In a situation where one person abuses another, the other person may react. When this happens, the person who caused harm may be on the receiving end of an attack. They may then claim that the abused individual (who is acting in self-defense) is the abuser. This is a type of gaslighting called reactive abuse. It gives the one causing harm something to hold over the abused person’s head.
What Is Reactive Abuse?
Reactive abuse is a common manipulation tactic that places blame for abuse onto the abused. It’s commonly associated with gaslighting as this tactic aims to convince or rewrite the story, claiming the person who caused harm is actually a victim. This is also used by narcissists, as they often will play the role of the victim when they’re being faced with consequences for their actions.
Why Is Reactive Abuse so Effective?
When a true victim reacts to abuse, the one who abused may use these reactive outbursts against the victim, sometimes even as blackmail or to gaslight them into believing that they’re the one actually causing harm. It gives them “evidence,” disregarding the abuse they actually initiated. The negative reaction is taken out of context and used against the victim, which is a way to silence or control them.
Reactive abuse also allows someone to refer to the victim as crazy or unstable, which can further cause psychological and emotional pain and damage to the victim. In extreme situations, those who cause harm have been known to go to the police and file for damages or find other ways to hold power over their victim.3
Is Reactive Abuse the Same as Mutual Abuse?
Mutual abuse is when both individuals abuse each other in the same way, equally and with the same frequency. Victims of abuse who try to defend themselves aren’t to be confused with those enacting mutual abuse, as those situations aren’t necessarily a reaction from an initial/primary abuse. Due to power imbalances in reactive abuse situations, one partner is likely primarily abusive while the other may be attempting to fight self-defense.
Reactive Abuse Examples
When an individual (the victim in the scenario) is trying to defend themselves, they may be verbally or physically aggressive back towards the one who caused harm. That person will consider that abuse and attempt to gaslight them into thinking they’re the abuser. This can occur in toxic friendships and relationships with narcissists.
Here’s a reactive abuse example: A boy may be bullied at school by another taller boy who is more popular. For months, the taller boy makes fun of the other boy’s height and lack of popularity, sometimes pushing him and taking his lunch money. One day, the smaller boy reaches his limit and goes off on the taller boy, making fun of the taller boy’s bad grades, and calling him names.
The taller boy plays the victim and acts like a martyr when he goes and tells his teacher what the smaller boy said. The smaller boy gets in trouble even though he has been the true victim for months on end.
What Are the Long Term Effects of Reactive Abuse?
The impact of long term reactive abuse gaslighting includes severe trauma, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex PTSD.
The lasting effects of reactive abuse could include:4
- Sleep issues
- Eating issues
- Emotional dysregulation
- Increase in stress hormones
- Chronic stress and migraines
- Hair loss
- Cardiac disease
6 Ways to Stop Reacting to Abuse
Ways to stop reacting to an abuse situation include the “gray rock method,” going no-contact, confiding in a trusted friend, learning to self-soothe, taking time apart, and meeting with a therapist.
Here are six ways to stop reacting to abuse:
1. Gray-Rock Method
This technique aims to change an abusive person’s behavior by not responding to the abuse or acknowledging the interactions they try to have with you. This helps make the person who caused harm feel less dominant and less in control of their victim’s mood and emotions. It can even help shut them down. It also helps the victim stand firm in their boundaries and regulate their emotions.
2. Go No-contact
This may seem counterintuitive given that in conflict situations we tend to want to lean in and resolve them or engage to reach a solution. Disengaging in this situation with reactive abuse can mitigate the heightened emotions of the angry person and force them to consider the source with the silence.
3. Phone a Friend
If the situation allows, give yourself some space and seek support from a friend or family member. If you are having a hard time disengaging or are prone to internalizing conflict, talking out the issue with someone else helps give perspective.
Focus on your actions and emotions and comfort yourself. This isn’t selfish; in fact, it’s important to do so you don’t begin to internalize the projected anger. This can include mindfulness meditation, deep breathing, and allowing yourself to feel angry, upset, hurt, etc.
5. Re-enter the Situation After Some Time Apart
Before coming back from taking time and space away from the conflict, it’s important to ensure it was enough. When you are ready to speak and discuss the situation, approach things from the perspective of how that situation made you feel and stay firm in your position.
6. Talk to a Therapist
You can always talk to a therapist. Conflict can be hard to manage without learning the right types of tools for communication and coping mechanisms. Without professional help, this can lead to individuals feeling anxious, depressed, and traumatized.
Speaking with a professional as a couple, individual, or family can help people determine possible triggers, learn how to separate these anger feelings, and practice tools to manage anger issues and other variables.
How to Get Help & Find Healing From Abuse
Get help as soon as you notice reactive abuse gaslighting behavior (such as reactive abuse with narcissistic abuse and narcissistic rage) in the other person. Given the emotionally volatile and potentially abusive nature of having to deal with this dynamic, it’s important to seek help immediately.1
Any type of mental health clinician is able to facilitate therapy as long as they have the experience. Seeking therapy is a big challenge for those with abuse tendencies due to the major gaps in self awareness that don’t allow them to recognize areas for self-improvement. It’s common for individuals who are dealing with abuse to end up in counseling by themselves.
In a family/couples dynamic, there may be more of the family present. Nonetheless, having a safe outlet to work through these issues is beneficial for anyone dealing with a narcissistic family member. Note that recovering from narcissistic abuse can take time.
You can find a therapist by asking a friend, consulting with your doctor, or searching an online therapist directory. Reading reviews and looking at clinician bios to understand their scope of practice can give you an idea of whether their experience suits your situation. Many therapists offer a free phone consultation and virtual/teletherapy visits.
What you’re struggling with may be unique to you, but you’re not alone. Abuse should never be tolerated.2 If you’re dealing with reactive abuse, talking to a therapist who specializes in this area can make a big difference in how you feel. Together, you and your therapist will develop a plan to help you through this situation and learn how you can establish stronger boundaries and heal.