What presses your button?

Uncle: Rolf would become incensed when a driver cut in front of him.

Nephew: Who’s Rolf?

Uncle: One time, when the driver in front of him had stopped at the lights, Rolf got out of his car and rapped on the driver’s window, screaming. Fortunately for Rolf the incident did not lead to harm or an arrest.

Nephew: Is this another lecture? About how I shouldn’t become a hardened criminal? Gee, that’s a good idea. Thanks for that.

Uncle: Most of us have ‘buttons’, which are incidents in life that prompt us to react with unwarranted passion. Jan becomes tearful when given a particular insult; Roy feels overly hurt when ignored; Jenny feels outrage when someone refutes the existence of God; Ali feels overwhelmed with exasperation when he sees someone litter.

Nephew: Psychos, the lot of them.

Uncle: You’re trying to press my button, aren’t you? The thing is, we all need to become aware of our buttons, for two reasons. First, being aware of our buttons can help us moderate our behaviour.

Nephew: How do you mean?

Uncle: If Bill realises he gets narky every time Jill leaves the toilet seat up, he can say to himself, ‘Oh, this is where I get narky. This is one of my buttons. Alright, I won’t chuck a wobbly about it. In a few minutes all will be forgotten.’ And he’s right. By recognising that button and moderating his behaviour accordingly, an argument has been averted and the violation is soon in the past, and soon forgotten.

Nephew: Second reason?

Uncle: 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 overall.  

Nephew: How do you mean?

Uncle: When Rolf, our road-rage driver, explored the anger 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 been treated poorly. 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 ‘shoulds’ in his life. ‘Drivers should respect me. Drivers should think I 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 considered him unimportant. All the emotions Rolf felt as a child: frustration, exasperation, powerlessness, humiliation . . . rose within him and incited his fury.

Nephew: Bummer.

Uncle: But when Rolf realised he was making false assumptions about other drivers, and becoming unnecessarily upset, and understood that those drivers were mere triggers for his own emotions, he focused on not taking it personally.

Nephew: So when someone cut him off, he didn’t care?

Uncle: He still became irritated when drivers cut him off, but he could cope with his irritation. By becoming aware of that button, and dealing with it, he had added to his ability to handle what happens in life. Had he had not bothered to identify his ‘button’ and examine it, he might still be road-raging today.

Nephew: So the message is . . . what?

Uncle: Become aware of your buttons, because knowing them will help you deal appropriately with situations when they arise, reduce the intensity of the emotion you are feeling, and it may even help you disable the false underlying beliefs creating those buttons in the first place.

Nephew: When you say, ‘Become aware of your buttons . . .’?

Uncle: ‘I become irritated when Jim sings in the shower. That’s a button.’ Or, ‘I become grumpy when Kim suddenly ignores me when her phone rings. Button!’

Nephew: Yeah, got it. Once I identify each one of my buttons, what then?

Uncle: 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 Jim sings in the shower? What emotions am I feeling? What beliefs do I have about life that are prodded by Jim’s singing? Why do I get upset about his singing when someone else wouldn’t?

Nephew: Even if I do that, won’t I still be irritated when Jim sings in the shower?

Uncle: At least you will know that Jim is not creating your distress; rather, you are. That’s a big step forward to solving your distress.

Nephew: How? Why?

Uncle: Because when you realise that you are the cause of your distress, you also realise you are the solution to it. Then you draw upon your resources and deal with the problem.

Nephew: Do you have a button that gets pressed sometimes?

Uncle: Being fussed over. Witnessing acts of cruelty and neglect. Being asked for my star sign.

Nephew: Your star sign?

Uncle: In past years, if I were on a date and asked for my star sign I would become passionate in my criticism of astrology. My earnestness would sour the date.

Nephew: Typical Gemini.

Uncle: That was predictable. When I finally figured out that astrology was one of my ‘buttons’, and that it was disabling me, I moderated my behaviour. I would say to myself, ‘Uh oh. That’s my button.’ I’d then grimace inwardly and adeptly change the subject. My awareness of that button allowed me to behave appropriately.

Nephew: You’re still single.

Uncle: Yes, but . . . (Sigh)

Nephew: I’m off. I have buttons to press.

Uncle: Why am I not surprised.

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