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A narcissistic individual will do anything to keep their façade intact, including launching a smear campaign against you. They want to ensure they look like the saint or victim, and you look impaired and “crazy”.
Here’s everything you need to know about smear campaigns and what to do when it’s happening to you.
What is a Narcissistic Smear Campaign?
Narcissistic smear campaigns are a narcissist’s attempts at tarnishing their victim’s image and reputation and destroying their self-esteem and sense of reality.
It may involve convincing people of their narrative about your relationship, painting you as the abuser, cheater, or reason why the relationship did not work out. They may tell lies and rumors about you at work or to your family and friends or spill all the secrets you trusted them with.
Psychologist Dr. Ramani calls smear campaigns “largescale gaslighting”. Gaslighting aims to distort a person’s reality and convince them there is something wrong with them.
When it comes to smear campaigns, the narcissist engages other people, including people you love and trust(ed), to join in the gaslighting. They use the same charm and tricks they used on you to distort many people’s reality – and turn them against you.
When a group of people believe and sell the distorted version of reality (of you), the more likely you are to believe it. You may question yourself, especially when these are people you thought you could trust.
Smear campaigns often occur at the end of a relationship with a narcissist when they spread rumors and lies about you to your friends and family.
Smear campaigns are a form of bullying – “aggressive acts that are systematic or repetitive and characterized by an imbalance of power”.
Thus, being bullied at school or work or over the internet (cyberbullying) can also constitute a smear campaign when it involves systematic lying, false accusations, isolation of the victim, and gaslighting.
The aim is to destroy your confidence and identity (as part of the devaluation/ discard phase) while simultaneously dismantling your support system.
Why do Narcissists Engage in Smear Campaigns?
Narcissistic individuals engage in smear campaigns for different reasons. However, the driving force lies in their need for control, admiration, and attention (their narcissistic supply).
Anyone who questions their superiority or causes a narcissistic injury will become a target for revenge.
Thus, while it may be a personal attack on you, the reason for the smear campaign is not actually you – it’s the narcissist’s fragile and malicious nature.
A narcissist may use a narcissistic smear campaign to:
1. Protect Their Façade
Narcissists present a false image to the world that enables them to draw people in and manipulate their environment. Thus, people who have not experienced their true colors may see them as kind, charming, and genuine.
If there is a chance you may expose what they are truly like, they may attempt to discredit you by starting a smear campaign. They turn people against you before you have the chance to tell your side of the story.
2. Maintain Control
Narcissistic individuals have a strong need for control – but their sense of control is easily challenged.
If they feel they are losing control over you (for example, if you break up with them) or a situation (for example, if you questioned them during a work meeting), they may attempt to regain control by use of a smear campaign.
3. Play the Victim
A classic manipulation tactic that narcissistic people often engage in is victim-playing. In the context of a smear campaign, that may mean painting you as the villain and themselves as the victim.
For example, they may have abused you throughout your relationship but then convince others that you were the abuser (they may have even managed to convince you of this fact).
Or, they may victimize you at work but persuade senior management of the opposite.
4. Get Revenge
You may have (inadvertently) caused a narcissistic injury. Narcissistic people are highly sensitive to criticism and may perceive injury where objectively there is none.
Breaking up with a narcissist, speaking up for yourself, challenging them, or questioning their superiority and entitlement in any way can cause narcissistic injury.
One of the responses to such an injury to their fragile self-esteem is to seek revenge. Instead of confronting you directly, they engage in a smear campaign.
That could mean anything from spreading rumors and lies about you to launching a full-scale campaign to destroy your life in any way they can.
5. Feel Like the Winner
In the eyes of a narcissistic person, there are winners and losers and not much in between. Ruining your reputation and isolating you may make them feel like they have won, and they will watch with glee as you lose what’s important to you.
The narcissistic person in your life may be jealous of your success or feel that you are somehow standing in their way.
If they feel someone is better than them or is calling into question their superiority, their jealousy might drive them to launch an attack and bring that person down. They can only feel like the winner when others lose.
Signs of a Narcissistic Smear Campaign
How do you know that you are the victim of a narcissistic smear campaign? When you notice people turning against you, hear stories, rumors, and lies about you, and get an uneasy feeling, it could be a smear campaign.
1. People Turning Against You
A classic element of bullying and smear campaigns is isolating the victim. You may notice that people avoid speaking to you and hang out with you less.
There seems to be an unexplained negative shift in your relationships, but you may not be entirely sure why.
It’s possible that the narcissist in your life (whether that be an ex-partner, colleague, or friend) has been telling their distorted narrative and painting you in a bad light.
2. Hearing Stories and Rumors About Yourself
You might hear stories about yourself that are distorted or simply not true. People may accuse you of things or share what the narcissist has told them about you.
If this starts happening and you get the feeling or have the evidence that someone is spreading rumors about you, it might be due to a narcissistic smear campaign.
3. Complete Denial
If you confront a narcissist about the rumors and the negative shift, they will deny all allegations. A narcissist will not own up to their wrongdoing and may even play the victim, saying things like “How could you think I would do something like that?”.
If you alert other people (like your friends, coworkers, or boss) about what’s going on, the narcissist will deny it, play the victim, and turn the tables back on you.
They might use it as evidence of your “malicious” character and accuse you of wanting to harm them.
When the person who has launched an attack on you turns it around and makes people believe you are the perpetrator, this is an example of “largescale gaslighting”.
Now, the people around you believe the distorted reality they have been fed, leaving the narcissist in a position of power and you feeling powerless and victimized.
Thus, feeling helpless, confused, and like you are losing your mind is another sign of being the victim of a smear campaign.
Examples of Smear Campaigns in the Workplace
Participants in a study looking into the lived experience of narcissistic abuse in the workplace shared their experiences of smear campaigns.
“It was not until Participant 4’s departure from this organization that he learned that the CEO had attempted to smear his reputation with the senior leadership team and BOD:
“he [the CEO] had asked them not to speak with me because I had behaved so irresponsibly to the organization for giving a two-week notice. That was a lie.
I never got over that, and people with whom I had enjoyed close relationships with went along with his assertion and never spoke to me after I left.
I only learned about what happened from a member of the BOD who thought it shameful of the CEO but did nothing.”
Another participant described “What I experienced in this person was that they were very manipulative. They cozied up to their superiors while making other people look bad, and they were extremely good at it,”
“Participant 5 and her colleague sat on opposite sides of a divider in an open floor plan office.
Not realizing they were being overheard as they gossiped on the line with another colleague, the individual began sharing a much altered version of the story, portraying Participant 5 as incompetent—omitting and blatantly misrepresenting facts:
“I immediately messaged this person through our team chat that what I heard them saying was categorically untrue: ‘I did not say that, and it is the exact opposite of what I said,’ to which this person responded: ‘LOL.’”
Tactics Narcissists Use During a Smear Campaign
Narcissism, especially in combination with psychopathic traits, has been associated with proactive aggression (instrumentally using purposeful and goal-directed aggression to achieve a desired goal).
They aim to dominate and acquire status, or to retaliate against a perceived provocation or narcissistic injury.
Purposeful and goal-directed aggression may come in the form of:
- Telling lies, rumors, or unflattering stories about you
- Undermining your credibility by spreading false or distorted information
- Reversing the roles by playing the victim and gaining others’ sympathy
- Shifting the blame onto you and avoiding any responsibility
- Creating self-doubt and confusion in their victim and other people involved (gaslighting)
- Harassing their victim e.g., stalking or incessantly contacting their victim
- Intimidating their victim and other people involved to instill fear and submission
- Cyberbullying: spreading misinformation online, creating false accounts, stalking, leaving malicious comments, etc.
What to Do About a Narcissistic Smear Campaign
Being the victim of a narcissistic smear campaign can be extremely confusing, distressing, and heartbreaking, especially if this is someone you previously trusted.
Not only is it emotionally and psychologically damaging, but it could also have detrimental consequences for your relationships and occupation.
You mustn’t stoop down to their level and engage in a counter-attack – however tempting that might be – because doing so could make things worse. Here’s some advice on what to do instead:
1. Do Not Get Involved
If you question, verbally attack, or cry and beg the narcissist, you are playing into their hand.
Getting an emotional reaction out of you will give the narcissist what they want: attention and a sense of control.
If you feel you would like to address the issue with them, remain calm and emotionless. However, do not expect them to admit or apologize for what they are doing; they will likely deny everything and act like the victim.
2. Gather Evidence
You may need evidence for legal reasons, for example, if the smear campaign is happening at your workplace or may impact your custody agreement.
You may also want evidence of their campaign to expose the narcissist and prove your side of the story.
For example, you could capture emails, text messages, social media posts, or record conversations (make sure you know the laws around doing this in your local area).
In any case, tread carefully and do not incriminate yourself by gathering evidence.
3. Report Them
It can be difficult to prove smear campaigns, so this is why having evidence is very important. However, if they are engaging in any unlawful activity, defamation, or breaking of platform rules and you can prove it, report it to the relevant authorities.
4. Damage Control
Do whatever you can to control the damage that is being done to you, without retaliating directly. That can involve having conversations with people and professionals, managing your social media accounts, and collecting evidence.
If this is happening to you at work and you are not being supported and the environment is generally toxic, consider looking for a new job.
6. Focus on Self-Care
Smear campaigns can have a devastating effect on your well-being. Therefore, you should try to do what you can to look after yourself.
Gather the support of your (genuinely) trustworthy friends and family, speak to people about what’s happening, engage in your hobbies, exercise, meditate, go for hikes – whatever you can do to relax and take your mind off things.
A smear campaign can make you feel helpless so try to focus on the things you can control in your life and what you can do to control some of the damage they are trying to do.
7. Seek Professional Help
It might be useful to speak to a psychologist/ therapist about what’s happening in your life. They can listen from a neutral standpoint and provide you with some helpful tools.
It may also be useful to speak to a legal team or representative to see whether there is any action you can take against them.
Durvasula, R. (Oct 10, 2022). Are Smear Campaigns Large Scale Gaslighting? YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5O0KV_fMxOw
Fanti, K. A., & Henrich, C. C. (2015). Effects of Self-Esteem and Narcissism on Bullying and Victimization During Early Adolescence. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 35(1), 5–29.
Ruiz, Lindsay, “A Hidden Virus: Looking for Evidence of Narcissistic Abuse in the Workplace” (2021). Education Doctoral Dissertations in Organization Development. 79.