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Disconnecting the Buttons
Edward A. Pane, LCSW, MBA, CAADA

Ed Pane

My Blog

Client: “Why do my parents always know how to push my buttons?”

Therapist: “Because they installed them.”

This brief exchange happened in my office. My client’s problem was clear from the question she asked. She found herself reacting to her parents and, what was worse, was constantly on guard, waiting for them to say something critical that could upset her.

As with many people who suffer this way, she was on guard with others too. She was hypersensitive to anything that sounded like a criticism. Her default reaction was to lash out and cry. It’s a terrible way to live.

She was a very sensitive person, and such people experience their emotions strongly. They love more passionately, laugh more joyfully, and feel their pain more sharply. They can’t just blow things off; it’s not in their nature. But it’s a lot of horsepower to have to tame.

If she was going to find relief, get better, so to speak, she had to rephrase the question. It’s not, “Why do they push my buttons?” For the adult, the question is, “What are the buttons they’re pushing and why are they still connected?”

You see, once we’re adults it’s no longer about what others say or even about how they once treated us. We can’t change the past. Today it’s about how we react. And to change how we react we have to see and hear the same things differently. We’re no longer boys or girls; we’re men and women. She was a 45-year-old adult and no longer needed her old defenses; she just hadn’t realized it yet.

When you see yourself as an adult with other adults, that includes parents, you are in charge of what you feel, not them. If you want to change how you feel about something, you have to change how you see and think about it first.

I asked her, “What do you think when you hear their criticism?” The phrasing of that question is important. I asked her what she thought, not how she felt. Feelings aren’t facts.

Her answer was, “I think they’ll never accept me as a grown woman; they’ll always find fault with me.” She believed it 100%, and because she believed it, it was true. So, she felt angry, hurt, powerless, and scared.

I asked, “Is what you’re telling yourself at all helpful or realistic?”

She pondered it for the moment. “Well it’s certainly not helpful; I suppose it’s not realistic either.”

“So, what’s a more realistic and helpful thing for a 45-year-old woman to think?”

“I’m 45-year-old woman and I don’t have to believe them when they talk that way. I know who I am today even if they don’t. Everyone will survive.”

“What do you feel now?”

“Calmer, safer.”

She had disconnected the button she once let her parents push. A lot of growth and insight followed as she rethought her life on her terms and disconnected other buttons as she came across them. She finished counseling successfully with the tools to deal with any future buttons she might discover.

No matter who installed them, as adults our buttons get pushed because they’re still connected. They get pushed because of what we tell ourselves about ourselves. To disconnect them and to have a better life, we have to tell ourselves a different story, one about who we are and what we’re capable of today, not who we once were.

When we do that, no one can push our buttons.

There are no buttons left to push.