Have you ever noticed that some experiences that you have in life really, Really, REALLY bother you? Even things that are seemingly innocuous. You get cut off on the freeway. Your boss calls you in for a meeting. The doctor's office or the contractor calls and says, "We have a problem." Your child throws a shoe across the room. You get mail from the IRS.
In all of these scenarios, it is likely that nothing is really all that wrong. No real damage has been done. If there is a problem, odds are that it can be solved. But the heart rate goes up, the blood begins to boil, automatic fight or flight reactions get triggered. Our buttons have been pushed.
The meaning of the phrase, "our buttons have been pushed," is not too hard to figure out. We usually think of it as meaning that our emotions have been lit up like a firecracker. Especially anger and fear, those primal emotions that have so much to do with survival. We go into the limbic system of our brains, where rationality is eclipsed by emotion and impulse. We go on automatic pilot. We find ourselves reacting without thinking—and often over-reacting without even knowing why.
From a psychoanalytic viewpoint, "pushing buttons" means that something on the outside has triggered something sensitive on the inside. Each of us has an unconscious inner world. The inner world is a place of great vulnerability, for it involves core beliefs about ourselves, the external world, and our place in it. We carry around beliefs about the most meaningful and precious aspects of ourselves—whether we are good, capable, and lovable or whether we are bad, stupid, ugly, or worthless. We also carry around expectations about how we will be treated by others—whether we will be loved, protected, and respected or hated, violated, and ridiculed.
This inner world is very much alive and has a great influence on how we perceive, experience, and feel about what is going on in the outside world. The psychoanalytic term for this phenomenon is projection. We project into our experiences the unconscious beliefs we have about ourselves and the world, and this colors the meaning we make of it.
When our buttons are pushed, we project into reality the very worst expectations of our unconscious inner worlds. This makes it very difficult for us to see what is happening in an objective way. We distort. We misperceive. We experience a scratch to be a mortal wound. A slight becomes a harsh attack. A worry becomes a catastrophic anxiety.
There are some universal themes that we are all vulnerable to—usually about the most basic aspects of ourselves as human beings. This is why racial attacks are so provocative and why we get our hackles up when anyone says anything bad about our mothers.
And then there are those themes that are unique to each of us. For me, the moment I get a phone call from anyone in authority, I instantly believe that I'm in trouble for having done something wrong. My heart rate goes up, my palms start sweating, and I begin scanning my memory banks for possible ways I have failed. I am far more vulnerable to feeling that I have done something wrong than to feeling, say, that I am stupid or lazy. Chalk it up to the dynamics of my own, unique temperament and upbringing—my personal unconscious inner world!
One of the main goals of psychoanalysis—and for many other forms of psychotherapy, really—is to develop a better sense of the difference between inside reality and outside reality. We learn to distinguish between feelings and facts. We add another step to what has been a more automatic process; instead of leaping from impulse to action, we add some thinking in the in-between. Whether we take a metaphorical chill pill, slowly count to ten, or sleep on it, we give ourselves room for thinking—which can make a big difference in the choices we make and the lives we live.