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How to Handle Someone Who Pushes Your Buttons

» Mental Health Library » Featured Articles

By Jim Weinstein, M.B.A., M.F.T.

Jim Weinstein, M.B.A., M.F.T.When we find ourselves getting disproportionately upset or overly sensitive about someone's quirks of behavior, it is safe to assume that one of our "buttons" is being pushed. A "button" is an emotionally volatile and reactive place within us, a place from which we almost always overreact. What most of us don't recognize is the growth that can be achieved by exploring what about people or events push our "buttons."

There are five principal ways I deal with the negative feelings that come up when a "button" of mine is being pushed:

  1. I ask myself "Is this the kind of person I want to be, a person whose annoyance or anger is triggered by inconsequential things (e.g. someone who leaves their car messy, or repeatedly tells stories that are only partially true, or brags a lot, or is habitually late)? Can't I have enough compassion to encompass the benign behavior of others? Can't I learn to overlook or put behind me a trigger that inadvertently took away my sense of peace?

  2. I also ask myself "Have I ever done something similar to what that other person is doing that is bothering me so much? Haven't I ever left my car messy? Haven't I told some stories that were only partially true? Haven't I bragged at times? Haven't I been late at times? And, if the answer to those self-referential questions is "no" (for instance, I am almost never late), I then actively search for reasons that might explain the annoying behavior: perhaps that person grew up in a family or culture in which being late was the norm, or perhaps they have ADD, etc.

  3. I remind myself that often the other person's annoying behavior might be triggered by something that I do or say, so I look for where I might be contributing to the situation. Am I making the other person feel insecure in some way? Am I unconsciously treating them poorly? Shifting my attitude about the other person can reduce the annoying behavior that sometimes is a tactic the other person uses to make a situation less uncomfortable for them.

  4. I ask myself if the words or actions that are pushing my "button" are reminiscent of some earlier, highly unpleasant event. Chances are your intense response originates in a deep, very possibly early wound. If you're exceptionally sensitive to even implied criticism, is that a throwback to a parent who wanted perfection from you? If teasing sets you off, might you have been mercilessly teased or bullied by a sibling or peer group when you were a kid? If a braggart really bugs you, do you come from a family where boasting was severely frowned upon?

  5. In extreme cases, I ask myself "Is this a person with whom I really want to continue spending much time?" If the answer is "no", figure out a compassionate way to disengage.

In closing, I'd like you to remember that when a "button" is pushed, it's an opportunity to engage in reflection that can heighten our wisdom, compassion, self-awareness, and honesty. Treat these situations as learning opportunities, rather than as endurance contests.

About the Author...

Mr. Weinstein is a licensed marriage and family therapist and has been in private practice for almost 15 years, first in Beverly Hills, CA and now in Washington, DC. His website is

Last Update: 2/18/2011

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