Reactive Abuse

Reactive abuse is a strategy that toxic individuals use to shift blame for their abusive behavior onto their victim. They do this by using your reaction to their abuse against you, then plays the victim. This is one of the most common manipulation tactics a narcissist uses to accuse you of being the abuser. This pattern repeats every time you decide to stand up for yourself & react to their abuse.

The Link between Reactive Abuse and Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Individuals with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) commonly have an exaggerated self-image and inflated belief of superiority over others. Typical behavior patterns in a person with a narcissistic personality disorder or narcissistic traits usually include impulsive behavior with sudden anger and aggression, often mood swings, and a strong fear of being abandoned. These people also tend to show manipulative & self-centered behavior, always putting their needs first & expecting you to feel responsible for their feelings.

They tend to blame others for their own failures & usually lack empathy for other people’s feelings. Also, narcissists constantly seek attention and admiration and may act in a controlling way or be emotionally abusive. At the same time, they will complain about being a victim & being taken advantage of.

An individual doesn’t need to be diagnosed with a narcissist personality disorder. Yet, they can still have some of the narcissist personality traits that will make a relationship with them very challenging.

The Cycle of Reactive Abuse from a Narcissist

According to Lenore Walker, an American psychologist and founder of the Domestic Violence Institute, the cycle of abuse in a toxic relationship involves three main stages:

  • Tension building
  • Acting-out
  • Reconciliation phase

However, when the abuser is a narcissist, this cycle of abuse looks different. Because narcissists are self-centered, lack empathy, & are not willing to take accountability for their actions, they turn the back end of the cycle playing the victim. So, it is usually the true victim who feels guilty and tries to reconcile.

The cycle of abuse from a narcissist usually involves four stages:

The narcissist feels threatened: Anything that looks like a threat to a Narcissist self-image may trigger abuse.

The narcissist engages in abusive behaviors: this may include emotional, physical, sexual, or financial abuse or a combination of any of these. Left with no other choice, you usually defensively fight back.

The narcissist becomes a victim and uses your defensive behavior to blame you: A narcissist behaves as if you have initiated the abuse. Since you can feel guilt and remorse, you usually go along with this distorted perception and try to reconcile by pleasing, accepting responsibility, and agreeing to the narcissist’s conditions.

The narcissist feels empowered: Once you have given up, the narcissist receives the validation of their superiority and domination. By playing along with their twisted perception of reality, you actually feed the narcissist’s ego, which helps restore the peace in the relationship. However, it doesn’t take long until the narcissist starts the cycle of reactive abuse all over again.

Understanding how reactive abuse works can help you to stop the cycle. The first step in escaping the narcissist’s cycle of abuse begins with establishing firm boundaries and seeking help. 


Establish Personal Boundaries

Individuals with a narcissistic personality disorder or narcissistic personality traits tend to build codependent relationships, which means that they are unable to see you as someone who exists outside of their needs and feelings.

Narcissists commonly show the inability of true reciprocity & exchange in relationships. A toxic individual doesn’t understand your needs, so they may frequently break your boundaries.

Make sure to set firm personal boundaries. Narcissists can be very charismatic, particularly at the beginning of the relationship. However, they will soon start to behave in a manipulating manner. Let them know which behaviors you will accept and those that you won’t. The narcissist will most likely try everything to break your boundaries, however, you need to stay firm and consistent.

Put Yourself First

Practice self-love & self-care. Do not allow the constant struggle with the narcissist to affect your mental health and well-being. Make sure to regularly exercise, do things you enjoy, stay connected with family and friends, sleep enough, and eat healthily. Practice mindfulness meditation and/or other relaxation techniques that will boost your resilience and help you stay composed. 

Seek Support

If you decide to keep in contact with a toxic individual, because the person is a family member or a partner, adjust your expectations, try to understand the roots of their behavior, and have a realistic view of your relationship. Also, surround yourself with positive people. Connect with those who have similar experiences.

If you feel that your relationship with a narcissist is something you cannot manage on your own, seek professional mental health counseling.

If you are looking to seek help & want to learn more about reactive abuse, please visit Choosing Therapy’s Blog on reactive abuse at

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