The Little Shaman is a spiritual coach & specialist in cluster B personality disorders, with a popular YouTube show and clients worldwide.
Reactive abuse is something that we often hear about regarding narcissistic relationships and abusive or toxic relationships in general. It's an important dynamic to understand.
What is reactive abuse?
Reactive abuse is what it's called when someone is the victim of abuse and they begin displaying some of the same abusive behaviors themselves - especially toward their abuser. For example, someone who is called names continuously may begin to do the same in response. Someone who is continually put down or attacked may begin to behave the same way, either toward the person who is putting them down or even toward others who have done nothing to them at all.
Many people believe that those who have been abused would never hurt others or behave abusively toward others because they know what it's like to be hurt that way. Unfortunately, this is just not always the case. Contrary to what some believe, abuse begets more abuse and hurt people hurt people, so when someone is treated poorly, it is not uncommon for them to start behaving in the same way they are being treated because they are angry, hurt, confused and frustrated. This can be especially true for children, but can and does happen with adults as well. Anyone can react this way to being mistreated, especially if the mistreatment is subtle or goes on for along time. When the victim reacts angrily, in frustration or aggressively, they will be blamed for their reaction and are often told they are the abuser. This can create heavy guilt and shame in the victim, because they know their behavior was not OK.
Why does reactive abuse happen?
Even the most gentle animal will bite you if you provoke it enough, and people are no different. Everybody has a breaking point, a point at which they can be pushed no farther without a large reaction. What often happens in abusive situations is that the person's breaking point starts to be easier and easier to get to. Less provocation is required in order to push the victim to the place of explosive reaction.
Eventually it can end up becoming a situation where the victim even seems to be attacking the abuser first, because they are so emotionally strung out from anticipating being attacked themselves, and from months or even years of being provoked, harassed and tortured that they are instantly defensive as soon as the abuser comes in the room or speaks to them. They are angry, they are hurt and they are conditioned to believe they will be attacked or abused in some way. This creates an extremely defensive mindset that may result in what looks like offensive behavior.
This is very similar to the way pathologically narcissistic people operate and it's one of the things that lead to victims asking, "Am I the bad guy here? Am I the abuser? Am I the narcissist?" The truth is, anyone can react this way if they feel attacked and abused. The problem is with the way the narcissist perceives things. Their behavior makes sense only when we understand that they perceive themselves to be under attack. Because they are not under attack but don't understand this, and because we cannot see their distorted perceptions, it makes the behavior of narcissists appear offensive to us rather than defensive. If a person with no knowledge of the situation were to view reactive abuse, that would look offensive as well. It would look like the victim is attacking the abuser for no reason, exactly as the abuser does.
Remember, narcissistic behavior is the ego's reaction to feeling defensive and can show up in anybody under the right (or wrong) circumstances. As human beings, we are all ego-driven and because of that, narcissistic behaviors are not uncommon - even among people who are not narcissists. However, there is a very large difference between displaying "normal" narcissistic behavior in a defensive situation and being pathologically narcissistic. Though in some ways, narcissists are more like the rest of us than we might want to believe.
And the truth is, both reactive abuse and narcissistic abuse occur for similar reasons: the person feels hurt and angry; they are frustrated and probably want to hurt the person who hurt them. The difference is that a person engaging in reactive abuse actually has been mistreated, whereas a narcissist has generally misunderstood the situation and is reacting inappropriately - often to things that did not even happen or are being grossly overblown. It's like the difference between smacking someone because they hit you first and smacking someone because you dreamed they hit you first.
Reactive abuse also happens because the climate of the relationship is such that this kind of behavior is not only accepted, it's encouraged or even rewarded. Screaming at the abuser may be the only way they will listen to you. Calling names may be the only way to make them understand that you are upset. Becoming hysterical may result in what looks like remorse on their part. Manipulating or controlling the abuser may be the only way to prevent crises from happening. Becoming selfish and uncaring may be the only way to get your own needs met in the face of someone else's overwhelming self-centered behavior. In many situations, narcissistic people bring others down to their dysregulated and abusive level because it is the only thing they will respond to.
What can you do about it?
While in many ways, reactive abuse is understandable, it's not OK. The entire climate of the relationship is toxic and unhealthy at this point. Unlike the abuser, the victim truly understands this behavior is really not OK from anyone, regardless of the reason, and they can suffer greatly because of the things they've done - even if they feel the abuser deserved it. Hurting someone for what feels like a justified reason is still hurting someone and (unlike the abuser) the victim actually cares about that. Many people have stated that this was the reason they finally ended the relationship: it was turning them into someone they didn't like. They became aggressive, violent, angry, controlling, manipulative, over-reactive, selfish, uncaring, vindictive or something else that was outside of their character. This is what abuse does to people. It's ugly and it's painful.
If you've noticed that these things are becoming a part of your life, it's important to remember that this does not have to be the way it is. If you don't like it, you have a choice every day to stop allowing this situation turn you into somebody you don't like. This is not about who they are. This is about who you are, and who you want to be. That is completely and totally up to you. If you are carrying guilt or shame over things you've done, try to forgive yourself for the things you did before you knew better. We are all only doing the best we can with what we know at the time. Luckily, we have the power to learn, the power to change, the power to choose.
Besides the obvious solution of getting out of such a toxic environment, some things you can do in general would be:
- Learn to think before you react. This helps control your emotions.
- Practice observing your emotions without judgment - of them or of yourself.
- Start examining your triggers safely and exploring them so you can learn where the emotion is coming from and why. Mood journals are great for this and you can find a free one on littleshaman.org in the TOOLS section.
- Master The Grey Rock Method to help with responding vs. reacting and remember: Grey Rock is not about repressing your emotions. It's about controlling your reactions. These are two different things.
- Learn to process your emotions intentionally and in a healthy way. This helps bring your reactivity down. You can start an anger journal, or just a journal in general to help with processing situations as they happen.
Most importantly, remember who you are and who you want to be. Because once again, this is completely and totally up to you.