by Velleda C. Ceccoli Ph.D. on February 10, 2014

Recently I posted a blog on the power of laughter and humor. I was writing about the  kind that makes your belly tremble and your chest heave. The kind that moves the neurobiology of your insides and translates into mood shifts on your outside. The REAL kind. Today’s post is about its opposite, what I call the killer smile, but not because of its potential beauty, or because of its ability to connect to joy, but because of its ability to hide all manner of emotional workings.  The killer smile pertains to a masked quality, something meant to hide and distract from the real. Think of the smile of the Joker in Batman, forever turned upward in a pantomime of joy and fun, while behind the mask nothing could be further from the truth.

Killer smiles are a problem, and not just to the people that wear them. While they are meant to protect the owner, they mess with  reality- for the self and for others. In their attempt to protect, killer smiles deceive. They contain a mixed signal (I am smiling but I am  upset) that makes the other’s intuition falter, essentially saying: What you feel and think about me is not what you see, are you sure that what you feel and think is right? Look again…and the smile gets wider. In its aim to protect the self, the killer smile disarms implicit knowing in others, and often in oneself. The repeated experience of masking emotional distress with its opposite- a joyful smile- unhinges internal experience from its relational context and isolates it into its own compartment, far away from the possibility of coming alive with another. Killer smiles wear the mask of dissociation.

People with killer smiles have had to learn to smile early in their life, usually in the face of severe adversity and emotional trauma. For them, smiling has become a way of protecting themselves and holding themselves together. It is almost as if the smile proclaims: “You can’t hurt me, what you do does not affect me in the least.” And for some time, this may even become true. Yet in my office, people with killer smiles often discover that to maintain that smile involves disconnecting from their own experience and feelings, relying instead on their social and interpersonal skills to navigate the world, like an actor on a stage. It is no surprise that often, people with killer smiles have very good social skills and can negotiate quite well interpersonally, yet they are at a loss when it comes to dealing with their feelings. They are well liked by others and seen as easygoing, yet they often feel “not known” and very lonely. Because killer smiles work so well socially, they are (unfortunately) continuously reinforced. But a killer smile is meant to “kill” the emotional experience and feelings that are attached to the relational situations that made it necessary to smile in order to survive and hold oneself together. The killer smile continues to act as a shield to feelings of connection, dependent, vulnerability, shame, and fear. It also kills the possibility of real relationships, which are based on mutual experience and emotional connection. The killer smile protects but isolates.

Smiling in the face of emotional pain, as in what I am calling a killer smile, becomes a mask over time. A mask that is so closely worn that it becomes a second skin, like an application of make up that rearranges the features so that they no longer represent one’s internal workings but instead act to create an impenetrable persona. Such make up becomes necessary on a daily basis, as a layer of protection. In my work as a psychoanalyst, I have found that the tighter the smile the more fragile the inside. Whereas real smiles are connected to the emotions that bring them about, usually a positive connection to another, safety, playfulness, joy, happiness and love, killer smiles are about maintaining internal balance by avoiding any emotion that might trigger a feeling of connection and bring about dependency, vulnerability and fear. In fact, while protecting their owner, killer smiles are inappropriate to many of the situations that they are used in. A patient of mine has called the killer smile “a mechanical muscle reflex that looks like a smile but it is not”.


When one begins to deconstruct the killer smile and work with what is behind it, the scaffolding that has been holding up the self falls away and fear sets in. The possibility of real connection begins at that moment, as well as the possibility of being met and recognized where one is most vulnerable. The place where reparation is most needed. If one is fortunate enough to be in a relationship that holds the self while allowing enough space to explore what is actually happening – as in what good therapy is all about, or what a good relationship can be about –  then the mask can be left behind and new ways of experiencing emotional connection can begin to emerge.  It takes time to retrain those facial muscles to respond to what is actually going on in the here and now,  and to feelings that elicit different outcomes. It takes time to develop connection to another and trust them to help navigate emotions that have held painful and even traumatic  histories.

But that is what it takes.


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Joann Murphey March 6, 2014 at 9:16 PM

Enjoyed reading this.


Jack Wiener, LP, CMT February 11, 2014 at 6:15 PM

What a wonderful approach to unmask the “false self.”


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