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Disclaimer: I have used the masculine gender to describe an abuser in the title of this post for ease of writing. Throughout this post I have referred to both sexes by using the plural personal pronouns, ‘they’ ‘them’ or ‘their’ in recognition of the reality that women are also capable of abusing their loved ones.

One of the most common questions I hear is, ‘How can someone hide an abusive personality?

An abuser's mask

-1360 Schreiberfigur anagoria” by AnagoriaOwn work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.personality?’ In other words, how do we not see it coming? If these people are truly as ugly and cruel as we describe, why wasn’t that obvious from the beginning?

The truth is, abusers are highly skilled at hiding their pathological personalities. If they weren’t, they’d never secure employment, gain friends or even negotiate the grocery store without risking a punch up. Normal people would never put up with an abuser’s ‘real self’.

Psychologists use the terms ‘real self’ and ‘ideal self’ when discussing the development of personality. The real self is easy to understand – it is comprised of our actual, manifest personality traits as well as all the aspects that make up our character. The ideal self is that to which we aspire. It’s our inner concept of who we really want to be; what we want to become as we mature. If the real self is too far removed from the ideal self, we experience discomfort within our psyches. We become disappointed in who we are, and how we behave towards others and the environment. If the gap between the real self and the ideal self is too wide, it can result in significant psychopathology.

Most of us are aware when we’re not being honest with ourselves, and subsequently take action to address the imbalance. For those with high levels of narcissistic traits however, the ego is too fragile to accept the disappointing image in the mirror, so they turn away from it in order to create a false self to present to the world. In turning away from their inner reality, they deny its’ existence. In brief, they detest what they see; don’t have the courage to face and overcome it; and so construct a false self that is not only different from their real self, but also extreme in its virtue, cleverness, and sense of importance. They overcompensate for self-hate by constructing this superior facade. The mask they wear is painted with virtues like understanding, compassion, intelligence, responsibility, reliability, humour, kindness and worldly achievements. They often (though not always) walk among us as the pillars of society and our most socially responsible high achievers. Frequently, they are known as generous, benevolent souls outside their intimate circle.

When we meet them, they come highly recommended. Their bosses, coworkers and friends sing their praises. What we don’t know is that they are mentally scanning the room for their latest target, desperate for a source of narcissistic supply. After all, they can’t feel good about themselves until they can make someone else look and feel bad. That someone needs to be empathetic, compassionate, responsible and reliable – all the traits the abuser lacks. Abusers resent their victims, who are everything the abuser wants to be. That resentment quickly escalates to intense hatred.

Man flirting with woman

Image courtesy of photostock at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In the beginning, however, to hook the perfect target abusers need to be extremely careful not to let their masks slip. With an uncanny ‘nose’ for sniffing out potential sources of narcissistic supply, they can smell vulnerability the way a bloodhound tracks a scent. Through years of practice, they’ve become experts at discovering what makes you tick, what your hopes and dreams are, what you love and what you hate – the essence of who you are. They then have all the ammunition they need to hunt you down.

Where would you most like to travel to?’ ‘Really, the Netherlands? I can’t believe it – the Netherlands is next on my bucket list!

In this respect, abusers are chameleons. If you’re the unwitting victim, all you know is that suddenly you have met the one person in the world who understands you completely, who shares your hopes and dreams, and is aligned with your values. You can’t know that this person who is pursuing you so ardently is simply pretending to mirror your innermost thoughts, support your passions, love the same things you do and envision exactly the same ‘perfect’ future together. We don’t know we’ve been studied for a specific purpose and that our beloved is an expert at what he does. Dr Jekyll doesn’t have to think about becoming Mr Hyde. It happens as naturally as breathing.

During the wooing phase you’ll be ‘love-bombed’. That is, you’ll be pursued so passionately that before you know it, you’re addicted to this ‘love’. This phase is achieved by using the basic psychological principles of conditioning. You are relentlessly ‘rewarded’ at a rate that is not ‘normal’ in a normal population; and this creates an addictive emotional response within you. I will explain this process further in a subsequent post. For now, suffice to say that, once you’re successfully ‘addicted’ to abusers, then…and only then…will they drop their guard and reveal their real selves.

And you are in deep, deep water.

For an excellent and in-depth explanation of the complicated dynamics of abusive relationships, I highly recommend three books by Patrica Evans. I keep these books on my kindle and refer to them regularly. They have been extremely instrumental in my understanding and overcoming the effects of abuse. The book by Lundy Bancroft is often quoted as an extremely useful resource on numerous blogs on the topic of abuse. Click the images to take you to the Amazon store.