How To Stop a Narcissist Smear Campaign and Take Back Your Power

Photo: Getty Images / Delmaine Donson
You may have read about how narcissistic abuse can consist of a narcissist undermining, love-bombing, and gaslighting their target. In short, they want to have all the power in the relationship. So what happens when their target breaks up with them? Or gets some control back? Unfortunately, the narcissistic person may respond with what’s called a “narcissistic smear campaign.” It typically happens when they're completely done with the person.

“A narcissist smear campaign is a manipulation tactic used by a narcissist to harm another person’s reputation and to isolate them from their support system,” explains Kate Danley, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker with Thriveworks in Tampa who specializes in relationships, self-esteem, and stress. “The intent is to paint a picture of themselves as either a victim in the situation, or of having no faults.”

"When you recognize [the narcissist's] toxic behavior and call them out on it, they will victimize themselves to portray you as the problem." —Natalie Jambazian, LMFT

A narcissistic smear campaign may look like the narcissist spreading lies about their ex, saying the ex cheated or treated them horribly. Or, it could look like someone going out of their way to undermine a coworker’s intelligence and ideas after that person gets the boss’s praise. These are only a couple of examples.

Experts In This Article

What is a narcissist smear campaign?

A narcissist smear campaign is a tactic where a narcissist spreads harmful or slanted information about someone in order to get that person’s attention, and bring them down—harming the target’s reputation and relationships in the process.

Natalie Jambazian, LMFT, a Los Angeles-based therapist specializing in narcissism and the author of Detoxing from A Narcissist, says they may tell your friends and family that you’re crazy, paranoid, irrational, or acting out as part of their smear campaign. Or they may use information you shared with them in confidence to make you look like the “bad guy.”

“Especially when you recognize their toxic behavior and call them out on it, they will victimize themselves to portray you as the problem,” Jambazian adds.

The smear campaign typically happens at the end of the relationship once the narcissist has devalued you, says Elisabeth Crain, PsyD, a licensed psychotherapist in Southern California who specializes in supporting women and couples through contemporary mental health challenges, like trauma, personality disorders, and relationship challenges. “In a retaliatory or disgruntled state, [the narcissist] will implement or enact a smear campaign against another person as a way to take back power and control the narrative about another person,” she explains.

Do all nine types of narcissists engage in this behavior? What about people with narcissistic tendencies? While any narcissist is capable of this behavior, these smear campaigns are most often conducted by vindictive narcissists, according to Kaytee Gillis, LCSW-BACS, a therapist with Choosing Therapy.

Why does a narcissist start a smear campaign?

They want revenge

In this case, you might have done something totally fair and in the right—like ending a relationship with them or putting a boundary in place—and they can’t handle it. They feel it takes away their control and supply. (“Supply” being the validation, recognition, admiration, etc. that narcissists get from people or other sources.)

“Because they are angry or disgruntled about this, they may enact a smear campaign as a retaliatory reaction,” Dr. Crain says. They spread cruel lies about who you are and make you out to be the villain in order to get their power back.

“When a narcissist loses control over you, they will aim to control how others see you,” Jambazian agrees. “Narcissists will threaten to launch a smear campaign as a way to silence the victim.”

To preserve their image

Narcissists want to maintain a perfect self-view, and they want other people to see them in that same light. If that image gets tarnished by the truth of their own actions, they may enact a smear campaign.

“They start a smear campaign to deflect attention away from their own issues by shifting the focus onto someone else, like their target,” Jambazian explains.

They feel threatened and want to fight back

Danley agrees that a narcissist may start a smear campaign when they feel that their control, power, or self-image has been put into question. Her explanation of why provides different insight, however. “These feelings cause excess distress to a narcissist, causing them to feel threatened and they will attack,” she says.

How can you tell if a narcissist is smear-campaigning you?

You notice or hear their rumors about you

Rumor-spreading can happen through a variety of avenues, whether that’s hearing it on your own, seeing it on social media, or getting wind of it when others suddenly ask you questions about the breakup. “One sign is when a victim sees on social media that the narcissist is posting false stories about them,” Jambazian says. “Another sign is when a friend or family member calls to see how you’re doing, and they mention hearing from the narcissist that they're devastated about the relationship ending.”

Dr. Crain adds you might also hear about it from people who are trying to warn you. “One sign is when someone else—a third party—notifies you that a potentially inflammatory or false narrative is being pushed or circulated about you,” she says.

People start turning against you

Even people in your corner, according to Danley. They may take the narcissist’s side, which could look like supporting them, speaking ill of you, or not wanting to be your friend anymore.

You start questioning yourself

As a result of the harmful, false narratives the narcissist is saying about you—and potentially some people taking their side—you might begin to wonder if they're right. Were you really a bad partner? Was it wrong of you to say X or Y?

Danley says this is a sign they're gaslighting you, or psychologically manipulating you to gain power by making you question yourself.

What are examples of a narcissist smear campaign?

As mentioned, a narcissistic smear campaign doesn’t have one “look,” which may make it harder to identify and call out.

In the case of a relationship breakup, Danley says, the narcissist may claim the other person was at fault or unfaithful, for example, rather than ever own up to their own mistakes or bad deeds. “They will do anything to paint themselves as a victim,” she says. “It can be vicious enough to cause extreme emotional distress, causing the victim to question their sanity and self-confidence.”

Narcissistic people don’t only enact smear campaigns against ex-partners; anybody in a relationship with a narcissist could become a target. Another key example includes friends and family members. Jambazian says the smear campaign may tarnish their reputation through gossip, rumors, or information that turns the person’s other friends or family against them. The narcissist may claim the person is abusive, a bad parent, or a liar, just to name a few.

You may even see this situation play out in work settings when the narcissist feels “less than” or like they “lost.” “Narcissists believe that there are only winners and losers,” says Danley—and that they, of course, should be the winners. “If anyone challenges this way of thinking—which could happen often depending on their line of work—they may start a smear campaign.”

To “smear” their coworker (who perhaps just got a promotion or who enforced a boundary), a narcissist may discredit what that person says, spread rumors that would hurt their social standing, or reinforce how “superior” they themselves are in some way, she says. Dr. Crain adds that the narcissist may tell fabricated or conflated stories, or share other false narratives, to elevate themselves and tear down their target.

How long does a narcissist smear campaign last?

For better or for worse, there’s no set time range on how long a smear campaign can last. Jambazian says it really depends on the narcissist and the situation. “Smear campaigns start very quickly but can also go silent for a while until years later, when you hear from others all the false narratives the narcissist has been sharing secretly,” she says. “Smear campaigns can also be short-lived once they pursue another supply.”

Dr. Crain agrees it’s all about the new supply. “Once they’ve discarded the person or the relationship has ended, the length of the smear campaign is just dependent on how long it takes for the narcissist to find a new supply,” she says. “There’s no real way of knowing how long it might take.”

Danley adds another piece that may be present: the narcissist’s desire to keep the campaign going, for whatever reason. “It can go on as long as they want to put in the energy,” she says.

Will a narcissist hoover after a smear campaign?

Another narcissistic tactic to acknowledge here is “hoovering.” Jambazian describes this as a gaslighting tool used to make the victim question their sanity and feel like they're the problem, all to suck them back into the relationship.

Hoovering typically happens before the smear campaign, however, when the narcissist still has hope for reeling the person back in and successfully controlling them. “Narcissists may hoover before the relationship ended as a way to wield power and gain back control, but once they're on a smear campaign, the narcissist is out to hurt the other person, not to lure them back into the relationship,” Dr. Crain explains.

What stops a narcissist smear campaign?

Not engaging with it

You can potentially speed up the length of the campaign by simply doing nothing. “The less the target engages with them, the more bored they will become, and they will usually move on to a new target,” Danley says.

Jambazian agrees, adding that becoming defensive won’t help your case. “Narcissists want your attention, so when you don’t give it your attention for a long period of time, their tactic loses credibility,” she says.

This is essentially a form of the “grey rock method,” aka being unresponsive and acting “blank,” like a rock.

On a larger scale, the ideal situation is to have no smear campaigns at all, not just to push the narcissist’s harms onto someone else. But what we’re getting at here is that on a short-term, smaller scale, you have to take care of yourself first.

And/or sharing your truth

On the other hand, taking control of the narrative can help, too. While Dr. Crain sees the value in not engaging with the smear campaign—“Any time we give attention to things, we give life to things,”—she says—it’s not necessarily what will work or feel right for every person.

“There’s no way to stop a narcissist from pedaling their own narrative, but what stops the narrative from having validity is other people knowing the truth and for victims to take control of their own narrative and disseminate their own truth,” she says.

You may have to confront the issue, she continues, saying something like, “‘I know this is being said about me, but this is what really happened…’”. You don’t have to say this in a big setting, either—a small, private conversation also works.

How to deal with a narcissist smear campaign

Cut ties with the person as much as possible

It’s time to (and it’s okay to) become friends with the block button! Consider blocking their phone number, their social media, etc. “Maintain boundaries and cut all ties with the person,” Danley advises. “If you work with them, have as little contact as possible. Talk to your co-workers about it [and] manage your social media so that it is more private.”

If you can’t totally cut them out of your life—maybe because you have a child together—consider places where you can. For example, block (or at least unfollow) them on social media, even if you can’t block their number.

Decide if you want to ignore their narrative or take control of it

As mentioned earlier, Dr. Crain sees two options: ignoring the smear campaign and letting it die, or taking control of the narrative and sharing your truth. “Both are viable options,” she says.

Talking about the pros and cons of both options with a mental health professional can help you decide. For example, responding to the smear campaign may encourage it to continue, but it also gives you a chance to stand up for yourself.

Warn loved ones

Danley encourages letting family and friends know that they may receive texts, calls, or emails from the narcissistic person. By warning them, you can “get ahead of” the issue and prepare them to hear lies about you.

Lean on people who believe and support you

Don’t just warn loved ones—let them know what you need, too! You are not alone, even if and when you feel that way. “Stick to the people who are anti-gaslighters and who do not believe in false narratives,” Jambazian says. This might be a friend, family member, person at your place of worship, or the advocate on the other end of the domestic violence hotline.

Remind yourself of the truth behind what’s happening

It’s easy to get wrapped up in all the hurtful words the narcissist says about you. To prevent this from happening—or as a way to calm yourself down—Jambazian recommends acknowledging that the smear campaign is gaslighting. In other words, it is lies, manipulation, and further evidence that the person doesn’t deserve you and that a relationship with them wouldn’t succeed.

Talk to a therapist

Danley urges pursuing this ASAP if you haven’t already. A therapist can provide psychoeducation and help you cope with the pain in effective ways, among other forms of support. To find the right therapist for you, consider filtering through the Open Path Collective and Psychology Today databases.

Regardless of which tips you choose, remember a smear campaign doesn’t define you—you get to define yourself.

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