Manipulation and Character Assassination—and How to Handle It


Those of us who have encountered people with narcissistic, predatory, or even sociopathic tendencies (for the sake of simplicity referred to as manipulator) have experienced a phenomenon where the manipulator tries to vilify you by using triangulation, gossiping, power play, mischaracterization, and other tactics. It usually goes like this.... 

The Mechanism Behind It

The manipulator is driven by shame, insecurity, and fear. As soon as they start feeling inferior, or as soon as you notice the manipulator's toxicity—or as soon as they notice you noticing their toxicity—they begin feeling deep insecurity. In their attempt to manage it, they may try to cover their tracks and save their image by giving you made up explanations and excuses, instead of recognizing their unhealthiness and working on themselves to overcome it. If you are able to see though their smoke and mirrors tactics, ideally you will either set a firm boundary and distance yourself from them or they will get terribly scared and ashamed and distance themselves from you, because they avoid people who can see through their facade like a plague. 

Now, since manipulators are terrified by others not liking them or having a negative perception of them, they will try to make themselves feel better by finding others to support their delusions. So they will use their social power, or go tell their circle their version of the story where you are a villain or where you are the perpetrator and they are the victim. In doing so, depending on the type of the relationship, they will say how you are a bad person, mischaracterize you, be overly-critical of you, while in reality they feel inferior—and in certain aspects factually they are inferior—and project that onto you, sometimes without even consciously realizing it. 

In other cases they can be what sometimes is called the devious type, where they see their remorseless destruction of you as a means to an end in realizing their own goals, and they will justify it with a soothing narrative where you are a villain, where they have no choice but to do what they are doing, and where they are a hero. They will use various manipulation tactics to gain people's trust—sometimes the very people they aim to destroy—and then utilize it in their attempt to assassinate their target.

Manipulators are cowards, as they need a group to get their narcissistic supply, enabling, and resources for their schemes. In many ways, they are just like bullies who intimidate or beat somebody up 4 on 1, send their goons after you, or try to sabotage you with lies and deception. Usually their group consists of admirers or yes-men or "like-minded people" or minions—dependents and enablers—who lack their own identity and fail to question the manipulator's or their own toxic tendencies.

In psychology, this whole mechanism is called character assassination. It involves triangulation, gossiping, power play, tribalism, reality distortion, and mischaracterization. This phenomenon is widely common and can be observed or experienced first hand in one's family, school, professional environment, or personal relationships. 

In families, it usually happens in a way where a child or adult-child is terrorized by one or both of their toxic parents in relation to other family members or even to other social contacts. The parent's conscious or unconscious goal is to make you, the child, look and feel bad, and to justify their unjust treatment of you. The same can also happen between siblings, peers, or schoolmates. This is painfully prevalent, and most people have experienced it as children in one way or another.

In a professional environment, manipulators often feel insecure around their colleagues or subordinates. A common story is that the boss terrorizes you, the employee. Between colleagues, if you are a better worker, instead of concentrating on themselves and learning how to do a better job, your colleagues will feel threatened and entitled and try to sabotage you: by turning other coworkers against you, grouping against you, or turning the management against you. Especially if you simply try to mind your own business and concentrate on doing a good job instead of actively "competing with them." 

It is also horribly common in one's adult, personal life: in unhealthy romantic relationships, marriages, and social circles. "Friends" will gossip behind a "friend's" back. Ex-lovers will release a revenge porn video or stalk their ex and spread rumors. A boyfriend or a girlfriend will complain to their circle how horrible their partner is. A wife or a husband will do the same regarding their spouse. In some cases, a partner who suffers from narcissistic tendencies may even go to a therapist (who also suffers from narcissistic tendencies or is incapable of identifying such tendencies) and tell them how their spouse is narcissistic and terrorizing while in fact the spouse is the healthiest member there. And then they create a unity against the actual victim, sometimes to the degree where they plan to actively harm them. Sometimes certain forms of character assassination happens in couples or group therapy, too.  

Granted, not all cases are extreme, this phenomenon is much more commonplace than people realize or want to recognize.

Personal Examples 

In my own life, I have experienced it quite a few times. Some of it was more severe, some of it quite mild. I have also observed it in many different contexts among many different people, especially in groups and certain social circles or communities. Plenty of people told me about their experiences with it, too.   

When I was growing up, I didn't experience much of this type of abuse from my family, but in school and among peers it was quite common. Too many to count. That's what forced socialization does to children. They turn against each other, attack each other, form hierarchies and cliques, isolate others, try to manipulate the teachers, and so on. It forms a prison mentality. Then children grow up and as adults create or participate in the same structures and dynamics. Hence, it is so prevalent.

As an adult, I have experienced it myself when I was in university and later in my personal and professional life. I also have helped my clients deal with their problems, hurts, and injustices related to it. I have heard and observed many stories, many of them from both sides. Below, I will give two examples from my life to illustrate it. Now, I want to make it clear that it is not to seek pity or vengeance—these are merely examples. At the same time, these things happened to me, so they are a part of my life's story.

Story #1

In university there was this professor who, after my presentation, among other things referred to something I said as "impudent lies." One, I don't think I was incorrect (although, technically it is possible that some of the information used could have been factually incorrect), and the topic wasn't important at all, just a dumb, useless presentation. And two, I don't think it is very professional to say something like that to a student and use loaded descriptions like that. I can't imagine saying something like this to someone I teach, even if they are incorrect, especially in front of the whole class. So afterwards I sent her an email where I politely told her some things about the information I presented and about my experience that day. She responded quite rudely, with gaslighting tactics, minimization, and justifications. She was in denial about her behavior, avoided self-responsibility (even in her language, which was mainly passive and "academic"), and, in so many words, explained that she's a great professor and would never mistreat a student. Basically, that everything was fine. I saw no point of pressing her so I left it at that. 

However, the next day she made a public spectacle out of it, where she read my initial email in front of the whole class—her interpretation of the story, of course, where she presented herself as a sad, clueless victim. Not only that, she actually started crying crocodile tears, telling everyone how great of a professor she is to all of her students and how much I hurt her. At the time, I wasn't so clear about or unaffected by it as I would be today—and I knew I will have to deal with her later, and that she has power over me—so I just sat there smiling at her victim playing. I let her finish, I didn't interrupt her, I wasn't given a chance to speak, she never read the following emails, and it eventually ended. Again, even if you believe that somehow I was completely in the wrong, I don't think it is professional or ethical to deal with it by bringing it up in class and make a spectacle out of it. People are paying you a lot of money to teach them, not to use them to deal with your own struggles and personal drama.

Aftermath 

I think everyone in the room felt uncomfortable. However, nobody asked me about my side of the story. Nobody cared about my perspective or my feelings. There may be many reasons for that but not one person came to me and asked me about what happened. I think they either simply believed the authority or just felt too uncomfortable to bring it up. I talked about it a little with a few of my classmates with whom I walked together later, briefly mentioning a few details the professor left out. One of them was quite confused and opened the conversation by saying that she feels so sad for the professor, yet at the same time she didn't shun me like some others. I didn't go out of my way to try to convince them of my side of the story, either. I definitely felt wronged but didn't feel the urge to desperately spread my perspective of it in order to not be rejected.

When I thought that I will have to deal with that professor later, I was right. While she was more or less professional in all the remaining classes that semester, she was also a part of the panel in my final thesis defence. She tried to make me feel uncomfortable and even asked me a question during my defence, but I dealt with it fairly well and since she wasn't familiar with the subject she didn't have much to add. 

I won't lie, at the time it did feel good knowing that this professor was listening when my thesis advisor—one of very few who noticed my strengths and talents and cared to be helpful and supportive but not overbearing, who was also the head of the whole defence ceremony—gave a short speech after I was done, publicly praising me as one of her sharpest and most independent students and saying she hopes I will continue studying there further. She didn't have to say any of that, especially publicly and in front of that professor, but she liked me and believed in me so she did, and for that I am thankful. 

After it was all over, the toxic professor came to us in the hall and complimented me on, as she phrased it, "a beautiful defence." I faked a smile and said thank you, thinking: "You are such a hypocrite. We both know what you did." 

My Message to You, Manipulator 

There is a technique used in therapy where a person is encouraged to write or say whatever they would like to say to a person who wronged them. In doing so, you get a chance to let it out, both on an intellectual and psychoemotional level, and make peace with it. It also teaches you self-validation. It doesn't have to be nice, either. Try to be fair and realistic, don't make things up, but if you have stronger emotions and observations that are valid, don't be afraid of letting them through. In situations like this, feeling anger is okay. Here's an example. 

In my time of thinking about this experience, the message I formulated in my head and somewhere in my journal probably was something like this: You are bad as teacher, you are a bad communicator, your lectures are a waste of time, money, and energy. You are an immature, narcissistic human being who wouldn't have a teaching job in a healthy, free market environment. If I ever meet you on the street and you will try to smile at me and say hello, I will tell you to go fuck yourself (in those or other words) because now we are on an even ground. You were a bitch to me, you never apologized or recognized what you did (neither personally nor publicly), and I don't have to pretend that I have more respect for you than I actually do—which is zero.  

Story #2 

The second, more recent experience is from my professional life. This example is an archetype based on many examples that form a type of person I have encountered and observed both in the fields of mental health and education, in my personal life observing several communities and social circles dedicated to healing or self-improvement, and in completely different spheres of life. A few others have told me about their experience with such a type, too. It is a more extreme example to illustrate the point, so some fit it more than others.

This type of person is in the category of the most insecure and actively malevolent people that I have interacted with on a more personal level. At first, I thought this person was also interested in the same things I am interested in. But after some time, it became quite clear to me that they felt insecure around me: constantly comparing themselves with me, trying to prove themselves to me, imitating me, using fake generosity, trying to do things I do, etc. At the same time showing hints that they despise me. I had my own insecurities and was trying to improve my professional life at the time. At some point, I got tired of our unhealthy and unproductive interactions and decided to discontinue our relationship. Later, they tried to apologize for it, openly recognizing that they compared themselves to me, that they copied me, that they felt bad about it, and that now they see their previous behavior more clearly. But it wasn’t genuine and I didn't see the person being fundamentally different. I didn't feel interested in continuing to invest in this interaction anymore so I refused their "apology," gave them my honest reasons, and moved on. Fine, it didn't work out, not a big deal; I'm going to do my thing and you go do yours.

Later, it came to my attention that this person started participating in what could be categorized as character assassination against me. Now, it's worth noting that, just like with the professor, except for one or two very close people who are not involved with that person in any way, I have never mentioned what happened between us to anybody. I haven't mentioned this person or referred to them anywhere. I didn't compulsively talk badly about them with others trying to turn them against the person to get validation or encourage them to pick a side. Yet from what I gathered, it seemed that they have been doing exactly that against me. (For all I know, it could still be happening.) It appeared that the person followed me—possibly in an unhealthy, obsessive manner—and still felt insecure about and competitive with me. This seems to be a type of people who would stalk you to keep up with you and to openly mis-criticize you among their circle, all while telling to themselves that they have to keep an eye on you just in case you are stalking them or talking about them, and to go out of their way to "warn others" about everything they see problematic about you. If you're a writer, they will buy your book just so that they could criticize you and leave a negative review; if you're a chief, they will steal and use your recipes while publicly talking about how the food in your restaurant was too dry and salty.

They mischaracterized me and others; attributed strawman arguments and traits; continued to copy me and others, without giving any credit to those who they resent, and overly-associating with and praising those who are valued in their group to gain more credibility; incorrectly used strong, morally negative terms to vilify me and others and strong, morally positive terms to heroify themselves. There was a lot of black and white, and more importantly, this person had vilified others and heroified themselves in absence of reality or self-awareness, without even realizing they were projecting their own, negative traits onto their targets. This is quite common with manipulators: insecurity, strong projection, black and white thinking, transparent ego, a lack of identity, toxic copying and psychopathic/sociopathic tendencies, being a chameleon, virtue signallingsycophantism, obsessiveness, and delusion.

Aftermath

Now, just like with that professor, I had no interest in spreading my side of the story, like contacting people and trying to explain myself or warning others about them. What others think is not my personal business. Even though I had noticed this was happening, I realized that getting into it would only entangle me further into a drama that I did not want to participate in. I felt that I gave my thoughts and grievances to the person directly while setting a boundary at the end of our initial interaction and moved on. So here my default approach was to deal with the situation internally, to avoid drama and unhealthiness, and to continue with my regular life.

The factual consequences were that I may have lost some potential clients, contacts, and acquaintances. And unfortunately, some people were manipulated into believing and feeling hostility towards me without fully understanding what happened and why they feel as they feel. But this I accept because I have thought about my options and previous experiences in situations like this and more often than not the best way is to ignore it and continue with your life.

All of this is unfortunate but it it happens, so fundamentally it is fine with me. People can say what they think and others can do with that information whatever they want, even if this harms them. I had problems dealing with rejection and injustice in the past, but these days I understand that rejection and injustice as outlined above won't kill me, that those who are prone to manipulation will be manipulated, that those who are insecure manipulators will act out their insecurity in a variety of unhealthy ways, that there will be people who will try to rally others against you and that they don't have to be a part of your life. In the grander scheme of things, none of this is really that important. A person can either learn and grow, make boundaries and face consequences, educate themselves and continue evolving, or keep wasting resources on drama, act out, get distracted, and move through the world without conscious intention or awareness.

My Message to You, Manipulator 

The message for you, manipulator, could have been something like this: personally, you are a false and miserable human being—and you know it. You have to live with yourself every day, after all. Yet you try to convince yourself that you are glorious, partially because you are delusional and partially because some people around you are telling you that. Yet deep down you know the truth—that is where all this fear and insecurity comes from. You hate when people can see your fakeness, your emptiness, and your brokenness. You bring a lot of confusion and disconnect around you. "But how can all these people who think I'm great be wrong? Some of them even hate you now!" You mean people who lack the ability to accurately evaluate a person's character and enable your unhealthy behavior? Yes, they can be wrong. And I'm okay with people disliking me. I am not in a competition with you, but for whatever reason you feel you have to compete with me. Life is not a competition. Move on—it's okay. "But I'm protecting people from your and others' unhealthiness!" You're are not a savior or a protector, and if you think you are you have a Messiah complex. Instead, you use people to feel better about yourself and sometimes these people are vulnerable and lack their own identity too, and you hurt and confuse them because of your behavior. This stems from a need to feel better about who you are and to feel better than me, from your own anxieties, and from your own inferiority.

Congratulations, this is your life. You can continue with that, and I will continue with mine.

How to Handle It

There are two main ways how to handle a manipulator's attempt to hurt you.

Avoiding Drama 

One way, already mentioned in the examples, is to set a clear boundary (usually No Contact works the best), to avoid social drama and, if possible, to remove yourself from such relationships and interactions as soon as possible. "But then the manipulator will win!" Maybe. It depends on how you see winning and losing. I see life as you doing your stuff, others doing their stuff, events happening—and you adjusting to the changing circumstances in a way that is the most acceptable to you. Sometimes it may mean being treated unjustly or losing certain resources in exchange for inner peace and healthier living. 

"But then my friends will abandon me!" Maybe, depends on your definition of a 'friend.' Are they really your friends if they can't even bother to ask you about your perspective on things and your side of the story? If not, then why does it matter?

"But then people will be wrong about me and it will ruin my public image!" Sometimes it can be more beneficial to just let people sort themselves out instead of trying to manage everyone's perception of you. You can't be liked by everybody. You can't control everything. You don't have to always show everyone that you are right (even if you are) or that they see things incorrectly (even if they do). Everything has a cost. Those who care about you will understand, those who are wiser will figure things out, and others... well, they will have to live with their false perception of reality and be around manipulators, oftentimes without even realizing it. The most important thing to remember is that how others see you doesn't change who you actually are (more on that in my video series on self-esteem).

"But I will lose my job!" Maybe. Often the employer cares more about the results than drama. As long as you keep doing a good job it should be fine. And if the conflict is with the management, do you really want to work in an environment like this in the first place? If you are mistreated, then perhaps leaving such an environment is not the worst thing?

"But I want justice!" Well, life is not fair. Sometimes people attack you, sometimes you get cancer, sometimes decent people get mistreated or ganged-up on or unjustly ostracized. Seeking justice has its price—do the math and figure out how much are you willing to pay for the result you think you will get. All things considered, not giving into the drama and continuing with your life generally can be more beneficial than the alternatives.

Fighting

To me, if it is not a terribly serious issue, it is usually not worth it, but depending on the situation you can consider presenting your side of the story, confronting the manipulator directly, filing for a restraining order, calling the police, and so on. Sometimes these things are more fruitful than other times, but sometimes the end result can be even worse. Nonetheless, sometimes people spend huge sums of money, plenty of time, and lots of energy dealing with the manipulator just to feel better, just to feel that they have won, just to feel right and righteous. But even if you go to court and the judge rules it in your favor, did you really win? If it's a really serious conflict, especially like those that involve children or physical harm, then one might say yes. Otherwise, it may cost you more to win, which in many ways makes it a loss. At the end of the day, it depends on the situation. Pick your battles, they can be costly.

Dealing with It Internally

Oftentimes when people say they want justice they mean they want validation that there has been injustice and that they are in the right. Looking for social validation, even to the degree where you go to court, may simply be an attempt to seek external acknowledgment of your internal experiences. The psychological mechanism is this: you have been wronged, a surrogate parent (e.g., the judge) or a tribe (other people), recognize it, and you feel better—external validation.

However, that is the exact thing that the manipulator is looking for too, because in their eyes you wronged them. And sometimes it can be a combination of both. However, to them, truth doesn't matter—what matters is to feel better, i.e., being validated as morally good and intellectually right, at any cost. There is the truth and there is "the truth" as they perceive it or as they want others to see it. They may even see your good qualities or goals or achievements or behaviors as their own and bad ones as yours, and therefore may think that you did or are doing to them what they are actually doing themselves, and feel right even though you are the one who is actually in the right. They will go out of their way to present their narrative—and if that story is believable enough, people might believe it just like that. The manipulator can be more dangerous if they have gained perceived credibility, i.e., if people trust them. So sometimes they "win" even if you are right.

"But justice..." Well, the greatest justice served is that, even if the manipulator succeeds in their scheme, at the end of the day they still are who they are. They have to live their unhappy life—and that's the biggest price they pay for their toxic behavior, without even realizing the consequences of it. And as I like to say, you can do whatever you want except choose the consequences of your actions. 

If you process the situation internally and resolve your emotions related to it, you will be free from it. Usually it requires an ability to estimate yourself accurately and provide self-validation. So not everyone can do it by themselves at every point of their life. For this reason, it may take a person a long amount of time to overcome it, or they may ask for professional help to deal with it. However, if you resolve the situation internally and the situation is not life threatening, you make peace with it and move on with your life, and the urge to seek justice and validation diminishes. Learn from the experience, learn to spot manipulation quickly to avoid it in the future, and move forward with your life.

Closing Thoughts

Character assassination, its variations, and manipulation related to it is a complex sociopsychological phenomenon that involves triangulation, mischaracterization, power play, defamation, projection, and social drama. If successful, character assassination results in social rejection or social attack for the victim. For many, being socially unaccepted or attacked is a powerful stimulus, as it triggers strong emotional responses. It is exceptionally stressful to experience character assassination and its results in an environment where there is a huge power disparity, for example, if you are a child, or a patient in a hospital, or a subordinate.

It is easier to endure if you are more individual and self-sufficient—physically, emotionally, intellectually, financially—and don't depend on others for many things. It is much more difficult if you lack identity, are still highly unresolved, or have nobody to interact with, because being turned against and possibly isolated may create feelings of self-doubt, self-blame, shame, and fear. And if a person already suffers from low self-esteem, social anxiety and isolation, then they need someone to validate the injustice or at least for someone to be there for them, to like them on a basic human level so that they didn't get too overwhelmed by their emotional responses. Otherwise, in the long run it may mutate into self-hatred, chronic self-doubt, severe isolation, depression, and destructive or self-destructive behavior.

There are two main behavioral responses to social attack or rejection due to character assassination or other forms of social injustice. One is non-engaging: processing the situation as accurately as possible, removing yourself from it or adjusting to it accordingly, and moving forward. And two, fighting back directly, which in many cases may not be worth it, or simply may be quite hard, especially if in lack of resources (money, time, energy, power, social influence). In some cases, some forms of both of those approaches are successfully used in parallel. 

There is this saying that goes something like this: "Don't sacrifice your peace trying to point out someone's true colors. Lack of character always reveals itself in the end." In my experience and observation, it can be true sometimes, but usually it's not that simple. Yes, toxic people reveal themselves all the time. The problem is, most people either are unable or unwilling to evaluate that information accurately. As a result, we have a culture where narcissism and sociopathy—because of cultural programming and their subtle similarity to healthiness and individuality—are perceived as success and an aim. At the end of the day, my humble advice would be to look for a healthy social environment, to be more individual versus tribal, to avoid drama, to avoid being distracted from your goals, to analyze your internal world, to stand up for yourself in your private life, to fight the manipulators if necessary, and to pick your battles wisely.

Character assassination is a cheap tactic used by insecure, fake, manipulative, or simply psychopathic people, and usually the best way is to not to get lured into the drama of it, simply ignore it, and continue doing with what you are doing. Yes, there will be people who will never double-check and simply believe the manipulator, there will be those who will want to find out the truth, there will be those who can see through it immediately, and there will be those who are simply not interested in it. But either way, you can endure it, and continue with your life.

Questions:

What are your stories? You can leave them in the comments below or simply write about them in your journal.

What would you like to say to the toxic people who mistreated you? You don't have to actually say it to them, but sometimes just getting it out can alleviate your emotional tension significantly and provide some clarity. 


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2 comments

  1. Thank you Darius for this wonderful post. There are very few resources for dealing with character assassination, especially within the family. Big families with a history enmeshment can produce character assassins and the assassinated. I experienced character assassination within the family, seven times. It's easier to disengage from social character assassination like in your Story 2, which I also experienced once. You can stop caring. But in a family environment, the relationships continue long after the character assassination took place, the superficial rift seems mended, but the dynamics are there in the background. As the family scape goat, although all seven of the character assassinations had a very negative impact on me, the last one, which was staged in the disguise of an intervention but was in fact was just and emotional beating up of me and defamation of me carried by my elder sister, was lethal. I didn't feel depressed at first, because I was burning with indignation, I felt invigorated at first. My main question in the immediate aftermath was to ask "how will i live now?" So we can say that the final attempt was successful. I realised I should disengage from my family internally at least, but then I read a book and because there was my own mistakes that led me to start acting like the character assassination didn't happen. However, I am still disengaged from my family members to the best of my ability and once I stopped burning with indignation, I lost the feeling of invigoration as well. I try to keep depression at bay, but I lately I succumbed into depression after injuring my achilles tendon as I'm confined to home due to restricted mobility. I think writing a letter and spotting the manipulation and finding a way to deal with it can be a start. I also want to watch your self esteem videos. I don't know how to resolve my emotions and achieve self-validation at this point. But your blog seems like a great place to start.

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    1. Hi Anonymous,

      I'm glad this article was helpful to you. I have received many private messages and emails about this article. It seems that many people have experienced something similar to one degree or another.

      I hope you'll be able to improve your situation soon. Being injured can complicate things because in situations like that our control over our life is limited. It also reminds us of our mortality and weaknesses, which is also why a lot of people get depressed or angry when sick or injured.

      Self-work takes time. But if you are going in the right direction with persistence and consistency you should be able to see some progress at some point.

      Get well soon!
      Darius

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