Dealing with the Narcissist's Smear Campaign
How not to get sucked in and wiped out (and eventually recover).
Posted Jun 27, 2019
“My mother stopped at nothing when I went no contact. She spread rumors about me to family members, my neighbors, and even got in touch with my boss. My boss had no idea who she was, by the way, but that didn’t matter to Mom. Lies, and more lies. She told people I’d stolen from her, that she’d stopped speaking to me because I was violent, that I abused my kids. She actually wanted to call social services on me but, thankfully, someone talked her out of it. Or so I heard. It was all unreal and over the top.”
“The divorce was brutal. He lied about everything to anyone who would listen, especially his attorney and the judge. He buried me in paperwork and false accusations. He didn’t really want most of what he seemed to be fighting for, like more time with the kids. He wanted to win. He wanted his truth to prevail. How he got there didn’t matter.”
Among the things most experts agree on is that narcissists never go quietly into the night; they do not simply disappear from view but instead practice the scorched-earth policy, leaving nothing but the burned wreckage of relationships and, sometimes, reputations.
One of the more interesting observations offered up by Joseph Burgo in his book The Narcissist You Know is that the narcissist is so committed to his “truth” that his lies may not be conscious. Yes, re-read that sentence and let it sink in. Winning is all for the narcissist, as is never taking responsibility when things go south; while they are always the heroic protagonists when things go right, they loudly declare their victimhood—no matter how unlikely—when things go wrong or have the potential to embarrass them.
The smear campaign is born out of a combination of factors, including the need to be right and have his or her “truth” become the prevailing script, retaining status and standing (making sure that his or her inner hidden shame doesn’t become public), and maintaining control of his or her image. The woman or man high in narcissistic traits curates her or his public persona very carefully; appearing successful, accomplished, and together is all-important.
In interviews I’ve conducted over the years with unloved daughters for my book Daughter Detox, a mother’s public persona is always part of the story, whether or not the family is financially well-off; she is highly attuned to what other people think, especially of her role as a mother, and the public aspects of her motherhood are always carefully tended to. Of course, she’s relying on that when she starts the smear campaign in retribution for her adult daughter’s action. That action might be as benign as trying to have a conversation about her mother’s treatment of her, putting boundaries in place when her mother has never respected any, pushing back against what’s been and being said, and, more finally, going no contact.
Generally, since the culture tends to be on the parent’s side when there is an effort at correcting old patterns or full-fledged estrangement, the smear campaign is often unwittingly facilitated by others who wrongly label the daughter as an ingrate or impetuous; don’t forget that there’s a Commandment that appears to have the mother’s back as well. Not every mother will wage a smear campaign—mine didn’t, for example—but when they are waged, they are usually gale force.
Of all the things I learned during the writing of my book, Daughter Detox, nothing was as surprising as the lengths some mothers who consider themselves spurned by their adult daughters will go to in order to eke out revenge, get the upper hand, maintain power or control, or hold on to their social standing by maligning their children.
I heard about mothers who tried to break up their daughters’ marriages by inventing illicit affairs, mothers who notified social services of trumped-up charges of child abuse, and mothers who insinuated themselves into divorce proceedings, taking the about-to-be ex-husband’s side, and more. Some mothers also contacted bosses and co-workers. It was unreal and, frankly, some of the stories were so mind-boggling that I felt that if they were included in a novel, an editor would demand they’d be taken out because they were unrealistic—except, of course, that they happened.
I guess it’s a variation on the “No more wire hangers!” theme. (Sorry, but I need to lighten this up a bit. This stuff is beyond awful.)
Understanding the narcissist’s need for control
Yes, we all feel better when we’re in control of a situation and can manage our feelings, as opposed to being tossed about by random waves or being beset by someone else’s aggression, but I’ve come to understand through firsthand experience as well as research and interviews that it’s really quite different for the person high in narcissistic traits.
External appearances to the contrary—the narcissist may seem in command and supremely self-confident—experts agree that beneath the surface, he or she struggles with deep shame and a lack of self-worth. Additionally, as explained by Craig Malkin in his book Rethinking Narcissism, the narcissist buries his or her normal emotions, such as fear, sadness, and loneliness, because of an intense and deep concern that he or she will be rejected for having them.
Control is what keeps it all together for him or her, as well as offering protection for the fragile parts. When you take these factors into consideration, the smear campaign has its own logic, does it not? The narcissist isn’t going to take his or her chances of having a different truth being established.
Getting through a smear campaign in pretty much one piece
Your strategies are obviously going to vary depending on your relationship to the narcissist in question; it’s one thing to be dealing with an ex-spouse with whom you will have to have continued contact because you have children, another when you’re dealing with a friend or lover, and quite another when you are an adult child dealing with a parent. That said, this is going to be hard and painful, especially since it will confirm every worst thought you’ve ever tried to quell about the person, and it’s likely to damage your trust in humans generally in the short term.
1. Don’t engage.
In his book, The Narcissist You Know, Joseph Burgo actually identifies the "Vindictive Narcissist" as a type; as he writes,” … the drive to prove oneself a winner and triumph over shame renders the truth irrelevant.” That’s important to remember because while your desire to set the record straight is perfectly understandable, it won’t accomplish much and will keep you in the narcissist’s orbit by default.
Burgo specifically addresses the smear campaign, writing: “…She may tell blatant lies as part of her smear campaign. Though you will, of course, feel offended, it’s important not to retaliate in kind or attempt to turn the tables. If the Vindictive Narcissist feels you have engaged in battle, she will escalate the violence of her attack in order to win. Take the high ground and stick to the truth; don’t speak ill of your enemy unless you have to.”
This is tough medicine to swallow, but at the end of the day, you will feel good about how you conducted yourself; that actually matters.
2. Focus on what you can deal with, and not what you can’t.
The narcissist will put effort into co-opting others to his or her side, and, frankly, there’s very little you can do about it. It’s especially true if you are an adult child either attempting to set boundaries or going no contact.
People really want to believe in the mother myths—that all women are nurturing, that all mothers love—and unless they are genuinely open-minded or have had experience themselves, they are usually inclined to take a parent’s side. This is hard to accept—especially if close relatives are involved—but focus on the things you can change and not those you can’t.
The same advice applies if you are going through a divorce with someone high in narcissistic traits; do not engage or play tit-for-tat but keep copious notes and have everything in writing. Make sure that your attorney is aware of how people high in narcissistic traits behave; for more on this, see this post, which includes the viewpoints of both an attorney and Malkin.
3. Be prepared for the narcissist to claim the victim’s role.
I can testify that this made me absolutely crazy during my divorce when my ex asserted that I had fled and left him, leaving out all the reasons why and connect-the-dots; the fact that his assertion could be shown to be a lie didn’t discourage him in the slightest. It’s even more common with a parent who will list every single thing she ever did for you—Food! Clothing! Shelter!—and will paint you as an ingrate at best and a crazy person at worst and present herself as the hapless victim. The narcissist is likely telling this tale to absolutely anyone who will listen and, more disturbingly, believe it, as Burgo points out.
All of this is very disheartening, especially if you have been the victim of emotional or other abuse. But at the end of the day, you know what is true and what isn’t, which is way more than the person on the other side knows. Again, in the short run, this will be of small comfort but worth it in the long run.
4. Look forward, not back.
I’m neither a therapist nor a psychologist, but you really don’t need to be either to realize a smear campaign will make you feel shaken to your core and hugely insecure; after all, this isn’t a random stranger going after you, but someone you cared about or loved and were connected to in important ways.
Again, the path out differs depending on the connection. We cannot choose our parents, and while we may feel guilty at asserting ourselves and forlorn because we are being rejected once again, the underlying situation is one we were born into. If the smear campaign is a function of going no contact, it’s important that you don’t devolve into old habits of self-criticism, such as excoriating yourself for all your futile efforts at pleasing her or him or being angry at yourself for not acting sooner. Part of the process of healing, as I explain in Daughter Detox, is accepting yourself; you acted when you could.
Being the object of a smear campaign by someone you chose to be with raises other, often complicated, thoughts and emotions. Yes, it will be important to figure out how you ended up here, but trying to figure that out when you’re working at staying afloat isn’t the best idea.
One of the hardest things is to try not to generalize from the experience; it’s easy to make the leap from “one man” to “all men,” but it’s important that you recognize the specificity. This is one specific person who is doing to this to you; don’t let it color your view of the world. Not everyone is high in narcissistic traits.
5. Seek support, because there’s no gold star for going it alone.
Working with a gifted therapist as you navigate these waters can be a game-changer so please take care of you. He or she will also help you stay as unreactive as you possibly can, which will help as well.
Eventually, the truth will out, as Shakespeare wrote.
Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock
Burgo, Joseph. The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me Age. New York: Touchstone, 2016.
Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.
Streep, Peg. Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life. New York: Île D'Éspoir Press, 2017.