When all the world’s a stage: personas and psychopathy

By Linda Hartoonian Almas, M.S. Ed

To psychopaths, life is often like a series of stage plays.  They are like the play actors and they tend to keep themselves very busy, working in a variety of different productions.  When they exhaust the audience pool in one venue, they move to the next.  It is important to note that they may work many productions at the same time, as well.

Unlike other actors, psychopaths do not worry about being type-cast.  They may play evil villains on one stage and sweet, loving, misunderstood victims on the next.  However, we must realize that they are just acting.

In the theatres of life, psychopaths may showcase a variety of personas.

What is a persona?

A persona is like a mask.  It is a role that actors play.  In psychology, it is the appearance people display, or the expression of personality that individuals present to those around them.  Psychopaths’ personas may change significantly depending on where they are and who they are with.  How they present themselves to us depends upon how they wish to be perceived.  They may portray themselves very differently to each of us, depending on our utility.  However, ultimately, they reveal themselves.

How do they reveal themselves?

Psychopaths frequently pretend to be what they are not.  If they were honest about their true intentions and personalities, who would have anything to do with them, at least initially?  They must manage how we view them by manipulating our experiences and interactions.   They do this through the use of varied personas.

Their actual personalities do not change.  They simply alter how they behave in order to portray the image they wish to create; they act.  For example, if they front loving personas, they may tell us how much they care about or love us.

They may express concern with their words because they know what they are supposed to say.  For a time, they may even be able to “deliver” on their words and act in manners which support their words.  To some degree, they may even believe that they feel some form of “love.”  What they experience, and what it means to them is far different than non-disordered individuals, however.  As a result, they never get it quite right, leaving serious gaps between their behaviors and appropriate behaviors.  Their words and their actions also fail to remain consistent.  Why?

The answer is that they tend to only know the basics.  They are ill equipped.  Asking for much more would be like asking a pre-med student to perform surgery or a private pilot to fly the space shuttle.  Often, they watch and learn what to do or say from non-psychopaths around them.  They may even “rehearse”  their parts, literally, especially regarding affective displays.  What comes naturally to us, simply does not to them.

However, before long, they begin “missing their cues.”  They are unable to sustain the feigned expressions of love, caring, or concern because they don’t really feel them as non-psychopaths do or understand how truly concerned and connected individuals behave.  They can only perform the behaviors they know from observation or very basic understandings of societal norms.  Nothing is genuine.  As a result, they leave out numerous, important details.

Additionally, they occasionally allow their real personalities show through.  Although we are confused when this happens, unsure of why they are behaving “oddly,” over time, we begin to see these episodes as disturbing.  These points, coupled with the fact that their charades can be labor intensive, especially as they begin to grow bored or lose interest, ultimately, lead to their reveals.  When we begin to see their true personalities, we see that the display was nothing more than a facade.  Nothing was real about them.  It was just one of their personas.

Don’t we all “change” to look good?

To a degree, controlled presentation is not exclusive to psychopathy.  However, the extent is.  The motivations and methods  are also different.  There is a difference between employing polishing touches or putting our best faces forward and concealing our personalities with lies.

Imagine you are on a job interview.  Unless you are specifically asked to address your weaknesses, you probably don’t.  Under the circumstances, you want to show that you are worthy of the position.  As most of us would do, you manage or control what you allow others to see.  However, other than enlisting the services of a few polishing touches, who you are remains the same.

Continuing the scenario, when you leave the job interview, you meet a friend for lunch.  Although you may be more relaxed and comfortable, your behaviors are similar and your friend sees the same person the interviewer saw earlier.  That “you” is also the same one your family will see later in the day.  The package and the contents remain the same, even as the surroundings differ.

Our persona, or our presentation to the outside world, is fairly constant.  Although we may adjust our behaviors or make minor alterations for the certain circumstances, we don’t change.  Each person we interact with sees our actual personality.  Thus, the difference.

How do they fool us?

Simply put, they are often not who they appear to be, but are skilled at making us believe otherwise.  They are able to “become” what they think we want them to be, morphing into the “person” we are looking for.

How did they know what we wanted?  We told them!  As we shared what we were looking for in the “perfect” mates, colleagues, or friends, or discussing character traits that are important to us, they were taking notes, so to speak.  We had no idea that we were teaching them how to dupe us.  Directly, or indirectly, we let them know what we wanted or did not want in our relationships.  We taught them how to perform in their efforts to take from us and harm us.

We cannot fault ourselves for this.  With no experience, we could not have known that our honest sharing would be misused.

They may maintain their personas for weeks, months, or even years.  They continue for whatever period of time they choose to keep us “on the hook.”  However, there are cues along the way that something is amiss.

So many personas, so little time…

Sometimes, they act in too many plays, playing too many roles at once.  This can cause an “overload,” of sorts.  They may actually forget what role they are playing or who we are to them.  Since little of what they portray to anyone is real, it can be hard for them to keep things straight.  They have to search.   It is as if they literally have to inventory their mental record keeping systems, searching for the correct file to pull. 

As a result, they occasionally slip up and experience difficulty “getting into character.”  Have you ever caught anyone in a momentary “lapse of persona,” where he or she did not remember who to be?  The psychopaths have to try to recall the correct persona to use, but can’t.

I have witnessed this occurrence on a few occasions.  However, there is one instance, in particular, that replays in my mind.  The incident was so bizarre that I stopped what I was saying and asked this individual if he knew who he was speaking to.  He indicated that he did.

I was incredibly confused by the tone and content of the conversation.  Both were inappropriate, given the circumstances.  Once queried, there was a significant pause in the conversation, while this person  “found” who he needed to be.  At that point, the “personality” switch was instant.  I witnessed two completely different personas.  He knew who he was speaking to all along, it just took him a moment to remember who I was to him.

Like an actor rushing off stage for a quick change, two very different “people,” or personas within the blink of an eye.

What happens next?

This is usually not obvious to us at first.  In fact, most people have trouble recognizing what is occurring.  Those closer to these individuals, who have greater access to observations for extended periods of time, are mainly the ones who come to see and recognize this.  Other, less involved relationships, tend to terminate prior to the reveals or remain very superficial.

This is very often why when the neighbors or co-workers of killers or domestic abusers are interviewed, many indicate that the perpetrators were “such nice guys.”  The reality is that the “nice guy” personas were the ones they knew.

However, when psychopaths or those with such features wear masks, those masks eventually crack.  It is then that we meet people we never knew.  We are left looking at the same physical beings we thought we were close to, but in reality, those people, or their personas, I should say, are gone.  It takes time to comprehend that the people and the personalities we thought we were close to never really existed.

Eventually, we realize the truth.  We need time to mourn this loss, as we would any other.  It’s necessary to take it.  With the understanding being half the battle, we can recover and mover forward from there.


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69 Comments on "When all the world’s a stage: personas and psychopathy"

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Divorced from Gaslighter

Smart Yet Deceived: apparently my previous comment never made it to the board, but let me try again.

Don’t waste money on a custody fight. Save the money for when your daughter is old enough to know who you are, and then offer to pay for orthodontic work, piano lessons, summer camp, etc. No matter what the ex says about you, the daughter will always remember that you made financial sacrifices to give her a better childhood than she would have had otherwise.

My former sister-in-law was narcissistic and extremely immature, and my brother had no contact with his children from the time that they were toddlers. Surprisingly, the kids turned out really well. They were homeschooled, and their mom never wanted them to have any contact with anyone on our side of the family, but when they reached adulthood, they were curious and sought us out.

Remember that the S will always ENJOY a custody fight, because they get to play the role of the “good parent” and they become the center of attention. They also can “go for broke” and break every rule in the process of fighting, because the child’s welfare isn’t really a big deal to them. If you start blubbering about how much your little girl means to you, and how you live for your time with her, your ex will make your life a living Hell.

Document everything: save phone messages, print out every email sent and received, and put them in three-ring binders. When you send your daughter a greeting card at Easter, etc., write a message on it and sign your name, and then photocopy the card.

Even if you “win” a certain amount of visitation in court, your ex will ruin it by making sure that the child is exhausted when you pick her up, and will video the child crying, etc., and then suggest to the judge that you are abusive in some way, because why else would the child cry every time you arrive???

Don’t play this game. If she won’t let you visit, just visit when you can, and document her repeated refusals to allow you to visit more often. Wait her out. Once the child is in school, you can visit her at school.

What I’m trying to say here is that if you try to be SuperDad, your ex is going to try to destroy you, and because the child is illegitimate, she can move to the other side of the globe to get away from you if she wants. But if you just aim for being a Zoo Daddy, she won’t feel as threatened.

You aren’t in a good situation, but if you let your emotions lead the way, things will get worse. Stay away from “Father’s Rights” morons who will encourage you to start WWIII.

Exactly, Sky.

What used to flabbergast me about spath mirroring was how they then could not bond or empathize. We naturally do it while we’re in the process of relating, empathizing and synching with another person… but spaths don’t.

But thinking about it harder tonight I realize that only focus and interest is required to mirror. But with us this intellectual focus is also accompanied with emotions at another level.

I visualize it now as three comunication lines –

There’s two internal brain comunication line that is cognitive and bodily… They’re twined around each other. We want/need to focus and concentrate and in order to help our concentration we mirror… You’ll notice how difficult it would be to concentrate on a conversation partner if you willfully do NOT mirror the other (sit away, differentiate your leg’s posture, etc). Not to mention that if the other wants to engage you into the conversation and keep your interest, will start to mirror you in body language in order to make the conversation synch again.

The other internal communication line is our internal emotional line. While we focus on a cognitive level, our emotional line is also busy at work… most likely about the content of the conversation, or our feelings about the person who’s talking. But it could also be totally unrelated emotions that simply do not interfere with our concentration. They just are.

We tend to think the three internal brain communictions are all twined together (and hence we regard mirroring as related to empathy), but I think the above visual model would be more accurate… Our feelings are related to empathy, but our focux and subsequent mirroring relate solely to the cognitive part. Hence a spath can focus and will need to mirror, but there’s no separate but simultaneous emotional authentic internal line at work.

I think you are right that it is several things happening in sequence.

There was an experiment with monkeys and motor neurons. A sensor attached to a monkey’s brain beeped whenever he picked up an object with his hand. One day a lab tech walked in and picked up the object. The monkey’s sensor beeped. From that it was observed that the monkey’s neurons were firing when he saw anyone else pick up the object. So they named these neurons “mirror neurons”. There is a book about it.

It seems that we all have them. Your explanation though, takes it the rest of the way. The mirror neurons fire when we see the facial expression then we mimic it ourselves and FEEL the emotions associated with the having the muscle movement. Since we have a connection between the facial expression and the emotion, we feel empathy.

Spaths don’t have that connection. They are disconnected from their own emotions so they can’t feel anything when they mirror us. They only feel the actual muscle movement.

I can imagine that my spath brother was noticing his mimicry and because he couldn’t complete the sequence to its natural consequence, it felt rather bizarre.

People with asperger’s are thought to have a different problem, they simply don’t mimic. So the disconnect happens elsewhere. But if the emotion is pointed out to them, they do feel it because they have access to their own emotions.

Divorced, that is some great advice !!!!!!


I hear you loud and clear! The emotional battle will, of course, continue to rage inside of me. Wondering if I could win custody, but even then, the S mother’s visitation would be a nightmare…

Thanks so much for the advice!

Skylar, you mentioned people with Aspergers ‘People with asperger’s are thought to have a different problem, they simply don’t mimic. So the disconnect happens elsewhere. But if the emotion is pointed out to them, they do feel it because they have access to their own emotions.’

My husband has been diagnosed Aspergers, but he mimics all the time, he also is a superb impersonator, and can sound like and look like famous people to a T.

I have been wondering..I am in a difficult marriage but because he has been diagnosed with Aspergers, I feel I should tolerate some stuff that he does as he cannot help having the Disability, however so much of the way he acts is like a sociopath.

When he visted a new psychiatrist, she decided he was Sociopathic and Scitzotypal PD.

His mother is Narcissistic PD and his brother is just plain self centred and arrogant and no consideration for others..he never married as he couldn’t compromise at all enough to live with another, not did he want to. He could also be Aspergers.
What is troubling me is the similarities between someone who has Aspergers and someone who is Sociopathic..both have low empathy, little serious interest in others (other than when it suits them or for a purpose) and so many more similarities.
So which Psychiatrist has diagnosed him correctly? Am I wrong to keep tolerating his behaviours, as ghe maybe Psychopathic?
He gets very excited if I seem to be degrading someone as I very rarely do. He likes to encourage me to be unpleasant about people and I can see it delights him to goad me to do this.
He really doesn’t have any time for anyone (except himself) and complains about everyone.
He holds grudges forever and he is only nice to me when I threaten to leave him, then just like magic he becomes the ‘perfect husband’ for a few weeks or months if I am lucky, then back he slides into this self obsessed money orientated unemotional mode.

He also takes my things , even though I have asked him not to, he will eat all my chocolate, cake etc (as well as his own) -take my money, and worst take my medication so much so that I have had to lock it away..he doesn’t care about fairness, or sharing food treats, or doing anything I would like to do..our whole lives are run in the way he wants them to be..he has no regard for my paintings (I paint on canvas) and put all my work in a wooden garden shed with a leaking roof and they all got ruined..if I had done that to HIS work (he also paints) it wouldn’t have been safe for me to come home!

It’s everything on his terms or he acts like a big spoiled kid. the thing is now with two diagnoses, I am also wondering..AS or Spath? Any clues anyone?


What difference does the diagnosis make if you are unhappy and with a person who treats you poorly? Just because he has a “disability” doesn’t mean you must tolerate being treated badly.

If there is no happiness there…take care of yourself.

there is a book about “mirror neurons” that may interest you. It explains it better than I can.
I misspoke, the book refers to “the autism spectrum” not actually to asperger’s.

But I know what you mean. AS people, although they are on the Autism spectrum, do mirror and mimic.

There is lots of information about this exciting new discovery of mirror neurons on the web. Just google it.

Your husband is probably very charming and loveable when he’s not an a** right? It’s hard to leave them when they are on good behavior. I understand why you need to know what motivates him. But I would advise you to spend at least an equal amount of time learning what motivates YOU.

There are several reasons for this. First, manipulators are already aware of what motivates you and they pull those strings. Allowing them to know you better than you know yourself, is dangerous.

Second, knowing yourself is difficult because we all use denial as a defense mechanism. The better you can see yourself clearly, the more you take back your own power and direct your own life. That is so important.

Whatever the diagnosis is, YOU know that he manipulates you. That’s what matters. Protect yourself.

Hi Saysi,

I am also in a marriage with a person with AS, people with AS are all different and sometimes they have comorbid conditions, NPD and Hans Asperger also wrote about psychopathic autism, it is easy to feel that you have to excuse many bad behaviours simply because AS is regarded as a disability, there is a lot of misinformation about AS, not all are charming though some are, some like my husband are very charming outside but very abusive within the home, a lot of what you describe is associated with AS.
There is a very good forum you might like to read… Delphi ASpartners, there you will find a lot of understanding partners and good ideas about how to cope if you want to stay in your marriage, for me I have no trust left and I am tired and will be leaving, but that is my personal choice, it can be a very difficult condition to live with.

Blessings mmmary

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