“When you react, you let others control you. When you respond, you are in control.”– Bohdi Sanders
How you behave in your interpersonal relationships says a lot about your emotional evolution. The way in which you communicate and how you react speaks to where you are in your development and how far you yet have to travel.
Coping mechanisms are the coping styles we develop along the way to help us deal with what’s going on in our environment. As we grow up we realize that crying because we want food is no longer necessary, so we learn to ask for what we want, as we grow older still we will learn to deal with our hunger by making our meals ourselves. Our coping styles develop in much the same way. We outgrow the old when a newer and better way presents itself and we adapt this new behavior into our lives.
In homes where abuse is present the most important coping mechanism to develop is survival and self-preservation. When we need to call upon these to cope with our day to day life we stop growing and developing in a normal healthy way. The term arrested development means that our growth and ability is stunted and we stop learning and outgrowing behaviors that no longer work for us. As adults, this means that we are still using coping mechanisms that we should have out grown long ago.
Below are 3 examples of different coping mechanisms. Like the story of Goldie Locks and the Three Bears, one is too hot, the other is too cold and one is just right.
Severely Codependent (Doormat or No Reaction) Style: The doormat style is a coping mechanism that surfaces due to childhood trauma. It’s a style that is adapted to deal with unstable, punitive and unpredictable parenting. Children learn not to upset their caregivers, to be invisible, not draw attention to themselves, so they suppress their feelings and their expressions, because to act out, may mean pain or punishment. The child absorbs everything, believing that they are responsible for the moods and feelings of others. If this style is carried into adulthood it will be conveyed as a lack of expression, fear of conflict, not standing up for yourself, poor or no boundaries, absorbing blame and the emotions of others. In a heated discussion with their partner they would be fearful of expressing their needs. They would be anxious about angering their partner and causing them to end the relationship, so they hold everything in.
They do not feel safe to give voice to their feelings and their partners, usually emotional manipulators, will use this to lay blame at their feet for all that has gone wrong in their own lives. The Codependent, an absorber, will instinctively soak it up. Fear dictates this coping style and a healthy relationship cannot exist without the freedom to express yourself and having the expectation that your needs be met.
Reactive (Over-reactive) Style: A reactive response is just that – reactive. It’s how you might picture a rebellious teenager talking back to his or her parents. It’s defensive and generally over-the-top type behavior. While an individual with this type of coping mechanism is able to express themselves, it’s not in a healthy way. It’s born of being repressed for too long and having an extreme need to fight back or protect oneself. It can also be the next stage as you’ve worked past the Severe Codependent Style of expression. It’s where you get to a point where you will no longer accept poor treatment but you haven’t learned how to express yourself in a healthy way and so you lash out at anyone who hits your trigger spots. In a heated discussion a reactive person might be yelling and swearing and tossing insults like softballs.
The problem with this reaction style is, while it may be effective to some degree, in that, you’re getting your point across and standing up for yourself, it still makes you look crazy. You’re still absorbing other people’s baggage and letting it affect you. The expression itself is too aggressive, so you look unstable.
Healthy Reaction (No Response) Style: While the first and third coping styles are about not engaging, they come from two very different places. One is empowering, the other demoralizing. Not reacting to someone who is trying to push your buttons takes a certain level of maturation. You are no longer seeking validation, you are not absorbing other people’s baggage and you’ve developed the pass back technique. That is where if someone comes at you with a Reactive/over the top style of behavior you can leave their crazy with them. I often tell clients to envision themselves putting their hand up and pushing their antagonist’s crazy back to them. What you’re saying is, “I’m taking none of this and leaving it with you.” You’re not going to get them to lose their cool. They’ll remain calm. They’ll be direct and They’ll use logic and facts to communicate their point, not emotions or over the top behavior.
Healthy people do their best not to engage with reactive people. They are uninterested in the drama or the theatrical behavior of reactive people. They will quickly label you as unstable and move on. I have had many clients express their dismay at having a budding relationship end because of their reactive behavior. They realize after the fact that the situation did not call for such an emotion reaction.
Client’s always ask me, “Does he think I’m crazy now?” The answer is yes. Yes he does. If he is healthy, he will walk and he’d be right to do so. That may sound harsh but healthy people are all about self-care and they are repulsed by that type of behavior, in the same way that those healing from Narcissistic abuse are repulsed by their former partners.
This is a very important coping skill to master on your road to healing. If someone is trying to push your buttons, walk away and don’t engage with them. Any situation that makes you want to erupt you need to distance yourself from. Learn how to remain calm in all situations. Let go of the need to be right and to prove your point. State your case once – if you have to keep repeating yourself you’re in an argument that isn’t going to have a rational conclusion. So drop it and move on.
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I feel that some of that “healthy” behavior you’re speaking of can actually also be done as a form of passive aggressiveness. I’ve had it happen to me.
Also, are you saying that communication and interaction between two people has to be non emotional? That’s what it seems like here.
I love your site and the articles I’ve read, but I question this part. Perhaps it’s needs expanding?
Would really like your thoughts.
I do see myself at times as being the reactive type, especially in the past, but also during my relationship with a covert narcissist. He loved calling me crazy because he would remain intentionally passive about the hurt he was causing me which would enrage me all the more. I saw it as reaction seeking. However I DO see that I am in general an emotional person. Why does that seem to be so wrong in today’s day? That we need to not show emotion when we engage with people? It just doesn’t seem all together correct to me.
This is truly amazing!!! I have the reactive (overreactive style) that I developed while growing up to the treatment of my unpredictable narcissistic parents. I am easily triggered by anyone who is willing to push my buttons and can react explosively if a toxic person provokes me. I am slowly trying to transition into the healthy reaction (no response) style, but it is really hard as I am still in contact with my narcissistic parents, although they live in a different city now. It is so hard to re-program your mind and learn new coping techniques as you grow up.
I am easing from the Doormat style and, at times, I do feel I overreact because I am so used to repressing. How do I practice responding? I feel so dead inside usually that I don’t even know what I truly feel at times.
I’m an advocate for many things & for the most part it goes well. I was getting bombarded by many people from one advocacy organization for animal abuse. What they were sending me, to the point of harassment, was so toxic, I could barely handle it. I started hating people, especially men & began lashing out. Knowing me, I realize something was wrong & was able to figure it out. I unsubscribed from everyone of them & now, I’m back to normal. I have gone no contact from a psycho jerkaholic a year ago. Now, I realize my family have no time for me, disrespect & judgmental, so I’m moving for the 3rd time in 5 years. I’m done with the hurt they keep inflicting. On top of that, my case worker was a narcissist & she took my kitty out of my home illegally & killed her. The foundation she worked for is trying to project her/their pain onto me. She even tried to 302 me, but I was so silly it was unfounded!! Reported & getting proof!!!
I am currently with someone who can be very manipulative. He will think up these crazy scenarios about me cheating on him. ( I have never done so, nor have I given him any reason to feel that I would) It’s especially bad when he is drinking. I can feel myself start to boil on the inside, and I will quietly get up and try to leave the -very one sided- conversation, sometimes he will try and restrain me from doing so and I feel like a cat backed into a corner and lash out. Then I am accused of not caring and being disrespectful for not hearing him out. Then there have been times when I have fought back verbally and tried to defend myself (which is pointless) which in turn, I am accused of projecting because I “wouldn’t be so angry and defensive if I really WASNT cheating”. I can’t win. I have done a lot of inner soul searching and I know that I am co-dependent. I know there are many aspects of our relationship that are toxic. I am trying to figure out what to do next in my life. I absolutely feel trapped.
Once you start questioning the toxic person’s behavior, which by posting this here you are, then it’s just a matter of time to figure out how to set yourself free. No one can tell you how and when is the best to do it but you will figure it out yourself. The best is the soonest you can! I took way too much time to reach a divorce decision and I let false hopes that maybe we could have worked it out suck a lot of energy from me but at that time I didn’t know any better. There also was a fear of how I would survive on my own and lots of other worries. Three years later, I know I could’ve save myself a lot of stress, time and energy if I admitted to myself that I had a toxic and dysfunctional partner that was there for his own sake. Had I been uemployed, not able to perform sex, lazy in keeping the household and bad looking, he would have never ever been with me. It hurts to realize that because we all seek unconditional love, but as sad as it was for me it was the truth about my marriage. I have not once regretted and I don’t think I ever will regret my divorce. Moreover, my now adult son after the initial and usual family split confusion, hurt and guilt feelings, totally cut any ties with his biological father and freed himself from the emotional abuse we both suffered from that sick and manipulative man. It’s a joy to watch my son overcoming clinical depression, excelling at post secondary education and just enjoying life and believing that he is a loved and a worthy man. It took time but it was all worth it! Good luck!