Reactive Abuse: How Narcissists Shift Blame Onto Victims

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One of the biggest heartbreaks in the world is when an abuser’s lies and manipulations are believed and the victim is blamed. It happens more than you think.

Narcissists have a wicked skill at projecting their wrongdoings onto others and sadly outsiders are easily manipulated to believe their false narrative. Often, the victim also believes this manipulation and will blame themselves for the abuse.reactive abuse how narcissists shift blame onto victims

Abusers rely on what’s called reactive abuse (and many other tactics) to avoid accountability, play the victim, turn others against their target, and continue manipulating and abusing their victim.

This type of abuse can have devastating effects on someone’s life and by the time a survivor reaches for help, they are in pretty bad shape mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically.

Let’s talk about what reactive abuse is and what reactive abuse it is not.

What is Reactive Abuse?

Reactive abuse is when an abuser will provoke or continue pushing someone to their limits until they react in a way that the abusive person can use against them.

Isn’t that victim-blaming?

This term is commonly misunderstood and thought to be calling the victim’s reaction “abusive.” That’s not what it means.

Emotional, Reactive & Verbal Abuse

Reactive abuse is not calling out the victim as being abusive, instead, it’s a reference to the type of abuse the victim is experiencing. Just like financial abuse, verbal abuse, or physical violence, refer to the type of abuse being used against a victim. For example:

  • Physical abuse means physical violence is being used to abuse
  • Emotional Abuse means your emotions are being used to abuse
  • Verbal abuse means words are being used to abuse
  • Reactive abuse means your reactive response (to abuse) is being used to abuse

It’s often misunderstood because a victim’s reaction can make them look like the aggressor, but that’s the point. Abusers use reactive abuse to project blame onto the victim. Sadly, they are often believed and it can have severe consequences for the victim.

But, it’s also important to understand that a victim’s reaction can vary, so it doesn’t always look like anger. Their reactions could make them look jealous, emotionally unstable, mentally ill, overprotective… the list goes on.

Abusers manipulate their victims to get them to react

Abusers are skilled at pathologizing people’s emotions. They will abuse their victims for hours, days, weeks, or even years before the victim reaches a breaking point and reacts to the abuse.

“Look at their abusive behavior”

The victim reacts to abuse and the abuser points a finger “They have such abusive behavior! Look at them”

The actual abuse is minimized, justified (by the reaction), or denied and now the reaction to abuse becomes the focus.

Narcissists will find any and all grey areas to manipulate situations in their favor and project almost everything they are really doing onto the abused person. It’s shocking how they use reactive abuse to manipulate outsiders and are often believed.

They play the victim and convince others that the real victim is crazy, unstable, and abusive. The abuse is minimized or ignored while the victim’s reaction is magnified.

This lays a toxic foundation for the manipulator to easily continue abusing and shifting blame.

They will even film your response to show others or a court how unstable you are.

Dog Whistling Narcissist

One reactive abuse tactic narcissists like to use in settings with an audience is called “dog-whistling.”

You know how a dog whistle can only be heard by a dog? Narcissists do the same thing with their targets using reactive abuse. It’s a form of covert control in abusive relationships.

Victims are conditioned to respond to certain facial expressions, gestures, sounds, and words. Reactive abuse is meant to induce feelings of fear, anxiety, inadequacy, shame, and guilt.

An example would be the narcissist saying something that is painful, embarrassing, or something about a sensitive topic discussed by the two of you, but to outsiders, it doesn’t seem unusual or abusive, so when you respond negatively, it’s easy for the narcissists narrative that you are unstable, mentally ill, or abusive to be believed. (more examples in the bottom link)

narcissists quote they love destroying your name

Feeds The Narcissist

Your reaction to reactive abuse feeds the narcissist’s ego in multiple ways. They feel powerful controlling you and watch as you break down often with an evil smirk or a cold blank stare.

They love being portrayed as the victim and reactive abuse allows them to easily manipulate others into believing you are the problem, the narcissist, the one that needs help.

As time goes on, they can trigger you with less provoking. This allows them more evidence to use against you. They will use this to triangulate you with others and in smear campaigns against your character.

Is Reactive Abuse Really Mutual Abuse?

No, reactive abuse and mutual abuse are not the same.

Mutual abuse is when both partners are abusing each other in order to limit agency and control their partner. The power shifts from one person to the other. This can happen with two narcissists.

Domestic violence is not mutual abuse

Many experts would even argue that mutual abuse does not exist and it’s a dangerous term to accept, especially in domestic violence situations. It doesn’t hold abusers accountable and suggests the victim is equally responsible for the abuse they endure because they reacted to being abused.

Also, abusers often use the “mutual abuse” claim when they are unable to deny (hide) their abuse, to make the victim feel or look equally responsible, and to appear like they are taking accountability for their behaviors.

What many mistake as mutual abuse is really violent resistance—that’s violence in response to violence, not violence used to control a partner.

In reactive abuse, the power does not shift from one partner to the other, instead, there is a power imbalance in the relationship and only one person is trying to control the other.

The abuser is trying to limit agency and control their partner. Their partner is responding to the abuse as self-defense and trying to get the abuse to stop.

This does not make them an abuser!

Reacting To Abuse

Abuse of any kind is incredibly painful, stressful, and traumatic.

If a stranger were to grab you and assault you, it would be easy for people to justify you pushing, screaming, and punching your way to safety.

You would not be called an abuser. You would not be called toxic. You would not be called a narcissist.

But these lines get blurred in close relationships and people have a hard time understanding domestic violence, reactive abuse, and narcissistic abuse.

Victim-Blaming

Sadly, victims of abusive relationships are often blamed for being violent and the unstable ones.

Victim blaming allows people to believe this could never happen to them and they just can’t imagine why you would have stayed if it was so bad. Guess what? Many survivors admit to thinking the very same thing before they experienced it!

This is really a lack of understanding of personality disorders, domestic violence, manipulation, trauma, and trauma bonding.

If the same scenario happens with your spouse or in a close relationship it creates grey areas that are exploited by abusers. Remember, they thrive in grey areas and know exactly how to get themselves out of hot water, they have been doing it all their life.

Because the victim is operating outside of their normal character and values, they can be disappointed in their own reactions (to the abuse) often putting much of the blame onto themselves. The abuser will repeat throughout the relationship that they are really the problem, this repetition can soak into their thoughts and they can start to believe it.

Most victims of narcissistic abuse will self-reflect and feel regret and shame for their actions. They may even sympathetically apologize to their abuser while the abuser accepts it and will sometimes reward them with “love and affection” for taking the blame.

But, something you should know is that reactions to abuse is normal for someone experiencing emotional, and psychological abuse. Good, loving, well-intentioned, and empathetic people also have limits to what they can endure.

What’s really happening is you are fighting for your mental survival. This is self-defense even though it might not feel like it. Our nervous systems can only take so much and your reaction is trying to protect you.

Abusive Relationship Patterns

When there are pervasive patterns of emotional and psychological abuse it’s likely the person is suffering from a cluster b personality disorders including borderline, histrionic, psychopathic, antisocial, or/and narcissistic personality disorder.

They will exhibit a high level of narcissistic traits and often have co-occurring disorders and addictions such as depression, anxiety, drug, alcohol, and sexual addictions.

Their disorders prevent them from having healthy relationships and they typically have a history of toxic relationships where they were abusive.

Physical abuse is not always present in all abusive relationships. Read that again.

Hallmarks of Narcissism

The hallmarks of narcissism are a grandiose sense of self-importance, lack of empathy, and exploitation of people and systems. This combination makes it easy for them to abuse others without feeling guilty or taking accountability for their actions and then blaming it on the victim of their abuse. They are hardwired for manipulation so they can obtain what’s important to them without regard to how it may hurt others.

reactive abuse victim screaming

Psychological Damage

Reactive abuse is extremely toxic and can do massive amounts of psychological damage. It’s a form of gaslighting that can make someone feel confused, unstable, crazy, shameful, and even guilty.

Symptoms include:

feeling chronically invalidated, controlled, and manipulated
having a distorted sense of self and reality
experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (C/PTSD) symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, and dissociation
developing poor boundaries and difficulty trusting others
physical symptoms such as headaches, body pain, and gastrointestinal problems

Narcissistic abuse can cause long-term damage to a person’s mental and physical health and survivors often struggle to regain a sense of self after years of ongoing abuse.

You may feel like you are crazy, but you are not. Gaslighting is a narcissist’s favorite mind game tool simply because it works exceptionally well. It helps them hide their abusive behavior while breaking down their victim. The psychological damage is devastating.

Victims of narcissistic and reactive abuse often transform into someone they don’t really like during a narcissistic relationship. They change, and not in a positive evolving way, their mind, body, and soul are breaking down. They are acting in ways that are outside of their character, values, and beliefs.

They’ve also had to make micro-adjustments to their character in order to survive the relationship, while these “survival skills” help us through traumatic events, they are destructive when we rely on them for periods of time.

In abusive relationships, the abuser will plant seeds very early on. You may not have noticed how much you blame yourself because it has been subtle. They will water these seeds by repeating the very thing they want you to believe over and over again. When something is being drilled into your mind like that, it can become part of your thought process.

People can spend years walking around in the darkness, not knowing what they are going through. When they do reach out for help, most people don’t understand and can re-traumatize them. This includes therapists.

Most therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and counselors do not have adequate education or training to effectively recognize narcissistic personality disorder or treat those who have relationships with them.

Well-meaning, but untrained individuals can exacerbate victims of abuse trauma, unintentionally gaslight them causing more damage, and give ill-conceived advice that can be dangerous and increase the problems.

While therapy is useful, spending time to find the right therapist for you is essential to healing.

Why Do Victims Stay?

It’s easy for someone outside of the abusive relationship to ask “Why do you stay if it’s so bad?”

It’s a lack of understanding of why these relationships exist in the first place. Society does not have a deep understanding of trauma, and if it did, MANY things in the world would make perfect sense.

Abusive relationships are harder to leave than a healthy relationship.

By the time a victim has decided to leave, they usually have several dependencies on the abusive partner (by design) and their abuser can rely on them as well.

Fear is heightened, with reason. The most dangerous time for a victim is after they leave the abuser. In an attempt to regain control over the victim, the abuser will apply more pressure.

If children are shared between the two, it gets worse. Abusers have parenting rights enforced within the court. This means they will use the children to continue abusing their ex. The abuser will manipulate the courtroom just like they do any other audience. Parents that bring up abuse (especially sexual) or do not comply with the orders of the court, will be punished and they could lose child custody to the abuser. Abusers will also use reactive abuse against you in court.

They can also be trauma bonded to their abuser. These bonds are powerful and make leaving the abuser more painful than staying (at least until they heal). The victim actually becomes addicted to the trauma bond cycle and will do almost anything to keep the relationship together.

This is not simply an analogy.

According to biological anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher,

“the brains of those in adversity-ridden relationships become activated in an eerily similar way to the brains of cocaine addicts.”

Except there is one huge difference between the two. Society has a lot of knowledge about drug addictions and how they can destroy your life but most people don’t understand the toxic bonds that exist and often blame the victim instead of holding the abuser accountable for domestic violence.

Final Thoughts

Reactive abuse is a form of gaslighting and domestic violence, that can have a profound and lasting impact on targets. It is one of the wicked manipulation tools narcissists use to break down their target’s psyche. While it can difficult to walk away from these relationships, your soul requires it. 

Many victims have crawled out of their graves to heal themselves and their stories continue to connect and inspire others to do the same. We don’t walk away to teach people a lesson, we walk away because we finally learned ours.

Survivor Questions

How do you prevent reactive abuse?

What are examples of reactive abuse?

How do I know if it was narcissistic abuse?

If you are experiencing domestic violence and need support, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224

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What are your thoughts? Leave a comment

  • So basically the victim should focus on themselves and ignore (or in other words, tolerate) the abusive behaviors of their partner?

    • Hello Anne. I don’t believe anyone deserves to stay in an abusive relationship and just tolerate it. We have to practice radical acceptance in our relationships and sometimes that’s hard for us. If we desire a healthy, deep connection with a partner, it will never be with a narcissist. 🙏💜

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