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Pushing Buttons

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I recently took a trip and stayed in a hotel with many floors. Of course, many floors mean an elevator with many buttons! During one of my visits to the elevator stood a 4-year-old child and his mother, inside the door, discussing the “buttons,” and where they went. I entered and smiled at this toddler’s curiosity as two other individuals entered. As the door closed, the boy began pushing all of the buttons! I looked to see the responses of the other passengers: one man shrugged, while the other gave earnest looks of annoyance. The mother clearly was embarrassed, and she quickly moved the child  away from the buttons.

I couldn’t help but think about how this can be a metaphor of how people “push buttons” in relationships. “Pushing buttons” means to intentionally bring up topics that will leave an emotional sting and often brings about negative emotions of the receiver. This response happens almost instantly, and the intention may be the most irritating part.

I’m sure we can all think of moments that we have experienced where someone has “pushed our buttons.” What were the feelings you felt in that instant? Anger? Embarrassment? Disgust? Perhaps you had wished the floor had opened so you could jump in? It often takes a person who knows us well to be able to push our buttons with such preciseness. There’s no one that can do it quite like family; parents, siblings, children, and spouses are the best button-pushers!

In her book “Daring Greatly,” social researcher Brené Brown suggests that the reason these close relationships pack so much power is because of the attachments we have to one another. We know each other’s strengths and vulnerabilities. This dynamic of close relationships can get buttons pushed in ways that less intimate relationships can do.

The question that is often asked in therapy is: How do I avoid it? While there are people who are button pushers, there are ways to avoid having these annoyances grow and become destructive. There will always be someone standing nearby willing to embarrass, annoy, assume power over, or just be a mean tease. The antidote is perspective (which can be hard to do when someone has just taken a concerted stance against you!). Here are 10 tools to help you gain perspective and soothe your emotions in the moment:

  • Chew on a piece of ice
  • Take a time out
  • Talk to your Higher Power
  • Imagine a place of peace
  • Use powerful coping thoughts: “It’s OK to feel this way.” “So what?” “This sucks, but it will pass.”
  • Squeeze the handles of arm of the chair 5 times.
  • Count backwards from 100 by 7’s.
  • Write your name in cursive with your toe, while you’re seated with legs crossed. (Don’t laugh, it works!)
  • Count your breathes
  • Use your 5 senses: Notice what you see, hear, feel, taste, and smell.

For the mother in the elevator. . . good job taking 50 deep breathes, as the elevator stopped at each and every floor!

To schedule an appointment with Andrea, call Wasatch Family Therapy at 801-944-4555

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Stronger Relationships Through Vulnerability

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The Pixar movie Inside Out goes into the head of a little girl, Riley, who experiences her world through the lens of her emotions, each represented by a unique character, Anger, Disgust, Fear, Joy and Sadness. Joy is the leader of this group of individual emotions/characters, and works throughout the movie to protect Riley from sad emotions. Finally at the end of the movie, Joy learns that sadness is was pulls people in, and allows Riley to make the connection with her parents that comforts her and helps her begin to manage all the other emotions that are swirling around in her growing brain. That connection with her parents can also be called secure attachment.

Sadness is a primary emotion, and primary emotions are our vulnerable emotions. Sometimes we don’t feel safe being vulnerable, so we mask our primary emotions with secondary emotions. Secondary emotions are the reactions to our primary emotions that are designed to protect our vulnerabilities, so we sometimes use them to put up walls or push others away. This serves an important purpose in situations where we don’t feel safe, but can cause problems when something happens that causes us to feel unsafe with a romantic partner, a family member, or close friend.

If someone we care about does something that hurts us, we might feel sadness, or rejection, or fear, when we are hurting we work to protect ourselves and mask our sadness, rejection, or fear with anger, disgust, or frustration. We lash out to prevent the other person from hurting us more. This behavior starts us on a cycle of pain and protection.

If we can figure out a way to break the cycle, we can rebuild trust and emotional bonds, and regain that sense of comfort and attachment to important people in our life. Just like in the movie, the key to breaking the cycle is to become vulnerable, to express our feelings of sadness or fear. This can begin to change our interactions, and as our loved ones are able to respond to our primary emotions, we are able to be comforted.

The next time your partner expresses anger or frustration or disgust, try to imagine what primary emotion they are experiencing that is being masked, then respond with empathy to that primary emotion. You may be surprised what creating a safe space for them to be vulnerable does for your relationship!

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