Reacting vs. responding – what’s the difference you ask? Turns out there is a fair bit. Once the distinction is understood, and awareness is built of when you are falling prey to reacting, shifting to a ‘responding’ mindset will prove a powerful step in your journey recovering from narcissistic abuse, and/or codependency.
In this article, we’ll check out the difference; how to make the long-term shift by understanding your ‘reaction’ triggers; and some short-term ‘anti-reaction’ hacks you can use while you journey through recovery.
Reacting, a.k.a. ‘oopsie, I should have thought that through a bit more’
Reacting usually comes from a place of defensiveness, when we feel that we need to protect ourselves. It is typically in response to a trigger event or comment, that directly targets or activates a wounded part of ourselves.
It is immediate, primarily emotion based with little integration of rational thought, and as it is defensive, rarely productive. The immediacy also means that the longer-term impacts of our reaction aren’t thought through. Regret can pop up later as a result. Yuck. No-one likes to do things we later aren’t so proud of!
When considering either codependency or narcissistic abuse, it’s easy to appreciate why we might have a propensity for ‘reacting’ rather than ‘responding’, and to have compassion for ourselves that this history has led us to where we are now.
In codependency, we have learnt often through years of neglect and/or abuse in our families-of-origin, that relationships are about survival rather than healthy exchanges where we seek to meet the needs of others, as well as having our own needs met.
Against this backdrop, exchanges are frequently centred on an ‘attack and defend’ mentality. You learn to duck and weave, for some both physically and verbally, to minimise the damage aimed at you by shielding yourself in any way you can.
As this occurs during your developmental years, and because of the trauma sustained, you learn to incorporate this behavior when encountering similar situations that remind you of that cornered, frightened feeling.
At the hands of an abusive narcissist, the same defence mechanisms are triggered as their game is about intentionally devaluing you. This necessitates wielding strategies to deliberately activate fear to control and manipulate you within the relationship. The end game is always about triggering your insecurities so that they maintain dominance and the upper hand.
The effect of narcissistic abuse is that you are constantly on alert expecting danger (also known as hypervigilance), and hence in a continuous state of ‘I must protect myself’. Is it any wonder that ‘reacting’ becomes your status quo in this environment?
The bugger is that ‘reacting’ is precisely what the abusive narcissist thrives on. These moments for them are the sweet treats that feed them. This is no good, and you are no lolly shop (well at least not for these hungry monsters…keep your sweetness for those who deserve it). No longer having these sweet treat ‘reactions’ on offer, is therefore a plus in being narc wise.
Most importantly though, is the value of making the shift for yourself, separate to any external parties. Moving from a place of immediate, emotion based reactions that are largely out of control, to a space where you provide considered responses (if in fact you deem that a response is even necessary) is truly empowering and edging you towards the freedom and peace you crave and will secure.
Responding: the mindful option
A response, while still answering the same stimuli that seeks to provoke a triggered reaction, is more measured. A response computes the reasons that:
a) you felt triggered, having reflected on your experiences with codependency and/or narcissistic abuse; and
b) your sparring partner aimed that cheap shot in the first place.
This cognitive processing allows for a level of detachment from the situation, and notably, the incorporation of thought and rationality, as well as your emotions, into your response.
Making the shift
To recap, one of the first steps is to understand the ‘why’ behind the ‘reacting’ which we’ve looked at briefly here. Nutting out any specific triggers you have from your codependency or experience with narcissistic abuse is also a good idea.
If you’re unsure what the triggers might be, pause when you feel uncomfortable or unpleasant emotions arising in exchanges and ask yourself: Why do I feel this way? What is it that is happening, being said to me, or asked of me that I don’t like? Why don’t I like it?
What grates is usually a sign of something we need to dig into and do some work on. No, not on that other person who got their jollies by pushing our buttons, but on ourselves. It is the voice of our true selves whispering a truth that if heard and acted on will bring us ever closer to living our best lives.
This process of revealing the truths about why specific triggers have haunted us, naturally invites awareness and a more mindful approach to relating to ourselves and others. The shift towards ‘responding’ away from ‘reacting’ is born here.
Underpinning this transformation is without a doubt, a fair whack of work. Having said this, it is toil well worth investing in your gorgeous self.
In many cases, if you’ve experienced a childhood that has shaped codependent behaviors in you, or you have been subjected to narcissistic abuse, chances are you could be battling post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD).
Taking this journey with a qualified trauma therapist that you connect with could be helpful for you. Please do give some thought to this.
The benefits of making the shift from reacting to responding are potent on the journey of recovery. Clearly, the excavation work of getting to know your triggers is massive and the gains from this journey will be a lifelong gift to yourself.
In the moment of engagement with those trigger-happy monsters, your inner landscape will transform. When reacting, we are not in control and in a sense, giving away our power to the person taking jabs. When responding, the reverse is true: we are in control, and we are owning our power.
Allowing a measured response that takes account of ourselves, others, and any implications which may have been forsaken in a ‘reaction’, enables a sense of peace and strength.
As you undertake your longer-term journey of recovery uncovering trauma and resulting triggers, which will naturally ease you into a ‘responding’ mindset when healing begins, you can still practice short-circuiting the ‘reacting’ slip-ups starting today.
To this end, some nifty ‘anti-reaction’ hacks…
- The breather:
When you feel the discomfort, defensiveness or rage coming up, take a breather.
Don’t immediately engage, just pause, and notice what’s going on internally.
Wait for the wave of emotion to pass sufficiently for some rational thought to penetrate!
- re-engage when you are happy that you have a considered response that takes account of yourself, others, and any other implications.
- disengage if in the set of circumstances, re-engagement would not be a productive or safe option.
- Check yourself Qs:
Challenge yourself ‘If I do this right now, am I doing the best I can? Am I being true to myself and what I value? Will I be proud of this moment and my actions when I look back on this?’
- Big picture Qs:
Ask yourself ‘Is this really as important as my emotions are telling me it is? Will I remember this tomorrow, next month, next year, in 5 years? How much does this align with what truly matters to me?’
- Choice is always yours:
Reacting can be a stubborn pattern, one you tend towards as an individual, or one ingrained in a relationship where both parties endlessly react to one another. Here’s the thing, not everything deserves a reaction, nor a response. You have a choice either way. In fact, in any given situation, the possibilities and choices are endless as to how you behave and what action you take. Make it a choice that works for you.
I’d love to hear of any other tried and tested hacks that work to encourage mindful responding in the comments section below. Stories of experience that resonate with getting stuck in a mindset of ‘reacting’ rather than ‘responding’ as a result of narcissistic abuse and/or codependency would also be wonderful. The more we share, the more we teach and help one another to recover and be joyously free!
Recommended reading on this topic
For me, a big factor in overcoming ‘reacting’ vs. responding, is my codependency. I rave about Melody Beattie’s work because of how transformational her honesty has been for me. Her truth speaks directly to mine.
For this reason, once again I highly recommend Codependent No More as a starting point to her work, and tackling the internal stuff that means I’ve always been programmed to jump (react) when poked. I don’t have a link for this, but I’ve also found the ‘Language of Letting Go’ app super helpful for a daily mindset check in. Get it if you can.
(Note – if using link/s provided to purchase, you’ll receive free shipping and title heavily discounted. You’ll also be supporting my work in providing you free resources on this site, by earning a very small commission, at no extra cost to you – thank you 😊)
- Beattie, M. (1992). Codependent no more. Minnesota, US: Hazelden.
- McBryde, K. (2008). Will I ever be good enough? Healing the daughters of narcissistic mothers. New York, US: Atria.
- Vandervoort, D., & Rokach, A. (2006). Posttraumatic Relationship Syndrome: A case illustration. Clinical Case Studies, 5(3), 231-247.