Disarming Your Buttons: How Not to Get Provoked (Pt 3 of 4)

How can you effectively prepare yourself for "button-pushers"?

Posted Oct 26, 2009

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"Inoculating" Yourself Against External Irritants

Part 1 of this post focused on better understanding the origins of your hot buttons, while Part 2 centered on resolving past disturbances that created these buttons in the first place. Now, in the next two parts, it's time to look at ways of preparing yourself in the present to better cope with people and circumstances that still seem to threaten your mental and emotional equilibrium--outward forces that continue to activate your not-yet-disconnected buttons.

No less an author than Albert Ellis has written a book entitled How to Keep People from Pushing Your Buttons (1995). Ellis, the founder of Rational Emotive Therapy (RET)--later revised to Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT)--posited (similar to cognitive behaviorists) that the only way to alter negative feelings was to alter the thoughts precipitating them. And he viewed the recognition--and alteration--of these thoughts as crucial, for ultimately one's very behavior was triggered by the feelings directly resulting from such thoughts. Simply put: thoughts induce feelings, and feelings induce behavior. To Ellis, no person or thing could--in and of themselves--cause you to react a particular way because it's always your interpretation of the outside stimulus that finally governs your reaction to it.

So to Ellis--as to Aaron Beck, the grandfather of Cognitive Therapy (similarly updated, though perhaps less formally, to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy)--in order to help individuals change, it's essential to help them identify the irrational thoughts, assumptions and beliefs that inevitably culminate in emotional distress and dysfunctional behavior. In many of my previous posts, I've discussed how vital your self-talk is to your psychological welfare. Here I'd like to hone in on just how you need to talk to yourself in tense situations, so that what's provoked you in the past will cease to provoke you--or at least provoke you much less than may formerly have been the case.

As I noted earlier, in Part 2 of this post, anything that's bothered you in the past is likely to bother you in the future--unless, that is, you've come to view it differently, and in a way much less likely to incite you. So, for instance, if you view your spouse's tardiness as a sign of their not much caring about you, then their lack of punctuality is virtually guaranteed to push your buttons. However, if you begin to understand your partner as simply having an enormous problem with time management--realizing that they're late with others quite as much as with yourself, and also that their inability to be ready on time has nothing to do with their actual caring for you (which they may have clearly demonstrated in multiple ways)--then, with such a revised perception, their chronic tardiness is far less likely to upset you. Seeing their personality flaw as meaning something quite different from what you'd previously assumed, you're likely to cut them considerably more slack. And with practice, you might even begin to smile at their being so "punctuality-challenged," now that you're able to see it (more charitably) as a personal shortcoming rather than a personal affront.

There's another cognitive technique, known as covert rehearsal, which is about mentally "practicing" for a possibly difficult encounter by rehearsing it in your head. In your "mind's eye," as it were, you "act out" how you'd like it to go. Such an approach only works, of course, if you possess the insight, emotional poise, and interpersonal skills to make it work. But if in fact you've learned from your past mistakes and, additionally, have acquired the ability to approach the conflict--or potential conflict--differently, it can be invaluable to mentally rehearse how you might handle the current situation so as to maximize the chances of a positive outcome.

reflecting If you think about it, it's only good sense to recall a previous confrontation that turned out badly and, after re-playing what you remember about what was said leading up to the stalemate (or worse), picture how you might handle the present (and similar) situation differently. How, for instance, this time you can refrain from "taking the bait"; or exaggerating the importance of some slip-up; or perceiving as just awful the other person's insensitivity; or assuming that their intentions toward you must be malignant; or that you're obligated to defend yourself against any and all criticism. I regularly suggest to clients that when their buttons are in danger of being pushed, the best thing they can do in the moment is, simply, nothing. They only need be aware that they're in imminent danger of "losing it"; and that if they don't "hold their fire," they'll only be adding more fuel to the (potentially) fiery situation. What's really called for in such a situation is to take a deep breath and calm themselves down, and then--and only then--respond to the situation as "strategically" as possible.

Many of the additional suggestions I'll be making below are adapted from When Anger Hurts: Quieting the Storm Within, 2nd ed. by McKay, Rogers, & McKay (2003). These suggestions fit within the general cognitive-behavioral model of Stress Inoculation Training in that this orientation focuses on changing maladaptive feelings and behaviors through altering the thoughts that precede them.

The McKay, Rogers, and McKay cognitive control paradigm encompasses many categories of anger-coping thoughts, and each category includes a variety of self-statements that can help diffuse emotions threatening to get out of hand. The authors advise readers to try out a variety of coping statements within each category to discover which ones, personally, are most likely to be effective. But the whole idea is to plan in advance all the different things you can say to yourself in challenging circumstances, so you'll be able to cope successfully with any possible confrontations (without, that is, getting your buttons pushed). I'll provide a few examples of coping statements (roughly based on the broad variety they offer). Ultimately, however, you may want to choose your own unique words and phrases to best ward off any button-pushers you may need to deal with (especially your spouse!).

Here are the first two categories, as well as some samples of the kinds of self-talk that can assist you in diffusing any possible upset:

Relaxation Reminders. In preparing for a possible conflict, it's essential that you do everything feasible to put yourself in a relaxed state. If you start out feeling up tight, you'll thereby "up" the chances that the interaction to follow quickly begins to push your buttons. Some useful phrases (or "mantras") to say to yourself include: "Okay, just take a deep breath and relax," "I need to check my body for tension and relax whatever feels tight," "I can stay calm in all this," or "It's time for me to relax and slow things down."

 • Reassurance. In psychologically readying yourself for a difficult interaction, you want to give yourself something of a pep talk--to tell yourself that you have the resources to deal with any provocation that might occur. So your "script" here might include such calming statements as: "Though this could upset me, I know how to deal with it," "I can figure out a way to handle this," or "I don't need to get into an argument--I can handle the situation before it escalates."

The final category--"Stopping Trigger Thoughts"--will be the focus of the 4th (and final) part of this post. This category is so crucial that I've divided it into seven segments. For there are at least that many kinds of distorted, button-pushing thoughts to which all of us (at one time or another) are susceptible.

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