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.