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Responding vs. Reacting to Verbal Abuse: What’s the Difference?

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If you’ve ever been in a situation where someone is verbally abusing you, you’ve probably had the urge to do one of four things: get away as soon as possible to avoid the abuse, smooth over the aggression, zone out or freeze up and wait for it to end, or fight back. These are normal human responses by our complex nervous system when it perceives danger, as described by Peter Walker in his book CPTSD: From Surviving to Thriving:

“A fight response is triggered when a person suddenly responds aggressively to something threatening. A flight response is triggered when a person responds to a perceived threat by fleeing, or symbolically, by launching into hyperactivity. A freeze response is triggered when a person, realizing resistance is futile, gives up, numbs out into dissociation and/or collapses as if accepting the inevitability of being hurt. A fawn response is triggered when a person responds to threat by trying to be pleasing or helpful in order to appease and forestall an attacker.”

These are reactions that override the rational part of our brains, especially when responding to trauma. When we respond automatically, we aren’t able to think through our options and make a decision about our best course of action to the abuse.

Why It’s Worth it to Respond Instead of React to Verbal Abuse

Abusers like to use our reactions to abuse us even more or “prove” the abuse is our fault. No matter which of these four reactions I had, my ex-boyfriend used them to try to manipulate me into feeling guilt, shame, or as if I somehow deserved what he had done.  Let me provide some examples.


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Kristen Milstead

Kristen Milstead is a narcissistic abuse survivor who has become a strong advocate for finding your unique voice and using it to help others find theirs.

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