Masks of a Narcissist
By Dana Morningstar
This refers to the different faces (or masks) that a narcissist shows in public as well as to the target—especially in the beginning. These different masks are often socially acceptable and ideal, which can make them seem charming, likable…and the furthest thing from an abusive person. When a narcissist switches masks, or when the mask slips, their true self is seen, which is often horrifying and different than the person the target knows. Over time, the narcissist’s mask slips more and more often, and the target starts to view the narcissist as having a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” personality, or having both really great and really awful sides to themselves.
Some of the masks they wear might be that of the great parent, the God-loving church-goer, the volunteer, the world’s best spouse, or the charming and funny person. However, those close to the narcissist know that many times their actions are very different than those of the people that they pretend to be.
When a narcissist’s mask slips, it is usually only the target who sees this—at least at first. The more the narcissist knows that their target won’t leave, the more often their mask comes off, until they may stop hiding their abusive behavior and become comfortable acting this way in public or in front of friends and family.
When a mask slips, or comes off completely, the narcissist’s true self, which is composed of deception, manipulation, and cold, callous, or calculating behavior is revealed. Many targets are terrified of the person they really see when the mask slips, and often describe them as dark, terrifying, or evil. At this point, the narcissist may (or may not) try to get their mask back on—and quickly switch back to a nice, caring person (which isn’t sincere—it’s just more manipulation). When their mask continues to slip (which tends to happen if they are being confronted with lie after lie), it’s as though they are completely unraveling. They might go from professions of love to threats of violence, to trying to be friendly, to crying, to yelling, to apologizing, to claiming they are hearing voices, or that they are suicidal, or even that they have cancer. When none of that works, and they realize that they have “lost,” they become enraged, and there are no more masks. Their complete lack of empathy and remorse is what their target often sees.
It can be absolutely mind boggling and terrifying to see a narcissist go from love bombing and professing that you are the love of their life, to seeing their mask slip and realizing that they don’t love you—that they don’t even like you and could potentially harm or kill you, and feel totally entitled and justified in doing so.
Example: Raul and Maria had been married for five years. During this time, Raul was charming, likable, and came across to Maria and most other people as the world’s greatest husband. However, once they had their first child, Raul became verbally and emotionally abusive. It was like a switch had flipped. Maria had never seen this side of him before, at least not to this extent. At first, she chalked it up to stress about the new baby, but as time went on, his behavior got worse. At Thanksgiving, he began cussing and yelling at her for not cutting the pumpkin pie in the right way. She was embarrassed and ashamed by the scene that he caused and apologized profusely. All of the family and friends who witnessed this scene felt awkward and ended up leaving early. Raul called them all the next day, being his charming, likable self and apologized for his behavior and blamed it on holiday stress and alcohol. Everyone except for Maria’s aunt Marge, who’d been in an abusive relationship before, was quick to forgive him and seemed impressed with how accountable he was for his behavior. Marge wasn’t impressed at all. She was concerned for Maria as she saw right through Raul’s mask and fake apology.
Mask (of Narcissist) Coming Off
A narcissist will generally take off their mask completely when they realize that their target fully sees them for the manipulative liar that they are. It is during this time that the target is in the greatest amount of danger, as the narcissist is no longer pretending to care. Even worse, because the narcissist lacks empathy and remorse and feels entitled to treat their target in whatever way they want, things can escalate really quickly. When the target sees the emotional manipulator for what they really are, they are usually terrified and are concerned that they might be in danger (and they may well be).
Example: After being married to Raul for seven years, Maria was done. She was tired of riding the roller coaster of his Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde moods and enduring the verbal and emotional abuse and apologies that followed. She filed for divorce and served Raul papers. He flew into a rage in front of their neighbors and their children. He didn’t even try to hide his abusive behavior. Even though Raul didn’t make any direct threats towards her or the children, she was terrified by his actions…and the look in his eyes. He had this cold, dark look, and Maria felt as though she was seeing the devil himself. She’d never seen anything like that before in him or in anyone else, and she felt like he could kill her and the children and not even think twice about it. After he left the house, she realized that she and the children needed to leave immediately and never go back. She called the police to come and do a civil stand-by in case Raul came back, because she was fearful of being in the house alone with him.
Example: Sandra found out that her boyfriend, Al, was sexting with his ex-girlfriend. When she confronted him about it, he became incredibly angry, because she’d been going through his phone and seen the text messages from another woman. He began yelling, cussing, shoving, slapping, and hitting her, blaming her for looking at his phone, and telling her that she was the one who couldn’t be trusted. Sandra and Al had fought before, but never like this. She was terrified by what was going on. He didn’t even look like himself—it was like he was possessed. Sandra found herself apologizing over and over again in an attempt to get him to stop yelling and hitting her. Her neighbors heard their fighting, and called the police, who then arrested him. As the police were taking Al away, he screamed at her, “Look at what you did, you psycho bitch! After all I’ve done for you! Are you happy now? You ruined my life! I’ll get you for this!” He had this cold, dead, crazed look in his eyes, and Sandra was terrified that he’d kill her if he ever saw her again.
Dana Morningstar is a former psychiatric nurse turned domestic violence educator who specializes in abuse awareness and prevention. Her passion is working with survivors of abuse to reclaim and rebuild their self-esteem, boundaries, confidence, and identity. She is an author of multiple books on the subject, and also has a blog, podcast, and YouTube channel, as well as several online support groups, all of which you can find under the name “Thrive After Abuse.”