The Myth Of The Narcissistic Mask: What Happens When You Get To Know a Narcissist?

The Myth Of The Narcissistic Mask

The myth of the narcissistic mask. What really happens when you get to know a narcissist?
Written By Dr. Elinor Greenberg


  • Narcissists need external validation to sustain their self-esteem which leads them to exaggerate their desirable qualities.
  • There is a huge difference between how narcissists act during courtship and how they behave later in a relationship.
  • The difference between a narcissist’s earlier and later behavior gave rise to the myth that narcissists craft a fake mask to deceive people.

There are a lot of urban myths being spread on the internet about people with narcissistic personality disorder. Most of them are good-faith attempts by people without any mental health credentials to understand and explain how narcissists can be so loving at the beginning of a relationship and then suddenly turn off all the good feelings and become abusive.

Related: 7 Common Myths About Narcissistic Personality Disorder

What is the myth of the narcissistic mask?

The urban myth I am writing about today is the myth of the narcissistic mask. This is the idea that all narcissists are predators and intentionally and carefully craft a “mask” to hide their evil intentions. This myth includes the idea that once you unmask the narcissist, they will leave you.

Sorry to have to be so blunt, but this idea is not true. The average person with a narcissistic personality disorder is not Machiavellian enough to consciously design a false persona that they don to fool the rest of us. There are no special narcissistic masks in my experience. At most, you will see an exaggerated and overly confident facade that is meant to hide the narcissist’s insecurities.

Note: I am using the terms narcissist, NPD, and narcissistic as a shorthand way of describing people whose issues meet the criteria for a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder.

Instead of thinking “masked” vs. “unmasked,” it is more accurate to say that sometimes people with narcissistic personality disorder can be on their good behavior or having an unusually good day and seem pleasant and normal. Other times, they feel insecure and act grandiose or dismissive of other people. Sometimes, they get triggered and become enraged.

When they are triggered, it is easy to see that they are not normal because:

  • They overreact to the situation.
  • They become abusive and devaluing.
  • They may scream vile things.
  • They blame you or someone else instead of taking responsibility for their mistakes.
  • They make threats.

Many of my clients with NPD do this almost every day, while others can hold it together for months. After they explode and become abusive, it is usually pointless to directly confront them about their bad behavior. If you confront them, they will attack you. The attack is not about you “unmasking” them. It is about you criticizing them.

The Myth Of The Narcissistic Mask: What Happens When You Get To Know a Narcissist?
The Myth Of The Narcissistic Mask: What Happens When You Get To Know a Narcissist?

Do they then leave never to return?

Every person is different. Many of my narcissistic clients feel embarrassed after the fact by their out-of-control behavior. They know they took it too far. If they sense you will not just let them pretend the whole thing never happened, the fight will continue. They will try to find some way to justify their behavior, usually by blaming you. “If you hadn’t done or said such and such, I would not have reacted the way I did. It is all your fault and you owe me an apology.”

If you are married, they do not suddenly leave, never to return. The usual response is to see you as their enemy and do things to punish you. What they do depends on their personality and how far they take revenge. Some will stay angry for days, and others will wake up cheerful the next morning and act as if nothing happened.

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Dr. Elinor Greenberg PhD, CGP

Elinor Greenberg, Ph.D., CGP, is an internationally renowned Gestalt therapy trainer who specializes in teaching the diagnosis and treatment of Borderline, Narcissistic, and Schizoid adaptations in a lively and practical way. She has trained psychotherapists in her approach in the US, Norway, Sweden, Wales, England, Russia, and Mexico. Dr. Greenberg is the author of the book: Borderline, Narcissistic, and Schizoid Adaptations: The Pursuit of Love, Admiration and Safety.View Author posts