The concept of the sociopath as “masking sanity,” originally from Hervey Cleckley, MD, and since as confirmed and elaborated by other experts, is certainly chilling, great, profound and often-times apt.
But I’d suggest we be careful not to apply it too indiscriminately. In other words, not all sociopaths “wear masks” in the classic sense of Cleckley’s concept. For this reason, if you’re looking for “masks” as a prerequisite to confirming the sociopath, you risk missing the sociopath.
Some sociopaths are more manifestly who they are—sociopaths. They aren’t “masking” much of anything. They aren’t necessarily taking brilliant precautions to conceal themselves.
Like many human beings they aren’t wearing “neon signs” advertising their personality type or personality disorder—rather, they are who they are in their daily lives, not necessarily more consciously disguised in their personalities than anyone else.
The individual suffering from “panic disorder” who takes measures not to make his panic obvious isn’t necessarily wearing a “mask.” He may be effecting a certain normal, selective decision about which aspects of his personality or experience he is or isn’t comfortable making obvious or transparent in the moment.
Many sociopaths are surprisingly undisguised, or certainly no more disguised, about their personalities than non-sociopaths. In some cases I’d suggest the opposite is true: Because many sociopaths are adventure-seeking, under-inhibited and less anxious about the impression they make on others, on top of being inclined to grandiosity and thereby possessing a heightened sense of immunity from the consequences of their attitudes and behaviors, they may reveal even more transparently and less self-consciously aspects of their “real” personality than will non-sociopaths, whose greater self-consciousness around others and greater respect (in general) for others’ boundaries will have an inhibitory effect on what aspects of themselves they choose to reveal.
I’m not suggesting that many sociopaths aren’t master disguisers and impressively covert, calculating manipulators. Of course they are. But we don’t want to fall into the trap of assuming that all of them are, as this puts us, I am suggesting, at risk of missing the many exceptions to the classic sociopathic profile.
Thus we want to be careful to avoid making sweeping generalizations about the presentation of any personality disorder, including sociopaths.
For instance, some sociopaths aren’t even particularly disguised about how manipulative they are. They can be audaciously, almost blatantly manipulative, whether effectively or not. The less good they are, the more “transparent” their manipulativeness is. There’s not much “masking” going on here.
Same with lying: some sociopaths are bad liars. Lying itself doesn’t constitute the wearing of a mask. You can be a transparently bad liar; you can even admit you are a liar, or that you lie frequently and “get over” on others, or “try getting over” on others as a tendency; and while this may qualify you as having sociopathic characteristics, it does not, perforce, mean you are wearing a “mask.”
It may mean, quite simply, that you are being who you are, whether you are boldly, recklessly impulsive; shockingly insensitive and callous to someone else’s experience; or shameless and guiltless as you “steal something” from someone that isn’t yours.
In the latter case, you may make little disguise or pretense of your shamelessness, or lack of guilt. You might just be acting exactly as the sociopath acts. That is, there be very little to “unmask;” what may be primary in such cases is merely to identify the attitudes and behaviors themselves, which may be sociopathic.
I will advance this discussion in a near-term article.
(This article is copyrighted © 2012 by Steve Becker, LCSW. My use of the male gender pronoun is strictly for convenience’s sake and not to suggest that females aren’t capable of exhibiting the attitudes and behaviors discussed.)