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Blog Short #50: Part 3 – How to Avoid Overreacting When Your Buttons are Pushed

Welcome to Monday Blog Shorts – ideas to make even Monday a good day! Every Monday, I share a short article with you about a strategy you can use, or new facts or info that informs you, or a new idea that inspires you. My wish is to give you something to think about in the week ahead. Let’s dig in!

Today finishes up our 3-part series on what to do when you get provoked by someone. In Part 1, we identified the five primary motives behind provoking. In Part 2, I gave you some ideas and strategies to use when it occurs. Today we’re going deeper and talking about what to do when someone pushes your buttons.

But before we get to that, let’s talk about where your buttons come from. Then, what to do will make more sense.

What are “buttons” and where do they come from?

Buttons are emotional soft spots, or raw emotional scars, that simmer beneath the surface and flare up when provoked. When someone pushes them, it feels personal and attacking.

For example, someone who grew up with a repetitively critical parent may respond excessively to the mere hint of criticism as an adult.

Your partner asks you in passing if you had time to call the plumber today about a needed repair, and you fly off the handle and yell,

“I’m not your employee! I have enough on my plate!”

In actuality, he wasn’t worried about whether it was done yet but was trying to find out if you needed help with it. Because of your history – in this case, a very critical mother – you interpreted it as a wholesale criticism of you as someone who’s irresponsible and doesn’t stay on top of things.

Soft spots that take up permanent residence as “buttons” come from repetitive experiences in our past that chip away at our sense of self, and were emotionally charged. They felt dangerous.

As adults, remain overly sensitive to any stimulus that feels similar.

Reactions to Button-Pushing

When someone pushes our buttons, our reactions are fast and out of control, and we experience what’s called emotional hijacking.

The stimulus (the button-pushing) sounds an alarm to our emotional brain, and we react without the benefit of our thinking brain. It’s a knee-jerk reaction.

In part, this is because the pattern that’s being stirred up was developed in childhood when our emotional brains were in charge and before we had the full benefit of our cognition.

Our reactions, even as adults, to that same behavior pattern thrown at us is still the reaction of our younger selves. That’s why people often say,

“When he pushes my buttons, I go crazy! I’m in a fury in seconds!”

It’s true, and you feel as small and powerless as you did when that button was created.

What do we do about them?

All of this means that responding differently to having our buttons pushed is not so easy. We can’t just think our way out of it because our reactions happen fast and automatically before we have a chance to think them through.

The key is to strategize before they get pushed. We have to plan ahead.

There are five parts to doing this.

1) Identify

The first step is to identify your buttons. These are the behaviors that trigger those intense reactions. Some examples are:

  • Being guilted, demeaned, made fun of, devalued, shamed, humiliated, unappreciated, taken advantage of, made to feel stupid or weak, scolded, or powerless.
  • Being nagged, invaded, crowded, abused, scorned, or used.
  • Made to believe you’re unlovable or not good enough.

Start by making a list of your soft spots. What behaviors trigger you into overreacting emotionally and defensively? What brings on an immediate reaction you can’t control?

2) Redefine

This next step is the hardest one.

  • Take your list of soft spots and objectively think about them. When and how were they developed and under what circumstances? With whom do you associate them?
  • Write your answers out. For example, if “criticism” was one of them, write down who was critical of you, when it happened, and for what kinds of things. How does criticism make you feel about yourself, and how do you react to it emotionally?
  • Next, write out a corrected version. What was untrue or unfair? What was exaggerated? How realistic were the expectations of you? Looking at it through the eyes of your adult self, what perceptions need to be corrected?

Buttons are products of your past, so you have to bring them into the present and re-examine them for accuracy using your adult thinking. If you don’t do that consciously, they continue to operate in the same manner in which they were developed, and continue to have power over you.

3) Plan Ahead

Now it’s time to plan ahead how you’re going to react the next time someone pushes one of your buttons.

Some options are:

  1. Say you need a moment and remove yourself until you’re calm. “I’m feeling quite reactive to what you just said, and I need a few moments to calm down and get my bearings. Give me 20 minutes.”
  2. You can ask the other person questions to better understand what’s bothering them. “I’m not clear on what you’re saying. Can you explain it a little more?” You buy yourself some time this way while getting a clearer picture of the problem from the perspective of your thinking brain.
  3. If the person who pushes the button is someone you know well and trust, you can tell them what you’re experiencing and let them help you distinguish what they’ve said from your “soft spot” interpretation. “I’m really sensitive to being criticized. You may not have meant to criticize me, but it feels that way. Can you help me understand what you mean?”
  4. If the person pushing your button is doing it on purpose or is trying to provoke you, you don’t need to respond at all. You can be silent or remove yourself, or tell them you’ll listen when they can speak to you honestly and directly without attacking.

The idea is to come up with a plan. You can create mantras for yourself that you say to prevent an automatic verbal reaction. You can use the ideas above. Or you can be quiet.

The goal is to avoid that knee-jerk emotional reaction while accessing your thinking brain.

4) Practice

“Practice” means exactly what it says. Don’t be discouraged if you aren’t successful right away. The more you work at planning ahead and trying different strategies, the more you’ll succeed. When you fail, use it to regroup and try something different.

Practice and tweak. Practice and tweak.

5) Neutralize

The final goal is to neutralize the trigger so it loses its power. When you practice and tweak, you eventually become desensitized to it.

You’ll also begin to let go of emotional attachments to those early experiences that impacted you so significantly. You won’t forget them, but you’ll be able to look at them without reliving the feelings they brought on at the time. You may even feel differently about the people involved in creating them.

That was a lot for today. I hope you found it helpful!

Have a great week!

All my best,


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