Someone recently asked on Quora what would be the main thing survivors of narcissistic relationships would want the world to understand about narcissism.
I knew immediately what that would be and I feel I should give that topic a bit more love here on my blog.
The most important thing that everyone should understand about narcissism is the narcissist’s mask, how it operates and how it differs from what the narcissist’s scapegoat (child, partner, sibling) is experiencing.
Because of this mask, which frequently seriously is an Oscar-worthy act, targets of narcissists get further victimised and punished by the society. They are being judged as crazy and emotionally unstable because they react to the narcissist’s mind-fuck behaviour. The narcissist (or a psychopath by that matter) remains cool and composed and somehow people believe him or her.
Lessons from serial killers
I will use an example of a very extreme group to help you see how deceitful the narcissist’s or psychopath’s mask can be. It is completely possible for someone to act like the most composed likeable person and yet be deeply messed up inside and capable of the most horrific deeds.
The first video that I want you to look at is of a man that has been described as the definition of pure evil by his own lawyer. His name was Ted Bundy and he is believed to have brutally murdered dozens of women (some estimates go up to a hundred). He managed to do all that during a rather short criminal career – he was captured at the age of only 31.
Bundy was a handsome psychology graduate who had worked at a suicide hotline crisis centre, where his colleagues described him as kind, solicitous, and empathetic. He frequently lured his victims into his car under clever ruses before slamming them over their heads with a baseball bat. He would sexually assault the young women, murder them and keep returning to their corpses to enjoy further sexual pleasures until the bodies started decomposing.
Now watch the video, which was filmed the night before his execution.
He sounds and looks pretty reasonable, doesn’t he? You would believe he is a reformed man. Except for the fact that there is no real remorse. He is in no pain whatsoever over his deeds and in fact blames it on pornography. Some narcissists and psychopaths can fake remorse but it usually comes across as not totally genuine. That’s when you need to trust your instinct – this sort of ‘something is odd’ feeling that many of us feel but frequently dismiss.
The second video contains some footage of Bundy before and during his trial.
What an actor! And genuinely likeable! I bet many of those slaughtered girls entered his car voluntarily. In fact, at the time of the trial he was described as ‘America’s handsome nightmare’. Bundy was originally removed from the list of suspects because of his likeability and the fact that he had been quite successful professionally. Some of his acquaintances believed he was on track to becoming a state governor one day.
Bundy is by no means the only ‘likeable’ evil psycho in the history. In fact – superficial charm and likeability are among the criteria on the Hare checklist, against which psychiatrists and psychologists assess criminals for psychopathy.
I don’t intend to say that every likeable person is a psychopath. The emphasis here is on the word superficial. Since the narcissist’s likeable persona is just a mask, it has no real depth. That is, however, quite difficult to detect. We live in the age of superficial and the majority of people are very susceptible to subtle manipulation at which narcissists and psychopaths excel. Flattery, pretending that they are just like you, liking the same things, disliking the same people and having the same values, oozing kindness and helpfulness – these are all their powerful weapons. The problem is that there is an agenda behind all that and the person really is not what they pretend to be.
The following video is of another deranged murderer. Kevin Dahlgren brutally slaughtered four members of a family that hosted him in the Czech Republic. His mother sent him to stay with his distant relatives as he was struggling in his home environment in Paolo Alto, California. She thought that spending time in the slow-paced world of the post-communist country would do him good. Well, it didn’t.
His sojourn in Brno ended with a frantic escape to the US after he had, one by one, murdered his relatives in a crazed knife attack, after which he tried to set the bodies afire to erase evidence.
The evidence against him was pretty conclusive. He confessed but blamed the entire atrocity on ‘voices in his head.’ He may well have been hearing those voices. But if you listen to his speech – you will probably ask yourself – where is the remorse, the regret at the horrifying death of four innocent people that he had caused?
Dahlgren sounds very composed and reasonable. He speaks of all the healing he has accomplished since the murders and how he wants to become a valuable member of the society. It sounds quite calculated if you measure his words against his horrific act.
Dahlgren, by the way, was diagnosed narcissistic by a Czech expert. And if there is something that narcissists and psychopaths know how to do, then it is tailoring their behaviour to what people want to see. The Czech judge didn’t let him self be fooled. Dahlgren got a life-sentence and eventually committed suicide in a Czech prison.
The mask of your next-door narcissist
Not every narcissist or psychopath is a murderer, obviously. Your regular next-door narcissist would most likely be an expert at covert psychological abuse. But he or she will be hiding behind exactly the same likeable persona. This persona, or a mask, is the exact reason why the recipients of narcissistic mind-fuck have a really hard time explaining what’s going on. The target appears confused and emotional, is branded unstable and forced to either accept the narc’s version of reality or be ostracized by the common social circle.
A narcissistic mother would let everyone know how her scapegoat daughter is difficult and ungrateful, a narc man would start preparing the ground for the discard of his partner by making sure everybody gets the idea that she is ‘a nagging crazy bitch’, and since she reacts emotionally to his covert abuse, everyone would believe him. A psychopath colleague that would covertly sabotage cooperation with a co-worker would, of course, blame the whole situation on the other person and persuade the boss that the scapegoat is, indeed, high-strung, unreasonable and uncooperative. And again, since the scapegoat gets understandably emotional, or even angry, bang – of course she or he is the problem.
How to spot the mask?
You should want to get better at spotting masks for two reasons. First of all you want to see through them before they make you their target. Second, I am sure that as a good person you don’t want to participate in further victimisation of victims.
So how exactly do you become better at spotting masks? What I have noticed with many of these types that have crossed my path over the years is that frequently, I would have an immediate odd feeling, which I would dismiss, only for it to later be confirmed.
I once had to move out of a flat share because a flatmate, whom I believe was a psychopath, disliked me for a reason I will never understand. She successfully turned the other flatmate against me. “Magdalena is such a nice person, I don’t understand why are you not getting along with her,” I would hear, while the lovely Magdalena was busy smearing me for an array of made up transgressions. I remember the first moment my eyes met Magdalena’s. I had this ‘oops, this is not good,’ feeling. Back then I decided to do my best to get along with her – it totally backfired against me.
I experienced the same first instance feeling with a work-colleague who later pretty much turned an OK workplace into a nightmare.
In fact, even with the narcissistic ex, I remember my first thought at seeing him was ‘high-school bully’. Of course, the narc employed his arsenal of flattery and mirroring and I totally forgot this first feeling only to have to learn the hard way what this individual really was.
So this is the lesson – really do listen to your gut feeling. But you don’t need to rely just on the gut feeling. Listen to what the people say – narcissists’ and psychopaths’ words frequently don’t match actions and they are not too eager to share details or explain situations. Vagueness is king when it comes to narcissists and psychopaths. Remember that and don’t accept it. Narcissists and psychopaths thrive in conflict, which they manufacture and refuse to resolve. They play a game of smoke and mirrors, they are deliberately confusing the situation.
Whenever there is a conflict, where one person is desperate and at wits end, while the other ‘doesn’t understand what’s going on’, stop and think. Just because someone appears to be nice doesn’t mean that they really are. They really might be playing a sneaky game. The majority of us find it difficult to comprehend simply because we don’t act like this.
The lessons to be learned
As I said in my original post on Quora, it is my wish that people were able to stop and think about the whole situation instead of outright dismissing the victim.
For now, the only way out is to help the victims. Empower them and educate them so that they stop reacting in emotional ways to the covert narcissistic abuse and find the strength to walk away from toxic relationships.
A sufficiently recovered and empowered victim usually stops fighting against the narcissist’s mask and leaves the circles under the narc’s influence altogether. It is much easier to find yourself a healthier environment – one, where you are not ‘the problem’ – than make people see. If they are not psychologically ready to see, they will not see, no matter how hard you try to explain. They will not get it and only invalidate you further.
I have chosen to cut communication with most of my relatives. I will never forget one of my aunts telling me that my childhood was great and that it was only me perceiving it as problematic. That given aunt, brainwashed by my narc mother, clearly accepted my mother’s narrative and assigned me the role of the oversensitive and difficult one. (Good riddance, aunt. I really don’t benefit in any way from having you in my life. And I let you take care of my mother once she drinks her way to dementia. It’s been you encouraging her alcohol habit either way).
The world will only become a better place when people start really understanding psychology and learn and grow psychologically beyond their initial codependent states. As scapegoats and narc targets, we have been sort of forced to learn these lessons. For me, psychology was very much a survival skill. And you know what? No one helped me on this journey. I had to figure it out all by myself (until I had enough money to pay for a good therapist). I don’t want to live in the toxic narc-dominated world anymore and I have no time for those who are not able to see. We all have to learn our lessons in our very own time. And I accept that some never will. At least not in this lifetime.