This is unfortunately a common dynamic in toxic relationship dynamics, where you seem to catch another person smirking or grinning when you argue with them. It seems like such a strange thing to do, and we’ll often doubt that we’ve even seen this – “were they smirking when we were fighting just then?”
Yes, they were often smirking during a fight you were having with them. It’s sadly not an uncommon thing to happen whenever you’re dealing with toxic personalities.
There are of course relatively innocent or benign contexts that this can occur. Is the argument a serious one, or more playful? Someone can be having fun winding you up in a playful, light-hearted way. But the context of this is usually very clear.
More often than not though, in any serious or semi-serious argument you’re having with someone in any context (spouse/partner/boss/co-worker/friend), if you catch them smirking in the process of interacting with you, it’s usually a red flag and you should pay serious attention to this person’s personality and how you deal with them going forward.
More specifically, any kind of smirking in arguments is most often evidence of personality disorders such as narcissism and sociopathy in the person doing it. They are feeding off your emotional reaction and engagement, and take a pathological pleasure in upsetting and antagonizing the person they’re arguing with.
In other words, if you see this happening, first of all don’t doubt yourself (it does happen even though it seems weird at first), and secondly, pay very serious attention to the character and behavior of the other person, plus your relationship with them.
Let’s provide some more context around the topic of personality disorders, so you can better understand this confusing pattern of behavior, plus some tips for how to deal with things going forward.
Cluster B Disorders As Provocative & Reaction Seeking
If you’re seeing this smirking reaction during arguments with someone, and you’re sure it isn’t an innocent or benign context, and/or it keeps happening, then the first thing to look into is the Cluster B personality disorders.
This is the classification of dramatic and provocative personality disorders, and covers the narcissistic, psychopathic, histrionic and borderline personality disorders. But the first two will be most commonly what you are dealing with.
The narcissistic and psychopathic/sociopathic personality disorders in particular are characterized by a need to feed off the emotional reactions of others. In other words, people with these disorders get a “kick” out of provoking negative emotional reactions in others, of getting them upset, agitated and frustrated in some way.
Here’s a good summary quote on this:
“Custer B is the .. definition of reaction seeking or dramatic personality disorders. This is not ‘I want to go away and sit on my own in my room’, this is ‘I need to annoy you to live. I need to hurt you to feel OK. I need to cause chaos and drama wherever I go just to feel basically alright’”.
Doesn’t sound very good, right? But if you’re continually seeing this kind of smirking whenever you are negatively engaged with this person, and they seem to have a clustering or other toxic personality traits as defined by the diagnostic criteria of each disorder (see links above), then this is unfortunately what you are likely dealing with.
“(Disordered people’s) real game is re-hook you and upset up. ‘upsetting-ness’ proves to them in their messed up minds, that if you’re upset, they still matter. If you’re upset, you still love me. If you’re upset, I still have control over you. So they will be as upsetting and abusive as they possibly can be (in interactions)”
Why Is The Toxic Person Smirking During The Argument?
A key insight to take is that all the Cluster B personality disorders have a mindset that is pathological and inverted at the core. Therefore, all the healthy things that normal people would want and get pleasure from are inverted, flipped on their head.
Therefore whereas, a normal person is made happy when they see positive emotional reactions and moods in others, and narcissist or sociopath is made happy when they see negative reactions and emotions in others (anger, irritation, exasperation, anxiety etc). And it makes them even happier to know they are the ones who have provoked that negative reaction or created that negative state in you.
It might not seem that way at first – everything seems so great in the love-bombing/idealize phase. But sooner or later it turns as the narcissist/sociopath either gets bored or starts losing their supply, and the mask comes off and real personality starts to come out.
Therefore, when you see a toxic person smirking during an argument with you, it’s the pleasure they are taking having provoked a negative reaction in you or sent you into a negative emotional state. Narcissists or sociopaths are inflated psychologically when they see others deflated, depressed or otherwise agitated.
Here are some other rationales or ways of explaining this smirk reaction:
- They’re happy they got you annoyed and wound you up.
- They’re happy they’re successfully pushed your buttons, probed your boundaries and found a weakness they can “file away” and use later against you later on. They’ve found something that annoys or upsets you.
- If they’ve been heavily gas-lighting their victim, they might be smirking at how easy it has become to dominate and control the other person, that they’ve just flipped the script on them one more time and outrageously inverted reality.
- They’ve got a kick out of the fact they really got you to lose control of yourself and lash out verbally or get really angry.
- They’ve got a kick out of the fact that they know you are onto them, and are now going into conversations deliberately trying not to be provoked, but they still managed to goad a reaction out of you anyway and get you in a negative state (they’ve been practicing for years).
- If you ever get a psychopath or narcissist to finally verbally admit to some obvious wrong-doing, there will often be a smirk which flashes across their face as they do so, indicating contempt for you and a lack of sincerity (see also Duping delight section below).
- They’re smirking because they know they can use the reaction they’ve provoked in you as fuel for a smear campaign against you (very common with toxic workplace bosses and co-workers).
Here’s another good description of what’s typically going on in this dynamic, when an audience member at once of Richard Grannon’s seminars recalled how they noticed their ex-partner seemed to “get off” whenever they saw her upset and emotionally dis-regulated:
“I would suggest that maybe his smile, his “fullness” in that moment is (a sense of) ‘ah, it worked! I’m powerful’. The most important thing (for the abuser) is that he induced a reaction in you, it was effective, and he’s like ‘ah, good, I feel full’
There is such a thing as a depleted narcissist or a deflated narcissist. If they’re denied of their supply, they slump into depression, and they can be a right state.
Some of you will have seen narcissists go through this cycle. That’s your typical way of describing a borderline narcissist. Really happy, really full, getting what they want. Then it all goes wrong or all of their plans go awry. And they’re depressed and deflated”
Therefore when you catch a toxic person like a narcissist or sociopath engaging in this provocative way, it’s often because they’re in need of supply and need to see someone “down” in order to “inflate” themselves psychologically. The smirk you often see is when that tactic has worked and they’re feeling “full” again because they’ve managed to upset someone by drawing them into conflict.
How To Deal With Someone Smirking During An Argument
Let’s run through some general broad level tips for dealing with this situation of where someone seems to be smirking during confrontations:
Remain calm – The foundational and most important piece of advice. You must attempt to remain calm during all instances of provocative and reaction seeking behavior from others. It’s a preventative measure, because rising to provocation and letting yourself be drawn into a negative emotional reaction gives disordered people what they want and “fills them up”, hence the smirking. Take this away from them by remaining calm.
Call them out? – It’s been a while since this has happened to me, and I’m still not sure whether it would serve any use to call them out on their smirking – “what are you smirking for?” or “wipe that smirk off your face”. In all likelihood, it probably just feeds them even more because you’re engaging even more, so the more sensible part of me suggests to not even bother with this. It might give you some ego satisfaction to let them know you’re onto them, but the only way to win longer term with these people is to get away…..
Disengage and detach – If it becomes very clear to you that this is a toxic pattern of communication and you are dealing with someone who has personality issues, detach from the relationship as soon as possible. For intimate relationships break off immediately and move out if necessary. For workplaces, transfer to a new department or get a new job. Do not stay stuck around these crazy-making, upside-down people. People with toxic personality disorders don’t stop or change their behavior. Whatever they’ve done, they’ll keep doing, so get away as soon as possible. For these people, any and all communication is an opportunity for abuse, so don’t risk your mental health, self esteem and sanity by staying around these people.
Do not reason – Do NOT get caught up in “blah blag blah” trying to reason with the toxic person. It’s just feeding them what they want. Do not try to explain things to them that shouldn’t need explaining to a grown adult. They understand perfectly well what’s going on. Stop being so naive and get street-wise to how disordered people operate. Then you can see when to save your energy and NOT even engage. Dis-engaging is important both on the micro level (individual interactions) and also the macro level (the entire relationship itself). See also the section on the DEEP technique below.
Workplaces – When you encounter this type of behavior in workplaces with bosses or colleagues, it’s very important to assess the overall culture of the company. If this toxic person seems like an isolated “bad egg”, then documenting and reporting their inappropriate behaviors can work. However, if it’s more commonplace and the company is full of these provocative personality types (who often have management wrapped around their little finger), then it’s best to save your energy and move on. You should sometimes fight your corner and call out bad behavior, but it’s also wise to be strategic in workplaces and know when when it’s better to fight and when it’s better to preserve your energy and walk away. See our article on handling a boss’s attempts to provoke you.
“One of the biggest things you can do for yourself if you are dealing with someone like this is to always remain calm when dealing with them because what you’ll find with psychopaths and narcissists especially is that they’re trying to provoke you.
They’re trying to provoke reactions so that you look crazy and hysterical and they can then sit back and play victim and say ‘oh look what this person did to me and how crazy they’re acting’.
If you remain calm completely with them, you gain that upper hand. They’re trying to put you on the defensive. They’re trying to make you feel like you’re under attack. So if they say the perfect thing that has you thinking ‘oh my god, I have to respond to that because I have the perfect response, you should know that was intentionally planned”
Jackson Mackenzie – see here.
Using The DEEP Technique To Handle a Narcissist/Sociopath’s Provocation
Readers could very reasonably point out that it’s all very well having rules about not engaging with narcissists and sociopaths in our midst, but these people are masters at provoking and engaging others. They’ve been practicing all their lives. How do we fight against this really? We can go into conversations determined not to be drawn in, but they somehow manage to provoke us anyway, and that smirk comes out again.
It can help to put a framework around this; a simple set of criteria that we can apply to NOT get drawn into engaging with toxic and provocative personalities. The best framework I’ve found is Ramani Durvasula’s DEEP Framework:
DEEP Technique – Don’t Defend, Engage, Explain or Personalize
Here’s a quick summary of each point – if you have to deal with anyone who is narcissistic, sociopathic or otherwise provocative, DON’T do any of these things:
- Defend – Don’t waste energy trying to defend yourself – they want you on the defensive, they aren’t listening anyway and they don’t care what you have to say. They aren’t interested in facts or logic or reason, and you’re just feeding them supply if you’re getting upset or angry or frustrated while trying to defend yourself.
- Engage – Simple. Don’t even engage, resort to grey rock tactics – be boring and dull. Don’t share opinions, be vulnerable or critique them. Engaging is just feeding them what they want.
- Explain – Don’t explain to someone who isn’t listening and doesn’t care about facts anyway. It will feed your exasperation (which feeds them) and waste your energy. Pretending they don’t understand what you say (when they understand perfectly well) is a great way of gas-lighting and crazy-making. Don’t give them the chance.
- Personalize – Don’t take anything they do personally. All the nonsense they engage in (gas-lighting, lying, rudeness, projection, blame shifting, provocation) is THEIRS to own, not yours. It comes from them having a broken personality which means they need to feed off the emotional reactions of others. If you take in their abuse, it will create strong introjects or inner critics in you, so don’t ever take disordered people’s behavior to heart. Keep a detached distance.
Being drawn into ANY of these 4 things, just opens up the door to more blah blah blah, gas-lighting, projection and blame-shifting, so don’t do any of these things, and simply shut down conversations right away. It saves your time and energy and stops you getting annoyed and exasperated in conversation, which is exactly what feeds disordered people and leads to their smirking reaction.
Don’t rise to their provocation, and they lose.
Duping Delight and Smirking
Let’s briefly cover the very closely related concept of Duping Delight, which often manifests as the same toxic smirk, not such much during conflict, but more when they are in the process of lying to or otherwise manipulating and deceiving another person.
Much as with during fights, there will be a smirk that leaks out just as they are about to lie or feign remorse or contrition about something. Again it comes from the pathological nature of psychopaths especially – the smirk is a manifestation of the pleasure they get from manipulating and deceiving others, and also of contempt towards the person if faked contrition or humility or gullibility is involved.
It’s like the smirk is a non verbal way of saying “I’m always the one in control, even when I’m “coming clean” about something or supposedly apologizing for a past wrong-doing or admitting to something”. Again, it’s a sign of a pathological, sick, inverted mindset, where their real thoughts are exactly the opposite of what they are conveying verbally, and the smirk is a leaked expression of that.
See our article on psychopaths and duping delight for more on this micro-expression, including some examples from high profile people.
Here are some closely related articles that will help you better understand the nature of the Cluster B disorders, and to drop some of the naivety and over-sincerity that they feed off when you engage with them: