What Pushes Your Buttons


In Western culture, we have a lot of idioms for becoming defensive. We get our buttons pushed, triggered, lit up, activated, plugged in, wound up, our chains yanked, bent out of shape, torqued, and more. Unlike the Eskimo or Sami whose many words for snow describe differences that are crucial for their everyday life, our various idioms mean the same thing and are interchangeable.

Why is it that we have so many ways of saying we're becoming defensive, but so little awareness of what is going on inside us that is creating the negative reaction?


It is generally understood that when we get triggered (or any other descriptors for this reactive state), it is due to unconscious fears we have about ourselves. A metaphor that I like uses velcro and teflon.

When something sticks to me and I get reactive, that's the velcro effect. It happens when I am not even aware of a particular fear I have about myself.

When something slips off of me and I am able to respond easily as if I'm saying, “please pass the salt,” that is the teflon effect. Nothing sticks if I don't have the unconscious fear inside me.

An example of this might be that you tell me that I'm lazy. If I fear, even unconsciously, that you may be accurate, I quickly defend myself and say, “No, I'm not. I'm very industrious. How could you say such a thing!”

However, if I know that sometimes I feel and act lazy, then I might say, “I know that sometimes I feel lazy and am lazy. What did I do or not do that leads you to believe I'm lazy?”

Certainly, the teflon effect feels better for both of us and creates greater ease in relationships. To respond with the teflon effect, we must become aware of and understand the beliefs and fears inside us that create the triggers. A friend and colleague passed on a phrase that goes to the heart of this issue: “I may have pushed your buttons but I didn't install them.”

This activity focuses on the aspects of the self-concept that are usually unconscious reactions.


Part 1:

When you notice yourself beginning to get reactive, immediately experiment with the following:

  • Notice the somatic (bodily) sensations you are having. For instance, you might notice that your jaw is getting tight or your body is heating up.
  • Then, if you engaged in the FID (FIRO Internal Dig) earlier this month, use the same process here to explore what self-concept fear is getting activated.

Here are the steps from the FID to think through when you notice yourself becoming triggered:

  1. The behavior (or lack of behavior) that you experienced from someone that was upsetting to you. Example: Person x didn't listen to me.
  2. The manner in which you thought that person was treating you. Example: Person x treated me as if I were a non-person, as if I didn't exist.
  3. The emotions that emerged in you as a result of that person's behavior. Example: I felt hurt and disappointed, then angry.
  4. The bodily sensations that you notice now as you think about this past experience. Example: My stomach is getting tight as I remember it.
  5. The concerns or fears that ran through your mind. Example: I thought I was being ignored.
  6. The images or metaphors that arise as you are reflecting on this experience. Example: It feels as if I am a ghost who know one sees.
  7. The memories that emerge from your past. Example: I feel just like I felt as a child. I was supposed to be seen and not heard. My parents ignored me until they wanted something from me.
  8. The survival strategy you developed when quite young. Example: I became very quiet, self-sufficient, and kept to myself.
  9. The beliefs that you formed about yourself when quite young to maintain the survival strategy. Example: what I think doesn't matter. I have nothing valuable to offer.

As you engage in this practice, it is most important to open yourself to whatever emerges. If judgment arises, notice it and let it go, imagining that it takes wing and flies away.

  1. Reflect on what got activated inside you. Consider the following and even if your first response is, “That's ridiculous or untrue,” look for what could be true about it, even if only 1%. You will learn nothing if you don't experiment. However, you stand to learn a lot if you are willing to dive in.
    • Did your thoughts and feelings revolve around attention, importance, noticing, listening, being valued, and/or feeling ignored? Then the self-concept issue responsible for the reaction primarily has to do with fears about your own significance.
    • Did your thoughts and feelings revolve around feeling humiliated, criticized, controlled, coerced, and/or challenged? Then the self-concept issue responsible for the reaction primarily has to do with fears about your own competence.
    • Did your thoughts and feelings revolve around feeling rejected, unliked, lied to or withheld from, and/or shame about who you are? Then the self-concept issue responsible for the reaction primarily has to do with fears about your own likability or lovability.

Part 2:

To get a deeper understanding of how your particular self-concept fear or fears came about (and the button was installed), allow yourself to reflect on past experiences in which you felt similarly. Go back as far in your childhood as you can remember.

Part 3:

Though next month focuses on acceptance, we will start it now. Think of a statement that is something like the examples below and write it down:

  1. “Given my background, it makes sense that I would fear I was insignificant.” (Incompetent, or unlovable.)
  2. “Just because I grew up to believe that about myself, it doesn't mean it is true. I know that (person x) believes that I am.... or I had experience Y that shows that I am...”
  3. “The great likelihood is that my parents, teachers, bosses, etc. did not intend to harm me or to instill fears about my own significance, competence, or lovability.”
  4. “Being aware that a part of me fears that I am insignificant, incompetent, or unlovable is part of being human. There is nothing unusual or pathological about it.”
  5. “Because I can grow and learn, I can develop my self-concept so that I come to believe in myself, my significance, competence, and lovability as a human being.”

Enjoy, and please write about anything that is of interest to you in the blog or send me a private email.

Part 4:

Give yourself an internal pat on the back for looking at your triggers using a FID (FIRO Internal Dig). Next month, we will introduce a variety of activities and practices to gain internal acceptance.

If you feel so inclined, go to the blog and write about something that was important to you about engaging in this activity. If you would prefer to send a private message or ask for feedback, feel free to contact me at [email protected].

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