What it means to be reactive.
And why we need to look deeper when there's abuse.
Dear fellow survivor,
The news of Gabby Petito and her murder hit home hard. While I agree her case received a comparatively-unfair amount of media attention, it’s also unusual to have such vivid and graphic video evidence leading up to a crime. Gabby’s case got people talking. That police stop is hard to look away from. Anyone’s lived through domestic violence or with a narcissistic abuser, recognizes those signs.
There was criticism of her at one point, suggesting the scratch mark’s on Brian’s face were from Gabby’s abuse of him. But look more deeply and listen to her words….the finger grips on her arms, the handprints on her face, the fawning and desperate tears. Gabby took responsibility for the entire event while Brian snarked, blamed, and agreed.
I’ve felt grateful, actually, for that level of media attention and the conversations it’s spawned. Rarely does reactive abuse get airtime. Rarely do witnesses, police, and passerby get a 101 in how to recognize domestic violence.
The police picked up that something was off. They separated the couple and diffused the moment. But if they’d looked more deeply (training, instinct, resources?) maybe Gabby would still be alive.
I paint the word “survivor” with a broad brush.
If you’re familiar with my work, you know I frequently draw parallels between narcissistic abuse and religion. The evangelical view of a patriarchal God, fundamentalism, and high-control religion is a toxic mix. The power dynamic is off.
This means that if you have a background in mainstream Christianity, you can relate to a lot of trauma-healing themes even if you’ve never been slapped by a man for breathing wrong. Or, poked and poked and poked until you explode with emotion. And then shamed for having that emotion while the provocateur cooly and calmly calls you dramatic, or worse.
Rare is the day when I meet someone who can’t relate. Who hasn’t, in some way or another, survived abuse and shame.
Reactive abuse garners attention.
Reactivity looks like tears. Hysterical tears, even. It looks like a panic attack. It’s the sweaty red face of (probably justifiable) anger. It’s outrage that “this” is happening again, whatever the “this” is in your relationship. It’s having your personal space and boundaries so repeatedly violated that there’s no semblance of a fence line left.
Reactivity looks like fear. It might even sound like paranoia. For years, I lumped mine in with anxiety. Because I was anxious! I was anxious all the time. Every floor was made of eggshells. Nowhere was safe.
Reactivity looks like frantic scrambling. Hurry up and fix things. Think ahead and prevent things. Warn the children ahead of time. Spread the anxiety around. Reactivity looks like your honest-to-God impulsive response to something offensive.
It’s scratching to get away. It’s kicking to get him off your neck. It gets called “such a temper,” and “such a bitch.” “She’s so dramatic.” “She’s never calm.”
When the abuse is over, it’s reactivity a victim is left to deal with. Long after the physical scars heal, it’s reactivity that hangs around.
Reactivity fried my nervous system and wore my adrenals out.
One of the first (and most powerful) realizations an abuse victim can have is that “I’m safe now.” If you come across an abuse victim, and help them to safety, those are words you should speak out loud. “You’re safe now. You’re safe now. You’re safe now.” The reason why? Well, the obvious––safety. But also, safety calms reaction.
It took years to realize I was safe, even though every day I was. My body got stuck in flight response. Long after I no longer had to fight, I still responded with fawn. I could trigger into fight preemptively, because I was brittle and anxious. Being caught in a trauma response is like drinking cortisol instead of coffee. It’s sleeping with one eye open. It’s assuming the worst of everyone around you. It’s never resting and trusting, “I’m safe now.”
But there came a day when I sat on the ground and realized I was, in fact, safe. I no longer had to warn the children or live on hyper-alert. My boundary fence was consistently respected. My floors were stable stone and warm hardwood. And it was time to look in the mirror.
In the abuse dynamic, it truly takes two to tango. Narcissists are precise manipulators, skilled when it comes to attracting sweet and grateful personalities who won’t stand up for themselves. The cycle will continue until one of them breaks it.
Gabby’s abuser broke it by killing her. My abuser stopped because I broke free. I stood up for myself.
But the work wasn’t over.
You’ve heard the saying, “Hurt people, hurt people?” Well, it’s my theory that abuse victims who don’t deal with their reactivity become abusers themselves. The chain continues abuser to victim, abuser to victim. Abusers are made, not born.
We see this in bullies on the playground all the time. A kid gets bullied and, in their anger, they turn and bully someone else. A kid abused at home may take it out on the kids at school. Or animals. An insidious secret in fundamentalist homes is how often it’s the mother whose abusing the children, because the pressure is on her to make them conform. Make them obey. She’s got bullies over her head and salvation demanding she do so. Those kids grow up and become abusers.
If a victim wants to truly overcome her abuser, she has to break the chain.
Healing comes in layers.
Trauma healing doesn’t happen all at once. The onion metaphor is used a lot, and that’s because it fits so well. For a long time there’s a papery layer of fragile skin and nerve. And then the revelations begin.
Reactions are triggered by actions. A reactive person points to something that was done––and that needs contending with. There’s offense and defense. The abuse was wrong. The offensive action was wrong.
When I lived in evangelical Christianity, I heard so many sermons on “turning the other cheek,” and “forgive seventy times seven.” So much time spent on how to react well. So much shame spent on emotional reactions. That’s because there’s a system that stands to benefit from compliant and grateful people who don’t push back or refuse. The message is “bend over better.” Submit more. Give in more.
Now I look at reactivity as the screaming red flag that it is. Where there’s a reaction, there’s an offensive action. Gabby’s tears and pleads to accept all that disproportionate blame should’ve immediately triggered a closer look at Brian’s behavior. Gabby behaved like someone unsafe. Her body showed the marks.
And I look in the mirror. When I’m reactive, what’s going on? Is it a trauma response? Have my boundaries been violated? Is something going on in my environment that makes me feel unsafe? I have to address it.
Because I’m a former victim, a survivor who doesn’t want to flay my reactions onto the innocent. I want to hold the abuser and/or offender accountable. I want to stand up for myself.
There’s no stronger narcissist-repellent than that. And no stronger way to heal.