A button is a term used to describe a sensitive spot that, when triggered, sets off an emotional reaction. We can talk about who or what pushed our button (triggered our reaction). We can identify which button was pushed, as we all have more than one issue that we are sensitive about. We can even consider how big a particular button is – some are easier to hit (more sensitive and therefore likely to cause a bigger reaction) than others.
Accountability – who owns our buttons?
Before we go further, the question of ownership is an important one to answer. Buttons are ours, not anyone else’s. WE are responsible for our buttons being there; others are not responsible for avoiding them. People are not (for the most part) intentionally pushing our buttons. Rather, they are probably just accidentally bumping into them. Even if someone is intentionally pushing our buttons, we’re the ones who have it there for them to push. But if we get rid of the button, they can’t push it.
This idea of owning our buttons might seem like it is letting the button-pushers in our lives off easily. However, it is actually very empowering. Rather than having to convince others not to push our buttons (something that is never easy to do and can lead us into harmful behavior when we try), we can focus on something we can control – disconnecting our own buttons.
Circumstances that trigger an emotional reaction are often linked to past experiences that were scary or hurtful. Because of this link, the present situation feels threatening, even if it really is not. This is called time tunneling. Time tunneling is an action of the amygdala, which is the part of our brain that serves as a warehouse for emotionally-charged past memories. When we have a similar experience, the amygdala perceives it as a threat, then starts the reactive fight-or-flight response. Outsiders might see the response as a big overreaction. But to the person who was triggered, their “fight as if their life depended on it” response makes perfect sense, at least in the moment they are reacting.
Take, for example, a boy who was viciously attacked by a dog as a toddler. He may now, as a man, still flinch or feel his heart racing when he sees a dog or hears it bark – even if it is just a small dog on a leash (no real threat). Others don’t react as strongly to this little dog, but he does because his mind (specifically the amygdala) associates the sight and sound of a dog with being severely hurt. Similarly, a boy who was frequently criticized by a parent may have a very strong negative reaction when his wife criticizes him.
For more about how and why our nervous system responds this way, review the Brain Anatomy page:
We have buttons because we have sensitive spots. Here’s a physical example that might help this concept make sense. Ordinarily, if someone pats you on your shoulder, it’s no big deal. However, if you just dislocated your shoulder, that pat may cause excruciating pain. You’d say your shoulder is “sensitive”. As you heal physically, you’ll be less sensitive to having that area touched. Once you’ve completely healed, it won’t hurt at all.
A similar painful reaction happens when someone touches our emotionally sensitive spots. Like physical healing, emotional healing reduces or even eliminates our sensitivity. That’s why identifying those painful things from our past and healing them is key to reducing and eliminating our sensitive spots (buttons), and therefore our strong, violent reactions. Since this is such a big subject, we’ll give it its own page.