Reacting vs. responding: Overcoming legacy of abuse and narcissism

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 vs. respondingReacting 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.

mindfulness moves you away from reacting

Anti-reaction hacks

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!


  1. re-engage when you are happy that you have a considered response that takes account of yourself, others, and any other implications.
  2. 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.

reacting vs responding focus on bigger picture

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!

With gratitude,

Maggie x


For more tools & knowledge building pieces on the issues in this article read:

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.

15 thoughts

  1. Thank you for sharing your kind wisdom and insights Maggie. I subscribed within minutes of finding your website.

    1. Thank you Christine for your word of support, greatly appreciate it. The subscription hasn’t made it through at this end as yet, not sure why, but look forward to keeping in touch! Take care, Maggie x

  2. I’m involved in a relationship with a narcissist right now and I’m trying to get out. But he keeps dragging me right back in… Please help!!

    1. Hi Amber, I hear you! It is so very hard to break that pattern that the narcissist has groomed you to follow. But you can do it. The fact that you are reaching out, and you are saying you’re trying to get out is evidence you will get there, and you can do it. Don’t hesitate to email me at, and we can share ways of unhooking so that when he tries to drag you back in, you can feel strong in deciding what you want to do. Thinking of you Amber, you’ve got this. Maggie x

  3. I also am in a long term marriage with two teenage sons, have only recognised the abuse over the past two years and am feeling trapped! My boys are used against me and so is my family … with his words and direct conversation I’m walking on eggshells I’m tired and exhausted and just don’t know how to escape

    1. Dear Suzy, my heart is reaching out to yours right at this minute. Can I suggest you seek help locally? You could call your national Domestic Violence helpline for a referral (email me if you would like me to look up details for you; and also check out appropriately qualified professionals who specialise in abuse nearby. You will get the help you need to figure out how to set yourself free. There are many services available who will help you map out a plan to leave, as well as connect you to support services you may need in the process. I urge you to check these out. I know you are exhausted gorgeous one, which makes it all so much harder in setting yourself free, there are people who can help you. You don’t need to do this alone. You’ve got this Suzy. Sending you buckets of light, love, strength and clarity. Maggie x

    1. Dear Ana, thank you. What a kind soul you are. You keep fighting for you gorgeous one, you’ve got this! Light & love to you Ana. Maggie x

  4. My hack: The Really Big Shew. Survived a malignant narc mom through adulthood…Got entangled with a narc mentor as an adult. Yes we are magnets. I haven’t had therapy but learned with trial by fire. Mentor went from prematurely viewing my work as incredible to abusively arguing I was a hack. He demanded I quit my job for our meetings. All the usual boundary violations. Of course, he argued he was doing all this for my benefit. I’d be foolish to disagree. Narc Alert.

    What you write about response/react is a key thing. He finally raged. I sat there, looked him directly in the eye, and watched it like a show. I felt seriously triggered and in fear by his wild fury but I did not respond. Like watching a sci-fi thriller, I mentally got my popcorn with extra butter. I tuned in to watch, as Ed Sullivan would say- ” the really big shew.”

    The thing I learned by watching vintage Ed Sullivan is that he kept calling every single act every single time a really big show! That cuts my codependency trigger. That’s my red flag. You don’t need to fix their show cause every single time it’s got to be a really big one! Just let them shoot it all at the green screen. He raged on. I looked him intently in the eyes. He finally ran out of steam like a cat with a mouse that wont move anymore. I took a long pause. He asked for my reply. My matter of fact affirmative response was ‘Wow, okay. I see (the show).’ I did not act upset. I did not disagree. He had nowhere to go with it. Narcs have a short fuse with tripwire. What mattered for me is that I bought myself time for self care. I could give myself the opportunity to plan the best exit strategy cause mad narcs seek unethical revenge without guilt. In my experience they can only go downhill and at that point you’ve been warned. The alternate script for angry rage is crying jags.

  5. Thank you gorgeous Maggie, your posts are an incredible help and support, all of them! For me, it has been 25 years of abuse, all the stages and steps you describe so well. The wake up was my own doing, and unbearably painful. Your posts have made me understand that my narcissist actually envies me and hates me for still being who I am.
    I was pushed into reacting all the time, preferably in front of the children (more shadenfreude for him).
    The attitude of the grey Rock has been my teacher. Now when I am provoked, I scan a quick mental list of the abuse techniques used and identify which vulnerabilities he is targeting. Then I have a good internal giggle thinking how utterly pathetic he is.
    I don’t say a thing, I journal the event and I give myself a Pat in the back.
    Much love and peace to all of my fellow survivors, you are the salt of this earth!

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