Being the target of a smear campaign is a tremendously upsetting experience. While the intent is often simply to damage someone’s reputation, the psychological and emotional toll it takes should not be understated. Here are some of the key reasons smear campaigns can be so psychologically damaging for victims:
Loss of Reputation and Identity: Our reputation is so closely tied to how we view ourselves and derive self-worth. A smear campaign aims to directly undermine and distort this, leaving the victim feeling lost and questioning how others see them.
I worked in apartment buildings and had daily interactions with members of the public, even renting out vacant apartments to strangers off the street and the uncertainty of not knowing if this person was there for a reason or to get at me, was terrifying. I couldn’t work like that.
Isolation: Lies and rumours spread quickly in these campaigns, turning even trusted colleagues and friends against the victim. This makes them feel isolated, doubt who they can trust, and fuels depression and paranoia. I lost a lot during this mess, but in the end, I gained way more!
Loss of Control: Being helpless as lies are spread out of their control is disempowering. Victims feel they have no way to stop the damage or set the record straight with everyone affected. This lack of agency over their own narrative eats away at them.
Self-Doubt and Confidence Issues: It’s natural for victims to start second-guessing themselves as gossip questions their competence and character. This self-doubt fueled by others’ lies can rattle even the most self-assured and have long-lasting impacts on self-esteem and confidence.
Mental Health Toll: All these psychological impacts—loss of identity, isolation, lack of control, and self-doubt—are recipes for damaging levels of stress, anxiety, and even depression in victims. The toll on mental well-being should never be overlooked. As I already had PTSD from previous trauma, my symptoms were exacerbated.
In short, beyond just reputational harm, smear campaigns aim straight for the emotional jugular in truly deep and distressing ways. Supporting victims and helping address the psychological fallout is thus incredibly important.
Here are some suggestions for how victims can regain control over their narrative after a smear campaign that I have used:
- Address the rumours directly. Provide factual responses to set the record straight on the lies being told. Do so calmly without engaging the bullies. While I wasn’t always calm, especially in the beginning, I learned from my mistakes over time!
- Build understanding allies. Talk to trusted colleagues and friends to gain support and learn their perspectives. They can help advise and back you up to others. Talk to strangers if you have to, and show them the things written about you, as they will give you honest perspectives!
- Gather evidence. Document any proof that counters the smears, like emails, records, etc. This can help validate your side of the story. If you have any legal decisions, they will go a long way to providing clear evidence!
- Take the high road. Refuse to retaliate or sink to their level. Stay focused on professionalism and the facts. The contrast undermines the campaign. I focus on myself, showing the traits I saw, how I felt over the behaviour, and how I am recovering from it all. No longer do I focus on placing blame, nor do I name and shame them as they did me. I found it wasn’t worth it.
- Own your narrative. Tell your authentic story on your own platform – LinkedIn profile, personal blog, etc. Define yourself rather than letting others do it. No longer allow the assumptions made by others to try to define who you are. If you are honest and show your vulnerability, your readers will notice.
- Seek legal counsel. If libel, defamation or other laws have been broken, pursue professional guidance on remedy options. It may not work, but at least you tried and now more people know what you are experiencing.
- Focus on the future. Make your work and accomplishments speak for themselves. I did a lot of good in my career, but I don’t need to work anymore. I know if I did, I would have no problem finding work, just as my hubby didn’t. How you present yourself after being smeared goes a long way in how other people perceive you.
- Prioritize mental wellness. Surround yourself with caring people and consider counselling. Your health enables coming through stronger in the long run. Regaining control takes confidence, perseverance and refusing to be defined by others’ falsehoods. With tact and tenacity, victims can overcome smears and define their authentic stories.