Rolf would become incensed when a driver cut in front of him. One time, when a driver had stopped at the lights, Rolf got out of his car and rapped on the other driver’s window, yelling. Fortunately for Rolf the incident did not lead to harm or an arrest.
Most of us have ‘buttons’ – incidents in life that prompt us to react with unwarranted passion. Jan becomes tearful when given a particular insult; Roy feels deeply hurt when ignored; Jenny feels outrage when someone refutes the existence of God; and Ali feels overwhelmed with exasperation when he sees someone litter.
We all need to become aware of our buttons, for two reasons:
1. Being aware of our buttons can help us moderate our behaviour.
Being asked for my star sign is a button of mine. In past years, if I were on a date and were asked for my star sign, I would become passionate in my criticism of astrology. My intention was to ‘wake her up’ but my earnestness would sour the date.
When I finally figured out that astrology was one of my ‘buttons’, and that it was disabling me, I moderated my behaviour. Nowadays I simply grimace inwardly and adeptly change the subject. I become incredulous when a woman asks for my star sign, but my awareness of that button allows me to behave appropriately.
2. Being aware of our buttons also allows us to search for the deeper concerns behind them. That can make a big difference to how we feel and respond.
When Rolf, our road-rage driver, explored what he felt when a driver cut him off, he realised he had felt the same way as a child: unimportant. Dismissible. He had been well looked after as a child, but when he had tried to express an opinion he had not been taken seriously and had felt irrelevant. His opinion didn’t matter. After all, ‘he was only a child’.
As Rolf grew older he became sensitive to being ignored and feeling unimportant, and developed strong subconscious ‘shoulds’ in his life. ‘Drivers should respect me. Drivers should not think I don’t matter. Drivers have no right to treat me badly.’ And so on. So, as a driver, Rolf’s immediate (but subconscious) assumption when a driver cut him off was to assume the driver was not taking him seriously and considered him unimportant. All the emotions Rolf felt as a child: frustration, exasperation, powerlessness, humiliation . . . rose within him and incited his fury.
When Rolf understood he was making false assumptions about other drivers, and becoming unnecessarily upset, he realised those drivers were mere triggers for his own emotions. He then focused on himself.
Rolf still became irritated when drivers cut him off, but the intensity of his feelings diminished considerably. By becoming aware of that button, and dealing with it, he had added to his resilience.
If Rolf had not bothered to identify his ‘button’ and examine it, he might still be road-raging today.
In short, we need to know our buttons, because knowing them can help us deal appropriately with situations when they arise. We can then focus on addressing our distress instead of feeling a victim to the outside world.
‘Oh, this is where I have a hissy fit. This is one of my buttons. Alright, I can choose how to behave. I’ll just put up with their stupid behaviour.’
(Don’t criticise yourself for having buttons. This is not an exercise in blame; it’s an exercise in observation.)
Once we are aware of our buttons we can search for the deeper concerns behind them. That will diminish their influence upon us as well as the intensity of what we feel.
‘Every time I find the toilet seat up I feel a flash of irritation. Oh, that’s a button.’
‘I become irritated when Bill sings to himself. That’s a button.’
‘I become grumpy when Kim suddenly ignores me when her phone rings. Button!
’ ‘I become tense when I drive to Vicki’s house. Ah. That’s a button.’
What we do with our buttons is our choice. If we want to get mad, we can. But a better approach might be to ask ourselves, Why do I become upset when Bill sings? What emotions am I feeling? What beliefs do I have about life that are prodded by Bill’s singing? Why do I get upset about his singing when someone else wouldn’t?
We might continue to be irritated when Bill sings to himself, but at least we will know that it is not Bill creating our distress. Rather, we are creating our own distress with our beliefs about Bill’s singing. We know it’s not the outside world after all. That’s a big step forward to solving our distress.
Q. ‘Mark, what are your triggers?’
1. Being asked for my star sign.
2. Like many people, I become distressed when I witness or read about acts of cruelty and neglect. Ugh. I even feel bad when I see a dog on a lead, or hear one in a backyard barking, bored nearly to death. Don’t get me started.
3. Being fussed over. A girlfriend and I were to drive for less than a kilometre. In a daring burst of adventure I chose to recklessly not put on my seatbelt for that short distance. She refused to start the car until I put my seatbelt on. At that moment I began planning to break up with her. My over-the-top reaction indicates a button: I feel ‘smothered’ when I am fussed over. By being aware of that button I can ensure my response is civil and helpful in future.
4. If I think someone has not listened to my side of a disagreement I become loud and earnest (if I’m not careful). Even today, in certain situations, I succumb, and my companion can hear the frustration and tension within me. I don’t know why that’s the case, but I do know it’s a button, so when I notice my rising fury I remind myself that I’m succumbing to that button again. I place the argument aside and focus solely on calming myself down.