To build strong relationships you need to stop accidentally offending others . . . and feeling offended yourself.
Here’s how to avoid accidentally offending people you care about, and how to hang in there when you feel like you’re under attack yourself. I call all this “buttonology.” For it’s the methodical study of your—and others’—hot buttons.
What Lies Beneath
Generally speaking, with enough reflection you’ll find that just about everything has its patterns. True, they may lie beneath the surface—but not that beneath the surface either. So, think about whether your chain (or that of someone you know) gets yanked when you (or they) are somehow made to feel:
- Demeaned, slighted, insulted, patronized, condescended to, or looked down upon;
- Dishonorable, untrustworthy, guilty or blameworthy;
- Ridiculed, or made fun of;
- Disrespected or discounted;
- Ignored, dismissed or abandoned; unimportant; a non-entity or invisible;
- Stupid, slow or lazy;
- Incompetent or inferior;
- Unworthy or worthless; useless;
- A burden to self and/or others;
- Trapped, unsafe, or in danger;
- Not good enough; defective;
- Embarrassed; humiliated or shameful;
- Not likable or lovable; boring;
- Not wanted; unacceptable;
- Unappreciated or taken for granted;
- Weak, powerless, defenseless; cowardly; or
- Selfish; bad or contemptible.
If there’s some sort of common denominator in all this, it’s the feeling of being criticized or rejected. And, however recessive, various negative beliefs you may harbor about self can surface when you experience someone’s finding fault with you.
Why We React
Finally, your reactivity comes from being reminded of old, distressing feelings of insecurity never fully resolved. When your buttons get pushed, your defenses are automatically activated (and with or without your permission!). And such a reaction can be hard to explain, since if it’s to verbally attack your accuser, such an offensive reaction still deserves to be seen as defensive. In short, what triggers your anger toward another (or toward yourself) is anything that threatens to bring to the surface one, or more, of the self-doubts enumerated above.
And that’s why, regardless of the client’s stated therapy objectives, I’m acutely aware of having to find effective ways of bypassing their defenses, which, though they’ve repeatedly gotten in their way, have yet felt (however unconsciously) essential to them. It’s only when I can neutralize these no-longer-necessary defenses that they can begin to make beneficial life changes. So it’s crucial for me to learn just how their buttons “operate”—and how, historically, they’ve served to protect them from feeling bad about themselves. For only then can I help them move beyond the self-made barriers they themselves have unwittingly constructed.
So what practical guidance can you take from all of this? What might help you significantly improve how you converse with others—and yourself, too, since it may be the way you talk to yourself that most needs to be re-examined, and revised? Simply that if you start looking for patterns linked to your, and others’, moments of (over)reactivity, it probably won’t be that difficult to locate them. And it could be enormously advantageous to be more conscious of these buttons, and to keep them in mind in your communication (both intra- and inter-personally).
Buttons—One and All
To be sure, we all have hot buttons. (And I’ve long contended that if anyone’s buttonscompletely vanish, they’ll turn into white light and disappear—no longer “fitting in” with this all-too-imperfect planet!) But what can hardly be over-emphasized here is that our defenses (read, “buttons”) once served a valuable purpose. If when we were young we lacked the emotional resources to cope with the challenges—or adversity—that seemed to surround us, it was imperative that we learn how to put up our guard. And developing defenses to protect our intensely felt vulnerability was how we contrived to accomplish this feat (despite the fact that we weren’t even aware we were doing this).
It can hardly be stressed enough that our buttons didn’t originate with our adult self. Almost by definition, as adults we can be distinguished from children because our behavior is governed principally by logic, reason, and common sense. On the contrary, a child’s behavior is primarily ruled by impulse and emotion. Not that as adults we don’t have feelings, but that these feelings come from our child self. For example, a child may stubbornly resist doing what they’re told because they don’t feel like it. But when adults (acting like adults) comprehend that something needs to be done, they’re far more likely to tackle it, regardless of mood or state of mind.
It’s also the child part of us that harbors all our old self-doubts—when, that is, they haven’t yet been fully rectified. So when we overreact to something, it’s because in that instant it’s our child self that’s been awakened and “taken custody” of our mind and body (the latter because we’ll also experience physical sensations when these child-derived buttons get pushed). That regressive, but now front-and-center, part of our being is now re-experiencing the overwhelming distress of defenselessness. Which is precisely what engenders, for the (fallacious) sake of survival, our various defenses—from dissociation, to projection, to anger, to outright denial.
And, despite your own possible (and valid) frustrations in the matter, you need to “authenticate” the subjective reality—or integrity—of their experience. To the extent you succeed in convincing them that, despite what they just felt, you’re really on their side, they may well “come around” and return to their more mature, judicious self. And in that case, since you’re actually protecting their defenses, they may be ready to let them go which will enable you to restore the harmony temporarily lost between the two of you—or, indeed, within yourself.
Note 1: If you could relate to this post and think others you know might also, please consider forwarding its link to them.
Note 2: To be notified whenever I post something new, I invite readers to join me onFacebook(link is external)—as well as on Twitter (link is external)where, additionally, you can follow my frequently unorthodox psychological and philosophical musings.
[Leon F. Sletzer]