What You Should Do When People Push Your Buttons

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It doesn’t matter how evolved, patient, or emotionally mature you may be.

People are going to push your buttons.

Some people in your life are master button-pushers. They know exactly what to say or do to transform you from a calm and happy person into a seething, mouth-frothing maniac.

Quite often the best button-pushers are the people closest to you — your spouse, romantic partner, children, and close friends. But other people can push your buttons too — often without event knowing what they are doing. Until you bite their little heads off. Then they totally get it.

What are those damned buttons anyway, and why are they so sensitive to pressure? These buttons are emotionally volatile, reactive places within us that cause us to have negative feelings of frustration or anger — often out of proportion to the offense.

I probably don’t have to explain this to you. You’ve felt it many times before.

  • Someone makes an off-hand remark, and it causes you to bristle or feel wounded.
  • A friend forgets to call you or include you in something, and you immediately want to give her a piece of your mind.
  • Your spouse suggests you didn’t follow through on a promise or intimates you didn’t do something the way he or she would have done it, and you are ready to threaten divorce.
  • Your mother remarks on how you are disciplining your children or maintaining your home, and you want to scream at her about your miserable childhood.

Whether or not the offending party made an intentional jab to get a rise out of you or it was a remark made in complete innocence, the sting is painful and your urge to retaliate is overwhelming.

Immediately your mind starts forming zingers to launch over to the other side. “How dare they suggest that? Who do they think they are? I’ll set them straight and make them feel like a dog’s breakfast while I’m at it. They certainly deserve it.”

Of course this reaction can create a full-blown counter-attack, often devolving into name-calling, below-the-belt barbs, stand-offs, pouting, shouting, hurt feelings, mistrust, and longstanding misunderstandings. Or sometimes we say nothing in our wounded state, but wait for the opportunity to retaliate with passive-aggressive behaviors. “I’ll get you my pretty. And your little dog too!”

None of us are immune from this — not psychologists, coaches, mentors, self-help gurus, monks, rabbis, nor ministers. I’m embarrassed to admit the number of times I’ve sat in my car or lingered in the shower, plotting my evil little plans to set someone straight. It isn’t a pretty quality.

By the very nature of being human, we have wounded places — buttons that hurt when pushed. And it takes a lot of restraint and self-awareness to deal with button-pushing in a healthy, positive way.

The benefits of allowing a button to be pushed without anger or retribution far outweigh the momentary pleasure of lettin’ em have it.

If you can just wait a minute or two before you say anything or before you text back or shoot off a nasty email, you will be so, so thankful you did.

Because once the dust settles, no one (who is generally peaceable and mature) likes the fallout of conflict. It takes far more effort to clean up the mess than it does to prevent it.

So when you are in the moment, when that button has been pushed and steam is hissing from your ears, what can you do to prevent yourself from responding poorly? Here are a few strategies to try.


Just breathe

When the words have been spoken, or typed, or texted — breathe. Count to 100. Walk away. Excuse yourself from the room. Do whatever you can to create time and space between the comment and your immediate feelings.

Your feelings will calm down, and you need time to insert a filter between your brain and your mouth (or fingers). This is the most crucial strategy to implement. If you can’t do this, the damage is done, and it will be much harder to set things straight.

Look within

You’re not going to like this. I know I don’t. But those little buttons are really all about you, even if the pusher intentionally and with forethought pushed the heck out of them. They are places where something is going on inside of you — some place of insecurity, fear, low self-esteem, or unmet needs.

You need to take a good hard look at those buttons and ask yourself why they are so sensitive. What is the root cause of your hair-trigger feelings and what can you do to heal them? Talk to a counselor or friend or someone who can see you from an unemotional perspective. As you build your self-esteem and confidence in these areas, they won’t be nearly as painful.

Practice peace

Before you encounter your next button-pushing episode, make a conscious decision about the person you want to be. You have the power to be a peacemaker in this world by seeking to rise above your emotional reactions.

Practice detaching from ego-based thoughts and strive to connect to a vision of your higher self. I’m not saying this is easy, but if you plant the seed in your psyche now, before anyone pushes your buttons, it will help you stand firm when you want to overreact.

Establish boundaries

Sometimes there are people in our lives who take perverse pleasure in watching us squirm or lose control. It makes them feel better to make us feel bad. These are usually people to let go of in your life if you can. They drain you of energy and joy.

Some people will bottle up an issue and, knowing our vulnerabilities, will go for the jugular in order to make a point or stir the pot. If this happens with people you love and want to keep in your life, then you need to kindly but firmly establish your boundaries  and nip the behavior in the bud.

If you have entrusted them with your vulnerabilities, it is a betrayal to use those against you, even in a so-called joking manner. But don’t launch back with a barb. Ask for their support and love to help you heal instead. Let them know you expect open communication, not jabs and back-handed remarks.


When a button is pushed for you, try to view it as an opportunity for self-awareness, healing, honesty, and growth. Our closest relationships allow us great opportunities for learning more about ourselves and who we want to become. Conflict and hurt are inevitable, but you can teach yourself how you wish to behave the next time someone pushes your buttons.


Have people pushed your buttons in the past? How have you handled it? Please share your thoughts and strategies in the comments.

If you found this post useful, I’m inviting you to push my buttons and share it with others — my social media buttons below!

 

Comments

  1. I have a friend that pushes a button every time I see her and always, from what I can tell, unintentionally. I know that there is something in her behaviour that I identify with and this scares me. Thanks for the reminder not to ignore the message I’m getting.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Charlene,
      Aside from trying to understand what you identify with in her behavior, I think it would be good to have an honest conversation with your friend. A true friend doesn’t intentionally push buttons. I would ask her to stop, and if she doesn’t, it might be time to reevaluate the friendship.

      • Robert Moore says:

        except for me and my boss. we are friends, too, and push each others buttons all day. On purpose. LOL

  2. Dear Barrie,
    Your post shows up just in the right moment: My partner in life is a specialist in hurting my feelings by ignoring them. He just informed me by the way, that his ex-wife stayed in our holiday-apartment a couple of months ago. I got furious about that, which he couldn’t understand. There is to say, that I never met this woman since I know my partner – which is five years now. It’s not me who avoids a get to know. What hurts me the most is, that he doesn’t see, what she’s doing; that she was just noisy and wanted to mark her presence in the place, where we spend our romantic “getaways”. I just sent him an email asking, if he would promise me, not to let her go there anymore, if I would ask him to… After sending the email, I got your newsletter… But anyway, I have to know… Am I wrong? Do I overreact? Thanks for all your positive inputs.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Chris,
      Thank you for sharing your story here. I am so sorry you are having this difficulty with your partner. If something your partner is doing is really bothering you, the two of you should be able to talk about it in a loving and supportive way. If that’s not happening, maybe the intervention of a counselor would help you. If your partner truly is an expert at ignoring your feelings and has no intention of changing, you need to consider if this is the best person to have in your life.

  3. Thanks for your inspiring articles, Barrie. I get so much out of them and they help me cope with daily challenges. Button pushing is something I often have trouble with, even with my husband and kids who know how to get me going. Sometimes I can brush it off with humour, other times I want to explode.

    Thanks for the reminder that it all stems from my inner feelings about myself related to insecurity and low self esteem. When I’m feeling up about myself and confident, I’m so much more able to handle it.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Cathy,
      You are so welcome — I’m so glad I can help you with daily challenges. Maybe you can have a calm conversation with your family and ask them to stop pushing your particularly sensitive buttons. If you tell them how and why it bothers you, perhaps they will think twice the next time a finger is poised over one of your buttons.

  4. it was one of good article i am found of reading. appreciative.

  5. Great article Barrie. I’m sharing it on my Thought Medicine facebook page: http://facebook.com/thoughtmedicine

    It took me a long time to realize that in truth, no one pushes my buttons but me. Yes, people do and say hurtful things, but my response to them is my choice… and sometimes Practicing Peace is a full time job!

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Thank you so much Linda! I really appreciate your sharing it. You are so right about practicing peace.It’s hard when those darned emotions get in the way. :)

      • Those “darned” emotions surface fast, passing by at the speed of a race car, but they are not outside the purvue of our metaphorical rear-view mirror. We can put our foot on the brake and ask what it is in one’s comment that pushes our buttons, or what in our conscience makes us push others’ buttons. Then, thinking about it calmly, I ask whether there’s any truth in the person’s comments or my motives for being the button-pusher…or whether I detect a perception that may be inaccurate…or a motive less than pure…I change in me what I can…I try to persuade whom I can…sometimes, I sadly watch relationships go by the wayside, or blossom…

  6. Greetings Barry,

    Great post, as usual useful advice written in a way that I can feel the soft heart beneath it.

    What helped me a great deal, was my exposure to the 4 basic personalities categorized by Tony Alessandra as
    Director
    Relator
    Socializer
    Thinker
    Each of them respond to situations differently
    Understanding this gave me a different perspective why people act the way they do.

    All the best
    Pinny

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Pinny,
      You are absolutely right — our personalities have so much to do with how we react. Some people feel things so much more deeply while others let it fall of their backs like water on a duck. Perspective always helps us manage our reactions to others. Great point!

  7. People push your buttons because they know they can, regardless of whether they’re aware of it. What they’re looking for is a negative reaction; they want you damaged and on the defensive, for whatever reason. I’ve come across a lot of button pushers in my life; the day I realized that their “opinions” were worthless, because I was the one to decide my own worth, is the day I no longer had buttons for them to push. Treat them with the contempt they deserve — and that’s all they deserve.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Alexis,
      That is quite true for some button pushers. But I do think there are people who say things unknowingly that can stir the pot. I’ve had very well-meaning people say something to me that made me bristle. But in those cases, it was more about me than them. Intentional button pushers who do it out of meanness are deserving of contempt, but also compassion. If your pleasure is causing someone pain, that is quite sad.

  8. Its crazy, because I have been putting up with two at work that seem to just cause me a lot of grief , but I am trying to pray and remember kind words, thoughts and actions. Its not always easy, as I have become quite angry, and I am trying to remember that alot of time there are underlying reasons that people take a jab at someone, and part of it could be their own unhappiness at events in their lives, and see you being happy and becoming more content, they have a tendency to try to take it away, and I think its usually unintentional or subconscious, not always a conscious thing.

    I think anyways, I can’t always get my thoughts out the way I want them to be read. :)

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Annie,
      I’m so sorry you are dealing with difficult people at work. With some people, it helps to ask them to stop, especially if it’s unintentional. With others, they see that request as an invitation to push your buttons even more. When a button-pusher gets no reaction, eventually they will grow tired and stop. I think your strategy is a good one. Just smile and breathe. Give them no push-back. Their words are just words — nothing more.

  9. I like this how you presented it Barrie. These buttons are really too sensitive sometimes. We do need to find out why. However it’s so difficult sometimes to keep patience.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Yes it is difficult Roman. If you can find just one little strategy to put between your feelings and reactions, it will buy you time to let the feelings pass and analyze the reasons behind them. It definitely takes practice!

  10. I just had such an incident with my ex-boyfriend. I know he does not intend to hurt me, but I do feel sometimes some blame in his voice and that just reminds me of my previous relationship which I initiated to end also.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Melinda,
      I’m sure any conversations with an ex-boyfriend are going to be tinged with anger and blame until he has time to heal. Anger is often a cover for pain.

  11. For me, I either look inside or outside. If I am over-working, I am more irritable (buttons more sensitive). Taking on less or taking time out for myself makes my buttons less easier to penetrate.

    Or, how do I not take it so personally? I look outside and see that the “rub” usually means more about the person doing the “rubbing” than it does about me. Maybe they are anxious, lonely, having relationship conflict of their own. Who knows, but let them keep the “emotional rub” by not absorbing as much of it.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Marci,
      Oh you are so right — when we are tired or stressed , our buttons are extra, extra sensitive! And yes, sometimes it is very clear that the issue is completely about the other person. Compassion is a great “tool” for maintaining your cool. (Didn’t mean to rhyme there, but it works!)

  12. Hi Barrie,
    Very useful post!
    My reaction when people push my buttons depends on whether it is intentional or not. If it is intentional, then I try not to react in a way they expect me to. After a couple of times, they are likely to stop trying to push my buttons as they are not able to unsettle me and get a reaction that would give them satisfaction!
    If it is unintentional, then I try to look within and figure out why it makes me feel so.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      You are doing exactly the right things Gaori. When you don’t give the button-pusher the reaction they are expecting, it definitely throws them off — and keeps the situation from devolving. And you are so smart to look at your own reactions and try to understand them. That is the starting point of personal growth. :)

  13. My hubby is a button-pusher extraordinaire. “Teasing” and “picking on” are just other ways of saying the same thing. He’s looking for the reaction. I do not understand why someone needs to get that reaction. He doesn’t do it to people that he really doesn’t like. His father used to get a perverse kind of pleasure when he picked on me until I managed to get my emotions under control and quit responding at all to him. I haven’t quite gotten a handle on them when my husband does it. I’ve come to the conclusion that when someone teases you and then follows it immediately with a “just kidding” that there is always a little bit of truth behind the teasing. It doesn’t speak very kindly of the person who is doing the teasing/button pushing. DH is an expert at dishing it out but God forbid if you give it right back to him. He can’t take it. We’ve been married 28 years so this is obviously only one aspect of his personality (or I’d be history) but it is not an endearing one.

  14. “What You Should Do When People Push Your Buttons
    | Bloom” was indeed a great article. If
    only there were much more personal blogs just like this specific one in the actual cyberspace.

    Anyways, thanks for your personal precious time, Dusty

  15. home office organization says:

    WOW just what I was searching for. Came here by searching for how to organise your home

  16. Blessing says:

    Thanks Barrie, this is another great post. Well done.

  17. Happy Face says:

    You have helpfull comments.
    Two faced people are not worth your time.
    Ill mannered behavior should be discounted.
    Peace be upon us.

  18. My father pushes buttons in a way to get a rise out people. Then when the victim reacts he gets passive aggressive and he acts annoyed!!!! Sick.

  19. I am married to man, who thinks he is “It” He is very intelligent and not very understanding of my needs,
    I have tried to talk to him about our lack of intimacy, him showing me any attention. I feel ignored a lot of the time around him.
    He works very long hours at his job, he just got a promotion, and it is a bit demanding. and at times he does more work at home.
    He either really doesn’t care about my feelings or doesn’t know how to deal with them.
    I am at wits end because I cannot get him to understand how I feel or what I want.
    Sometimes when I need to talk about my problem, he turns the conversation back to his self.
    What can I do to make things better or just forget it and go on doing without.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Diane,
      I think you may need to speak to him in a way that gets his attention. I would suggest you tell him you need counseling, and if he refuses, then time apart. A period of separation might get his attention. Lack of intimacy and connection is a relationship killer. Your feelings and longing for intimacy will eventually show up in some other unhealthy way like depression, anxiety, or attraction to someone else.

  20. Stacy Wayne says:

    I turn into a raging maniac when my partner pushes my buttons and don’t know what to duo about our. Afterwards I feel shame and guilt. I really breast myself up. I do asmuch as I can for her but it just doesn’t seem like it’s ever good enough. I hate that I want to hurt her with my words asmuch as she has hurt me. I don’t know how to just let things roll off my back when her and her family have emotionally abused me for the past six years. I just want to feel like myself again. I need her to giveme space but she refuses. It is one unhealthy cycle!!!

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Stacy,
      I think this is a situation that definitely calls for counseling. I hope you and your partner will work together to seek help for a very unhealthy cycle. It doesn’t have to be this way.

  21. Hi Barrie!
    I’m new to your articles and I’m so glad I found this one now. My friend of the last few years has been a real pain. She’s always pushing my buttons on purpose. I know this because she has told me so. Says she loves making me mad. Even yesterday I asked her the simplest question. We’re buying each other xmas gifts and since she already bought mine, I asked her how much she spent so I know what our limit is. She said she couldn’t remember. She also said she bought it online. So when I suggested that she check her account orders, she just laughed and told me to spend whatever and it’ll be fine. Well, I don’t want to spend too much or too little. So, I asked her to at least give me an estimate and she laughed again and told me I was cute. I didn’t respond but I wanted to flip out. She’s always patronizing me and I don’t really know what to do. I’ve asked her before to stop trying to get a rise out of me because it’s rude and it stresses me out. Her response is always the same: But you’re so cute when you’re mad. I just don’t know what to do anymore. When she’s being a happy person we have a great time but that’s not very often. And I know I’m not perfect, I need to work on myself. I’m really sorry for the rant. I just don’t want to lose my friend but I know I can’t do this anymore.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Lauren,
      Someone who is intentionally trying to push your buttons is not being a real friend. But if there is enough good in the friendship that you want to maintain it, I would suggest you stop responding and reacting when she says something to get a rise out of you. She enjoys seeing you react, so if you give her nothing, eventually she’ll tire of trying to push your buttons.

  22. My boss and I have some fundamental disagreements. The boss is in over her head and doesn’t know what she is doing and I have tried many times to explain certain basic truths but she will not listen. Because of this, the boss is trying to make life difficult for me; as in surprise reviews, making me do things she knows I disagree with etc. This is all done in a very confrontational, mean spirited way. I have tried to respect her authority and make requested changes, but it doesn’t seem to be enough. I am not sure anything can salvage the situation but I would appreciate your input.

  23. Thanks for the article Barrie. My “button-pusher” is my 22 yr old son, who has come back to live with me (temporarily, I hope!) while doing a work-study program. We have always had problems communicating, and I do tend to fly off the handle with the things he does and says. It’s not always easy, but I have SO found that if I stay come and do not react, things just automatically straighten themselves out. Things are just so much simpler if I can only stay calm… and not preach and/or start pitching the zingers in order to make him feel guilty or bad about what he has said. It only makes things worse when I do that. Thanks for the reminder…

  24. My cousin that I stay with every school holidays really likes to push my buttons we were born 2 days apart witch makes it even harder.if I’m in my room she comes in and won’t get out but if I ever did anything like that to her she would tell on me and I would get in trouble

  25. Hapeville says:

    My button pusher is my boyfriend smh, we’ve been dating for 7months and he has said in the past that he likes making me mad even makes statements like arguing makes the relationship stronger but for me its draining. I love him but his arguments always come at a time when my heart feels the most vulnerable…..like he doesn’t care, then we won’t speak because im mad then all of a sudden he’s confessing his love to me answering all of my insecurities and we’re happy, I should add we’re both cancers. I tried to understand his past he comes from a family that express their love through insulting each other and arguing but I come from a past of emotional abuse from my family. How do I make him understand that I hate this, everyone fights but to keep doing it intentionally is getting to me. Thanks from Hapeville. C

  26. My husband of 20+ years enjoys pushing my buttons. He will keep pushing until I blow up. I have learned to deactivate most of the buttons and to keep my cool when he does it. The problem is as I deactivate more of them and keep my cool, he presses harder and some times gets mean with his remarks. I have asked him why he does it and his replies have been “Because our relationship would be boring if I didn’t.” “Because I can.” “I always have you aren’t fun any more.”

  27. I have to work with the boss’s wife you trys to push my buttons and provoke me often. I do get mad and I repress it because I have to work. She’s awful and I’m pretty sure by the symptoms she is an narcissistic person. I have worked with her for almost two years and it becomes more apparent when time goes on. She is jealous of my skills and now the fact I am also taking classes to better myself and hopefully to find a better job! I have never seen someone think she is and tries so hard to be important. She’s rude and when she gets the chance she says something and I never handle it the way I intend to because I am and always have been an over-reactor. I am a sensitive person and I know that is a weakness. I do try to ignore her but that is just another reaction. She’s the bosses wife with no class! What would you do?

  28. Hi Barrie,

    I came across your post and it has helped me alot. But Im worrying now if my current boyfriend provokes me on purpose. When he will do something that bothers me or rubs me the way I will askhim to stop. But he never does! The remarks, jokes, and gestures just get worse. It even gets so bad that he laughs when I begin to get upset. After Im upset and I go crazy, he blames me for responding to him in that way. What should I do? Im really confused.

  29. I have issues with a husband’s niece who is 18. I see her once a year for a month when we visit his family, and she is either jealous or frustrated that her uncle doesn’t spend much time with her after he married me. She pushes my buttons. I tried to be considerate of the situation, but she got to me where I would panic whenever we are in the same room. She says really inappropriate things and doesn’t act normal around anyone. I am dreading having to be in the same room and witness her horrible behavior all over again. Any suggestions?

  30. I have a friend who I live with that spends his time trying to make angry he tells me that I shouldmt have anything because I live I’m his home. Even though I pay rent. He also spends his time insulting the things I like . I also notice that he gets very upset when I buy something axample I bought a used truck and all he kept saying about it is negative things about it and about me.

  31. My mother pushes my buttons. She always professes innocence, but I cannot see that she is not aware of my reaction to her bad behaviour. She says very inappropriate things that hurt, and worst of all, she flies into rages over very small things which, in public, causes me huge embarrassment. In private, I have to say her little temper tantrums are still extremely upsetting to me. Maybe it stems from my childhood, and always feeling that she was ready to blow up (over being late, or not being able to find something in her incredibly cluttered house… undoubtedly why I’m so OCD about organization and planning ahead for everything). I do love her, but it’s challenging spending time with her because she can upset me by her behaviour, and telling her she has hurt my feelings, or is embarrassing me, or that she should lower her voice and not be so upset, only seems to escalate the behavour for the moment, but then she calms down and acts like nothing happened, while my nerves are on edge for the whole day afterwards, and in need of therapy!

  32. Hi Barrie my mother is continuously pushing my buttons. I have assignments and finals in less than a month and I am in my 3rd year of Uni and life is a little tough right now. I’m currently in the midst of my study break and I really want to get good grades so that I can get a scholarship to a medical school so that I can get off the financial worries off my Dad’s chest. But despite studying for 12 hours a day and helping my Mother out with chores around the house she always finds reason to start yaking about how bad of a person I am and all I do is eat and I never help out and that I’m the reason she and my Dad will die and stuff like this. I try to ignore this but it does not stop I try to talk to her when she is calm she does not want to listen. I was admitted to the hospital cause she refused to let me eat due me being fat according to her standards. She came to the hospital and saw me eating my lunch and the first thing she does is take away the food and start lecturing about how fat and ugly I am. I do not know why she does all these to me. At first I thought that I was always in the wrong and that I am a bad person but then again she made me a prisoner, especially during my high school days. Even if I was top in my grade she never let me go out and hang out with my friends. To her I was always the cause of any family trouble even though I NEVER speak to any of my relatives who are staying in Asia. I’m tired of her crap and she is a great person she cooks and takes care of both my Dad and me but she strains on my physical appearance too much and everything is always about her. How she feels, what she wants. She does not care about my Dad’s nor my feelings and it’s really annoying me. I want to become a good person. I want to make my parents proud but my Mother is being a real pain and she keeps making me lose my temper.

  33. Dimphna says:

    I don’t know how to handle the situation every time my friends teased me in front of my ex boyfriend about our previous relationship.. They even pushing my button and I get pissed of it. I don’t know how to responce to them because I know I still have the feelings for my ex boyfriend but I want to move on because I was hurt a lot .

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