Rolf was a road-rager. One time, a car cut him off, and when the two cars 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.
Why did Rolf become enraged? Because the other driver had ‘pressed a button’.
‘Buttons’ 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.
We need to become aware of our buttons, for two reasons:
(1) It can help us moderate our behaviour. If Bill realises he gets narky every time Jill leaves the toilet seat up, he can say to himself, ‘Oh, this is one of my buttons. I’ll be careful to moderate my behaviour. I won’t chuck a wobbly about it. In a few minutes all will be forgotten.’
He’s right. By recognising that button and moderating his behaviour accordingly, an argument has been averted and the violation is soon forgotten.
(2) Being aware of our buttons allows us to search for the deeper concerns behind them. That can make a big difference to how we feel overall. 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 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 he 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 and worthy of disrespect. All the emotions Rolf had felt as a child: frustration, powerlessness, humiliation . . . rose within him and incited his fury.
But Rolf came to realise he was making false assumptions about other drivers. When he understood that those drivers were mere triggers for his own emotions, he focused on not taking it personally.
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 added to his ability to handle life. Had he had not bothered to identify his ‘button’ and examine it, he might still be road-raging today.
In short, become aware of your buttons. 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.
(Oh, and don’t criticise yourself for having buttons.)
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.
Q. Another example, please?
‘I become irritated when Jim sings in the shower. That’s a button.’
‘I become grumpy when Kim suddenly ignores me when her phone rings. Button!’
‘What then? What do we do when we have identified 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 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?
‘Even if I do that, won’t I still be irritated when Jim sings in the shower?’
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.
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.