Why do people keep pushing our buttons?

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Why do people push our same buttons over and over again? Can we get rid of our buttons so they can’t be pushed? Or do we sometimes want to keep our buttons for some reason?

These questions came in response to my teaching about what I call our “panic buttons.” There are many things that others can do or say that might upset us. But we may be particularly vulnerable in some areas. When that panic button gets pushed, we feel flooded with negative emotion and often overreact.

For example, maybe we know what it’s like to have a parent who insists on micromanaging our every waking moment. Later in life, our spouse expresses an opinion about what we should do, and we explode, “Stop telling me what to do!” Our spouse wasn’t intending to control us. But it felt like it, and we reacted without thinking.

Maybe we know what it feels like to never be good enough. Later in life, a boss tries to give us some constructive criticism. But we have a hard time hearing it, because we suddenly feel like a harassed little kid all over again. The big people are rolling their eyes and complaining about how we can never do anything right.

And if that’s not enough, sometimes our spouses do want to control us. Some bosses do want to make others feel small. After all, they have their vulnerabilities, too — and someone may have pushed one of their buttons, whether we know it or not.

It may even have been us. Imagine that.

Why do people keep pushing our buttons? It’s not that people are purposely trying to needle us (though that’s certainly possible). Like it or not, our brains use the memory of past painful experiences to constantly scan for new threats — automatically.

The good news is that this automated emotional alarm system helps keep us safe when we need it. The bad news is that there may be a lot of false alarms; we react defensively when we don’t need to. And worse, it can be difficult to sort out the false threats from the real ones.

It would be an overstatement to say that people “want to keep” their buttons. They may at some level realize that they’re overreacting and want to stop. But that’s easier said than done. Because our panic buttons operate on automatic, our defensive reactions have to be systematically unlearned. Thus, if we keep getting our buttons pushed, it’s not because we’re fond of them or refuse to change. It’s because (a) we feel like we need them to be safe, and (b) it takes time and effort to rewire our brains.

We may never get rid of our buttons entirely. But change is possible. Put simply, unlearning defensive reactions requires learning that others are safe. From our side, that involves risk. We have to be close enough to people, vulnerable enough in their presence, to experience what it’s like to be both exposed and unhurt. And others, of course, must behave in safe and trustworthy ways that help us know and be convinced over time that we are deeply and unconditionally loved.

Much more could be said. But my hope is that the church would be a place where such change and healing would happen, understood as an embodiment of the gospel.