If you’ve been the target of a narcissist’s smear campaign, you know it’s one of the most devastatingly effective, and vicious attacks you can find yourself on the receiving end of. The narcissist uses the smear campaign for three main reasons:
- To distract people’s attention away from the truth
- For damage control and reputation management
- To isolate the victim from potential sources of support
The smear campaign is a premeditated and pre-emptive attempt to harm the victim’s reputation or call their character into question by spreading lies and rumors. To the surprise of many victims, the narcissist’s smear campaign started long before the relationship ended, which is one of the reasons why smear campaigns are so effective and hard to defeat. Your narcissist may be a female, male, family member, friend or boss, but for ease of writing and clarity, I used the pronoun “he” throughout this piece, and in the context of a romantic relationship. Smear campaigns are an offensive strategy and can be used in all types of relationships. No matter what the nature of the relationship, the basic concepts, and motivations are same.
Once the narcissist initiates the devaluation phase of the relationship, he starts to plant seeds in the minds of victim’s close friends, family members, and mutual friends that he is the victim in the relationship. Of course, he’s careful to always incorporate a grain of truth to make his lies appear more convincing. The narrative he tells people will often sound something like this:
“I don’t know what to do. I’m so in love with her but she’s always (insert lie here).”
The lies and rumors he spreads will mostly consist of projections—all the things he’s actually doing to his partner. So, post-breakup, once the smear campaign is in full effect, his partner will sound pretty ridiculous accusing him of what she’s been doing all along.
Unwitting friends and family will offer him comfort and advice, none of which he plans to use, of course, because he’s not the victim. Although, he will put on a prize-winning act and appear appreciative and more than willing to try anything to save the relationship. After some time, his stories of abuse, complaints about his partner’s character, and his professions of ”I’m so in love with her but…” will turn into “I’ve tried everything, and I’m not sure if the relationship is going to work.” So, by the time he finally decides to discard his partner, he has everyone pretty well convinced he’s the devoted, loving, innocent victim whose tried everything under the sun to make the relationship work. Whether by design or circumstance, this pre-emptive smear makes the narcissist not look like a total creep in everyone’s eyes when he publicly flaunts the replacement partner within days or weeks of the breakup. Rather than raising a suspicious eyebrow at the speed of which he has seemed to recover from the abuse and entered into a new relationship, everyone tends to feel more relieved and happy that the poor, innocent narcissist finally found a “good woman” who treats him right.
Not all narcissists will initiate a smear campaign, but many do. The campaigns can vary in intensity and severity depending upon the narcissist, but they will share most or all of these five key steps.
The 5 key steps of a narcissist’s smear campaign are:
1. Preemptively starts the smear campaign by planting (false) seeds about the victim’s character in the minds of others
2. Begins the smear by painting himself as the devoted, loving innocent victim
3. Twist stories and spreads lies about the victim’s character, making sure to incorporate a grain of truth to appear more convincing
4. Lines up a replacement partner to use for future reputation management, supply, and triangulation
5. Discards partner out of the blue, then publicly flaunts new supply (who unknowingly becomes a public spokesperson attesting to the narcissist’s good character) and then uses the victim’s reactions as proof they’re the one to blame for all the problems in the relationship
In politics and business, when a smear campaign is launched, an immediate, aggressive, crisis-management campaign is used to counter the attack because, without one, people will assume all or some part of the smear is true. Logic may lead many of us to conclude that the same type of immediate, aggressive, crisis management campaign would also be the best and most effective way to defend against a narcissist’s smear campaign, but it’s not the case. The victim and the narcissist are not on an even playing field. Not only did the narcissist begin the smear weeks, probably months in advance, he has been steadily wearing down the victim psychologically and emotionally. By the time she realizes she’s in the middle of a full-fledged smear attack, she’s in no shape to go toe-to-toe against the narcissist’s practiced skills and polished composure. And, even if she somehow is, an aggressive, crisis management campaign or counter-attack will be perceived by the narcissist as a declaration of war. It will only escalate his behavior because narcissists need to win at all costs.
What should do you do if a narcissist has waged a smear campaign against you?
Start by remembering the word, PAUSE. (Pause, Accept. Understand, Silence, Expectations)
Pause before reacting or responding. It’s difficult to restrain yourself from reacting when your reputation is under attack. We instinctively want to defend ourselves and expose the truth. But, remember the smear campaign didn’t start overnight, and you’re not going to end it overnight. So, be patient, and pause before reacting.
Accept that you will need to distance yourself from friends and loved ones who are fooled by the narcissist. It’s one of the most difficult and painful things to have to do, especially at a time when you need them the most, but the faster you accept that distancing yourself (if only for a short while) from anyone who the narcissist is able to manipulate, the better off you’ll be. Be prepared, you may lose some friends and loved ones, but the more you can separate yourself from the narcissist and those he’s able to influence, the less influence and impact the smear campaign will have on you.
Unfortunately, you entered the smear campaign at a big disadvantage. In addition to having a head start on you, the narcissist is a better and more skilled manipulator and liar than you’ll ever be. Trying to convince people otherwise, is a losing battle. Most likely, the narcissist has anticipated the things you would say and has already planted a very compelling, twisted version of the truth in everyone’s minds.
Understand your emotional state isn’t optimal to make a persuasive defense. When you’re under attack, your character is being assassinated, and you’re simultaneously trying to recover from the trauma of a pathological relationship, you’re in a highly reactive, raw, and dysregulated state. This is completely normal, but it’s not conducive to making decisions about emotionally charged situations. Victims are often not believed because they tend to sound frazzled, overly-emotional, self-doubting and disorganized, which comes off a heck of a lot less believable compared the narcissist, who is composed, controlled, and smooth.
If someone does happen to stop you and brings the subject of the narcissist up in conversation, remember less is more. Keep your response calm and concise, and say something like, “he’s a great manipulator and liar. Wish I would have figured that out much sooner.” Then quickly change the subject.
Stay silent even though it feels counter-intuitive to do so. You might even consider removing yourself from social media for a while as this is often a doorway for flying monkey (third-parties the narcissist recruits to do his bidding) opportunities. Don’t fuel the fire by trying to convince everyone the narcissist is a narcissist, or retaliate by making statements about his behavior. No matter how truthful you are, it will only sound like defensive, revengeful mudslinging. Only deny the lies and rumors when asked. When you go out of your way to defend yourself it will seem as though you have something to hide.
Don’t forget to surround yourself with supportive people who are 100% Team You. These are the people you can talk to and share with.
Set your expectations so you won’t be caught off guard. Expect that things will get worse before they get better. The narcissist will likely up the ante by trying to find ways to provoke you out of your silence, and into an emotional tizzy- fit or rage. Know that the narcissist wants you to behave reactively and overly emotional so you’ll appear “crazy” and instantly discredit yourself while making the lies he’s spreading all the more believable. Empower yourself by keeping your cool and composure at all times. Your actions, silence, and the way you carry yourself are your best defense against the smear.
I have had countless victims share their smear campaign horror stories with me. Many have told me that over time, they renewed friendships with people who began to see through the narcissist, the same way they did. There will always be some people that won’t wise up, you don’t want these people in your life. Maybe, they’re not bad people, but they don’t have your best interest at heart and that’s all that matters.
Bree Bonchay, LCSW, is a licensed psychotherapist with over 18 years of experience working in the field of mental health and trauma recovery. She specializes in helping people recover from toxic relationships and shares her insights about Narcissistic Personality Disorder and psychopathy in her blog FreeFromToxic. Her articles have been featured in major online magazines and she has appeared on radio as a guest expert.
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