When the sociopath isn’t wearing a mask

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.)  

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71 Comments on "When the sociopath isn’t wearing a mask"

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Lone Wolf,

I did a search on “serial reproductive abuser.”

Everything that I found was related to Law & Order, SVU.

Did they (Olivia) coin the term?

Olivia is my hero!!!!! I miss Elliot though!

Whatever can be IMAGINED can be done…and for someone to want to propagate themselves is easily imagined. For someone to want to keep control over someone by using the propagation as a weapon, yep, also easily imagined.

The psychopaths use our children to keep holds on victims….to punish victims and the law helps them. The children suffer, both genetically and environmentally. Even if they manage to survive and be fairly normal, they give birth to the spawn of satan themselves (from personal experience, sorry if I sound bitter! LOL)

Thanks Steve for your article and words. They are so ‘validating’ on this the TRUE one year ‘marking’ of the end and the overwhelming ‘unmasking’ I performed, one year ago today.

So, reading your article, right now, is very timely for me and it helps solidify everything I had been seeing and experiencing and making it all the more real vs. what the past ten years have been like for me.

Everything you said makes perfect sense to me.
I have seen it. “They are who they are”.

Someone once asked me, not too long ago, “WHAT made ME the morality cops?” Although I understood the question, I was slightly taken to offense and exclaimed: “Well, I guess “I” made myself the ‘morality cops’…I know what morality is and the difference between right and wrong. “I” have compassion for my fellow human beings and don’t use and manipulate them for my own personal gain. So, I guess “I” made MYSELF the morality cops.”

It’s all about setting down those boundaries and staying true to yourself and that which you KNOW is right vs. wrong. It’s who you are and what you believe and how you stand for that which is the most important here. It’s setting down your boundaries and not allowing anyone to step over them no matter who they are. It’s about knowing yourself and who you are and what you find acceptable or not acceptable.

There are a bazillion psychopaths in our world, I am almost sure of it. And, it scares me, sometimes, to think that perhaps they will strike at my family again some day. What if my precious GRAND CHILDREN were to marry a psychopath and fall victim to their ugly life damaging deceptions?

It’s something to think about. And, trust me, NOW when I speak to my older children and NOW grandchildren, I try to speak to them in such a way and lead them in such a way that they WILL recognize, now, when someone is not good for them. They will. They have seen what I have been through the past ten years with all of this.

While I never involved them, they have their own lives…I was a PERFECT ‘target’, or so he thought at the moment….during the love bombing and gas lighting phases, they are very convincing and mean absolutely NONE of it. It’s all about their personal gains is why they chose us in the first place. THEY NEEDED OR WANTED SOMETHING FROM US. I have almost decided that it is our strength and determination and courage. Think about that.

So thanks, again, Steve, for marking this auspicious moment with something to remember for all time. You have helped me on this day to lay some more of it aside and I am grateful.

I hope the words I left “IT” with (despite the subsequent stalkings from “IT” since)…I hope the words I left with “IT” one year ago this very day will seer themselves into his very soul, for all time.

TODAY I declare my freedom and take my life back.


My mother and father (both spaths) had their masks on to their deaths. Only their closest family members witnessed the abuse and insanity.

I was always a little curious about my sister…she seemed to never have any ‘shame’ and openly did things most people would think were way off a moral compass. She is a master manipulator and liar and would throw her own children under the bus in a New York minute. Well, so would my mother and father throw their children under the bus.

Don’t get it. Just can’t fathom.


I’ve temped a year once as a “humanistic” teacher… In Belgium state schools give 2 hours a week for each grade in religious classes. Parents can choose which religion, and if there’s no professional teacher available for it they can get an excemption and the child can do 2 hours a week of self-study on its religion. Aside from religions, there is also the possibility to get 2 hours of agnostic&atheist humanist teaching. The school and principals are not allowed to advize you on the content. The boss of such subjects is the provincial inspector (like a state inspector). Anyway, part of my curriculum was sexual education… depending on their age and grade the goal of sexual education differs – STDS, pregnancy, emotional, self-perception, ethical discussions on in vitro and abortion, etc…

I had done a class of debate regarding unwanted pregnancies. The boys brought up the “women who trick a man into believing she’s taking the pill and gets pregnant”. Both the boys and girls were opining that in such cases a man would have the right to let the mother deal with the raising of the kid, including financially, by herself. Because I didn’t hear any counter arguments to this “unfairness to the guy” I stepped in as the devil’s advocate and pointed out: and how is that fair to the child that didn’t get to choose to be born in such a situation? When I made them consider the raising of a child from the pov of the child’s needs and rights, they came to admit that it would be unfair to let the mother have the sole responsibility, or possibly the mother + society, but excempt the father. Eventually they agreed that the father still had a responsibility, and that men who absolutely didn’t want to be a father had to make sure they didn’t, instead of placing the responsibility solely to the woman.

I’ve known a woman who had done that to her bf, who wasn’t really committed to her.

Good for you, Darwinsmom. I am so glad to hear that you opened the kids’ eyes.

A friend of mine tried to get an ethics course introduced and taught at our local high school.

The school administration shot her down. It was “too controversial.”

I think one of the reasons that our kids are in the “state” they are in now with early sex and early drugs etc is that ethics are NOT taught in our schools any more. It isn’t about religion it is about MORALS and ETHICS and RIGHT and WRONG and those shouldn’t change from religion A to B or no religion for that matter.

But I’m just an old fuddy duddy!

However, i did try to teach my kids ethics and look what it got me. LOL So I guess maybe I’m not as smart as I think I am. LOL ROTFLMAO You can lead a horse to water….you can teach a psychopath ethics and he will bite you in the ass with them.

My own personal theory about this is that the sociopath or psychopath will do whatever *works* to allow him or her to win. For spaths, its all about winning. If wearing a mask and being covertly manipulative will help the spath achieve his or her goal, that’s the strategy s/he will use. If the spath is being rewarded for being openly narcissistic, demanding, and manipulative, then, they’ll keep up that behavior (I’m thinking of mega-stars in the entertainment industry, mainly.) So as long as you keep in mind the core trait or core motivation of the sociopath/psychopath “Its all about me winning, and it doesn’t matter to me how I win (as long as I don’t get caught cheating)” then their behaviors are more understandable, detectable and avoidable for us non-spath, potential victims.

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