When Anger Gets in the Way

How to defuse a high-voltage temper.

Disarming Your Buttons: How Not to Get Provoked (Part 1 of 4)

Why your hot buttons essentially belong to your child self.

homer as hulkWhere do your (hot) buttons come from, anyway?

It's actually quite simple. When your buttons get pushed, you react. Automatically. After all, that's what getting your buttons pushed means. Stimulus-response, stimulus-response. . . . Or rather, stimulus-reaction. For "response" implies choice; and when your buttons are being hammered, your counter-behavior is instantaneous--sans forethought, deliberation, or (for that matter) discretion. In such instances, you're impelled--by a force that's far stronger, far more primal, than your rational adult mind--to strenuously defend yourself. Or to attack whoever has (perhaps unwittingly) provoked you. Or, in a sudden state of urgency, to hastily retreat from the situation altogether.

Your immediate (and typically fervent) behavior usually reflects some archaic "operating system," an emotional survival program existing considerably below your conscious mind. Just as any animal--by nature, exquisitely sensitive to sudden sound or movement--instinctively tenses all its muscles to prepare for fight, flight, or freeze, so do we humans instantly "adapt" to anything we perceive as threatening. Except, unlike others animals, when we've become hypersensitive to any perceived disagreement, denial, slight, or insult, whatever provoked us rarely constitutes a serious threat to our survival. So, frankly, our adaptation isn't particularly adaptive.

Getting your buttons pushed almost invariably sends you on an unwelcome trip back to your past, to a time when you possessed precious few resources to protect yourself from what, in the moment, felt dangerous. This involuntary present-to-past phenomenon is something I regularly find myself explaining to clients, who generally have very little awareness that the buttons they've been futilely struggling to control belong not to their present self but to their inner child of the past. As I like to put it, the adult part of us is reasonable, logical, objective, and controlled. Not easily does it become agitated or carried away. Moreover, as mature individuals we're able to evaluate a situation realistically--and then respond appropriately (rather than rashly) to it. Ideally, possessing a hard-earned confidence and sense of adult authority, we can maintain our mental and emotional poise regardless of various kinds of external pressure we're subject to.

angry woman making fist However, when we've gotten our buttons pushed--and so are developmentally regressed back into our child self--our grown-up self is, as it were, "missing in action." For now our judgment, and the wisdom gained from many years of observation and experience, is pretty much rendered null and void. In that moment, enslaved by our inner child's emotions, we can't possibly reflect on the most effective response to the offending person or event. For now it's the child part of us that's in charge, who's taken custody of (or preempted) our more mature, rational self. And--as a child confronted by someone or something perceived as potentially harmful--we're desperate to nullify that threat as quickly as we can, and with little consideration for the consequences of such impetuous behavior.


Governed by overwhelming, unanalyzed emotions, our irresistible impulse is to regain some sense of safety, to reduce our precarious sense of vulnerability. With our adult brain hijacked, we're left in a position where we're compelled to do something (however imprudent or counter-productive) that will help neutralize the distressful feelings of insecurity that now beset us. In such a pressured state, there's no time to contemplate the actual threat of the situation, or our present-day ability to assert some authentic power over it. For in being re-identified with our child self, there's little sense that we possess such power. The only alternative, therefore, is--non-rationally--to act out the emotion that now holds us in its grip. And just as this sort of unmediated reactivity probably wasn't very helpful in the past, when  we get our buttons pushed in the here-and-now, our instant reaction rarely enables us to successfully resolve our current impasse.

So, in situations of perceived threat, how do we contrive to get our adult self back on the scene? Or better, are there practical ways we can keep our "inner adult" from leaving in the first place--ways to keep that more mature self fully operational, even in situations that previously may have caused it to vanish entirely?

Parts 2, 3, and 4 of this post will attempt to provide practical answers to these questions, so that you can successfully preserve your mental and emotional equilibrium whenever external forces threaten to overwhelm it.

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When Anger Gets in the Way