How this happens is brilliantly described by Stefan Verstappen in the video embedded above. In a nutshell it boils down to this:
Every now and then the psychopath will do or say something that is so at odds with the perfect image they have been presenting to you that you stand up and think “what was that?”. The persona is mostly very well maintained but occasionally the mask drops and the “real them” leaks out.
They will occasionally do or say something that is so out of line with the performance they have been putting up for you that you start to ask questions about who this person really is. “Did they just do that? Did they just say that?” you may find yourself asking.
This can manifest in a number of ways:
- Contradictions between stated “values” or “principles” and their actual behavior. Stefan Verstappen gives an excellent example in the video above of the supposed “animal lover” who you then find kicking the cat or dog. When confronted the mask comes right back up: “oh no I love animals it was just an accident” etc etc.
- Things will be done or said that are just flat out outrageous or out of order and massively at odds with their projected image. They may reveal an underlying contempt for you or someone else, a lack of care or empathy about some tragedy or some other disturbing character trait they have so far kept hidden from you.
- In cases where this happens you may find yourself saying “A normal person would not have just said that. What the hell is it with this guy?” or something along those lines. When the mask drops there just seems to be no filter in the things they come out with.
- They will perhaps leak out abusive, dominating language towards you, in such a way that a request starts to sound like an order with swearwords like f**king inserted in there. You may see them “catch themselves” doing it and pull back a little but still pay careful attention to their speech patterns to watch for signs of thinly concealed aggression and contempt towards you and others (see the embedded video below for an example of this).
- With workplace psychopaths – you’ll start seeing red flags – constant drama and conflicts surrounding them, reports of bullying and inappropriate behavior, losing good staff, constant divisiveness, lack of substantive performance from them, and so on. Despite the charming front act they presented at the interview, you see they aren’t what they made themselves out to be.
- In general, anything where there is a contradiction or something not seeming right in their actual actions or words versus the image they have been presenting to you. Pay special attention for this happening on an increasing basis over time.
Subtle example – Lucy Letby – Well Constructed “mask” that sometimes still dropped (9:30 – 14:15 timestamp)
Note how the court room observer notes that Letby did come across quite well in person sometimes – better than on paper – but still lost composure and let her mask slip when put under pressure during cross-examination. She realized this line of questioning had her “rumbled”, and this is when her real arrogance and contempt leaked out.
Of course we should add the caveat that no one is perfect and everyone makes mistakes and says or does things they regret every now and then. We can all have a bad day at work and come home snappy and irritable and be a bit “off” with our partners and friends.
Similarly when things are going bad in life in general, like when going through a divorce or some other difficult upheaval, we can be off color for weeks or even months. We may be irritable or closed off to others and they may notice this about us.
That is not what we are talking about here. There is an explanation for these kinds of things and the people around us know who we really are to some extent anyway. They know we are off color because they know who we usually are and and there is no sense of pretending there.
What you are really looking for is a more toxic sense of a person constantly and ubiquitously acting and performing in a way that they are never really revealing who they truly are. You are looking for a sense of inherent deceptiveness and dishonesty, with an occasional sense of something leaking out that is far more toxic and troubling than someone just having a bad day.
The Mask of Sanity Depicted In Films
There are loads of films that depict psychopaths, but understandably, many of them focus on the violent nature of some of them. However, some more subtly and intelligently made films depict this mask of sanity aspect of psychopathy really well.
Here’s a couple of examples I could think of:
Poorly constructed mask of sanity – By this I mean that more obviously creepy, unhinged, psychopath who doesn’t have a very well constructed facade or mask of sanity, and therefore may come across to others very quickly as “unstable” or “not right” in some way. There’s quite a few of these in film, but one really good example is of Rutger Hauer’s depiction of John Ryder in the 1986 film The Hitcher. He plays that unhinged, obviously weird and dangerous version of a psychopath brilliantly – the one who doesn’t even try to charm you and who you regret giving a ride 30 seconds after you let him get in your car!
Well constructed mask of sanity – There are plenty of these in film as well, but the best and most underrated example I’ve seen is Matthew Goode’s performance as Charlie in the 2013 film Stoker. He absolutely nails to a tee how charming and manipulative psychopaths can be when they have a more cleverly constructed mask of sanity, wriggling their way into people’s live, seducing people romantically by presenting themselves as suave, debonair and sophisticated (when they’re anything but), and also systematically isolating victims from anyone who could help them see through their cheap trickery. An absolutely brilliant depiction of a charming psychopath, who’s mask of sanity covers up extreme mental instability.
Some Warning Signs Of A Mask or Persona At Play
As with so many things it is about learning to trust your gut feel and intuition about someone. There reaches a point when we feel we know a normal person well enough. We have seen who they really are in private and we are not afraid of any more surprises coming out. We have seen the best of them and the worst of them!
Of course we do occasionally hear stories about people learning something horrifying about their loved ones after many years of seemingly knowing them. However we argue that if you were to really dig deep into these cases you will find clues and red flags everywhere.
It is this intuitive sense and gut feel that will have been lost in the person who has been fooled all this time. We argue the evidence will have been there all along that something was off; they just weren’t looking for it.
It is this sense you will need to spot psychopaths and this Mask of Sanity they constantly have to project. You will also simply need to be observant in watching someone to make sure their actions match their words. This is something everyone should ideally do anyway as a part of vetting the people they spend time with.
Here are some general pointers to watch out for, in terms of what you are feeling or experiencing about his person:
- You find yourself bombarded with a tidal wave of initial charm, charisma or love from this person. It may mean they are a genuinely charismatic, vibrant person but it may also be their way of luring you in and making you feel special. Make sure you take enough time to properly vet someone and don’t be taken in only by initial charm and charisma.
- You have a gut feel that something isn’t “right” about this person, either initially or after the honeymoon phase where they bombarded you with fake charm and created a perfect soulmate for you.
- You start to see glaring contradictions between their professed image of who they are or what they stand for and their actual outer behavior towards you or others.
- You find yourself asking “what the hell did they just do/say back there?” or something similar.
- Pay careful attention to how they treat ALL people around them not just you.
- After an initial honeymoon period where everything seemed easygoing and relaxed, you may start to see red flags of controlling behavior start to come out. A sense that they’re not as easygoing as they first presented.
- Things they are telling you about themselves, their past or others aren’t adding up.
- You also find people from their past who start to question some of the claims they have been making. Their account doesn’t match what the person has been telling you and you find this happening more than once.
- It’s like they’re constantly putting on an act and you never feel you are seeing who they really are, even in private.
- You find yourself saying “I’ve known this person for x months or years now and yet I still don’t feel I know who they really are. It feels like they’re always acting for me to some extent”.
The Mask of Sanity, available on Amazon, is a classic text on psychopathy by former psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley, where he goes into great detail about the “mask” that toxic psychopaths wear. Cleckley details how this mask conceals a chaotic inner world devoid of real emotion and empathy and chronically destructive towards the self and others. A “mask” of superficial charm is needed to conceal these traits from others, though eventually and with enough time they will eventually leak out and be spotted.
See also our Resources page for links to more books and videos exposing the traits of the psychopath in daily life.