Erratic moods. Off-the-wall responses. Flare-ups that spiral out of control, fast. Emotional hot buttons can seem like the undoing of a relationship when they set off arguments and misunderstandings.
Over time, we get to know the emotional hot buttons that trigger our husbands and wives, that irk our boyfriends and girlfriends, and that may eventually cause distance that undermines the intimacy that close relationships require, not to mention, everyday peace and quiet.
And beyond a word, a look or a habit, don’t we also know how certain dates, music, and aromas may trigger emotional memories? Can we anticipate this happening? Can we cut ourselves some slack?
Can we do the same for those we say we love?
So what about the topic of conversation that drops you into despair? What happens when an innocent remark catches you by surprise and ignites a firestorm? What if the person closest to you pushes your buttons, whether knowingly or not?
Haunted by Hot Buttons
Recently, when I bumped into an acquaintance I hadn’t seen in some time, we exchanged the usual hellos. A few seconds later, in asking a simple question, he inadvertently pushed one of my buttons. And a painful one, at that.
I suddenly felt anxious, agitated, antsy. I needed to back away from the emotional ledge where I was teetering on the verge of falling into misplaced anger. I had to “self-talk” myself back to calm, using inner dialog to reset my emotional temperature.
But what exactly had just happened? How could I have come so close to losing my cool?
Psychology Today explains the links between emotion and decision-making:
When an emotion is triggered in your brain, your nervous systems responds by creating feelings in your body (what many people refer to as a “gut feeling”) and certain thoughts in your mind…
You can be disrupted by your anxiety or you can take a look at it: Does the other person remind your emotional brain of someone in the past who took advantage of you? Is this person doing the same thing or is it just a particular mannerism he has that triggered your anxious response? Is your anxious response a reaction to the other person or to yourself…
In my example, my response had everything to do with something in my past, and nothing whatsoever to do with this person or the present.
Everyone has their issues to deal with — the legacy of trying times and less than ideal circumstances. As for me, I know what sets me off and why. Some of my triggers trace back to childhood. Others have to do with the complexities of post-divorce life. Fear and profound hurt lie at the heart of many of these hot buttons, which we may define as emotional vulnerabilities that are easily activated.
Anger often masks both fear and hurt. Irritation that spikes quickly into anger can be particularly troublesome, as was the case for me when I ran into my casual acquaintance. I wasn’t reacting to his actions or presence; rather, what he said triggered an intense response, and I was caught off-guard.
In some instances, I successfully navigate around potential hot buttons — if I see them coming, that is. For example, I can glance at a calendar and anticipate an anniversary; I can offset feelings of loss by focusing on a positive memory or taking myself for walk. If I need to revisit a location that holds bittersweet recollections, again I try to “cushion” myself as best I can.
Sometimes there’s nothing to do but fully embrace our emotions in order to eventually lessen their grip.
Relationship Hot Buttons: Pushing Each Other Away
We may be most likely to recognize our buttons being pushed in an intimate relationship. She gets her “digs” in; you respond in kind. Or, he innocently suggests a new weekend activity that touches a nerve he “ought” to know about, and you withdraw in a funk.
Naturally, many more variations exist. But in the first example, she knowingly pushes his buttons. In the second example, perhaps he does so unknowingly, through genuine ignorance. Or, he’s being obtuse.
Of course, some use knowledge of their partner’s emotional hot buttons to manipulate them. Can you spell dysfunction? Guilt trip, anyone?
Clearly, in these scenarios, the dynamic is unhealthy. Wouldn’t we be better served to explore vulnerabilities through discussion and disclosure, in order to achieve greater understanding?
All too often, we simply react — getting into an argument, withholding affection, and sitting on growing resentment. When our buttons are pushed repeatedly, or for that matter, when we are doing the pushing, the relationship is damaged.
The Nature of Intimacy
In an intimate relationship or close friendship, we come to know each other’s vulnerabilities. That is the very nature of intimacy — sharing and trusting our hurts as well as our strengths to another person.
Consider this Medical Xpress post on emotional hot buttons in relationships. It offers useful insight.
… People in intimate relationships often struggle to understand why their partner is feeling a certain way because they are interpreting them based on their own emotions. Thus we can get: ‘I don’t understand why you’re angry, get over it, just move on’.
The other person, in turn, becomes defensive… This leads to conflict and unhappiness. Partners can distance themselves from each other…
Defensiveness. Conflict. Unhappiness. This sounds like a familiar refrain for many. It plays out in my past relationships, though I like to think that I improved my ability to identify and articulate what was actually wrong, or to encourage my partner to do so.
Hardly batting a thousand on either score, I nonetheless like to think that I moved beyond men who simply said “get over it.” But communication is never so easy when our emotions are involved. Especially when we aren’t sure of the origin of our hot buttons, or if our partners are lacking in empathy, mocking our feelings, or dismissing our experience.
The Inner Critic
We all have noise in our heads -– the inner critic with her negative self-talk, among the most persistent. That critic may be the legacy of the scolding, diminishing voices of parents, and likewise of teachers, bosses, spouses, co-workers. Some days it seems as though we carry a chorus of naysayers singing their tune in surround sound.
With a bit of luck, we’re aware of what sets us off and we can confront it, or at least plainly state what hurts to those we live with — so they stop pushing our buttons.
But what if something remains fuzzy to us? What if we haven’t fully “reflected” on it, as the source above specifies? What if we have, but we’re still easily manipulated when poked or provoked? And aren’t we all more susceptible to let our emotions run away with us when we’re tired, in pain, worried or stressed? Can we learn to counter the inner critic with positive voices and corresponding positive self-talk? Can we do so by telling ourselves to think before we overreact? To quite literally change the conversation? At the very least, to stop and take a breath?
Let’s remember too that emotional hot buttons don’t always result in a display of anger. When triggered, we may turn to our lesser angels and addictions. We may turn to alcohol. We may overreat. We may withdraw our usual degree of affection.
When Everything Is a Trigger
It’s certainly worth looking at this picture from the other side.
What if you’re in a relationship where everything becomes an emotional hot button? Where anger is never far from flaring up? Are you dealing with a medical (Rx) situation, sleep deprivation or hormones? Or have negative emotions held the reins for so long that they seem to have altered the chemistry of your interactions?
If anger, moodiness or volatility is the so-called normal state of affairs, you might want to rethink what you’re doing there. Are you attracted to stormy relationships? Are you a fixer, seeking to undertake an “emotional rescue?”
Is something being triggered in you, as you’re drawn to repeat unhealthy patterns that are part of your past?
When Emotions Are Triggered by Circumstance
What if things were fine for years, then sudden changes are letting loose an array of intense and difficult emotions?
In this scenario, you have some decisions to make depending upon your level of commitment, and the extent to which you can participate in a truly supportive relationship. If things were previously smooth sailing, are there circumstances that demand your attention? Have one or more life events contributed to the emergence of negative triggers? Has something in you changed that has ratcheted up the level of irritation or detachment?
Can you see that your partner is grieving or depressed? Are there obvious signs that he or she needs professional counsel?
Are you exacerbating the situation by ignoring what’s going on? Are you able to talk to each other — and listen — so you can understand what’s happening? Is your relationship important enough — and strong enough — to address the underlying issues together?
You may be called upon to push yourself to a deeper level of empathy as well as more careful communication. You may also be required to consider your actions and words, and their role in the health of the relationship dynamic.
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