Why do we keep pushing buttons even when we know they hurt the other?
We are all very good at pushing buttons during arguments, often even if – or precisely because – we know that we are not helping the debate, but rather hurting the other person.
It seems like such a non-constructive way of interacting, yet time and time again we fall into the trap of reacting through lashing out.
Have you ever wondered why this is so well entrenched in our habits? Why the cool, thoughtful, loving partner that we think we are suddenly snarls and bites?
I came across the answer by pure luck (well, not quite, it was at a professional development event after all) and it burned itself into my mind:
“I will make you feel what I feel so that you’ll do something about it.”
Concretely, what does it mean? Let me give you some examples:
* You feel really angry, because of something that has happened at work, (and because it brought up some feelings of powerlessness that relate to your childhood, but that bit will not show in your awareness, just be there in your subconsciousness) and you come home and the first thing your partner doesn’t do “right” sets you off completely, until he bristles with anger too, for being attacked for no good reason.
* You feel anxious, things are not going very well, so you’ll press buttons with your partner (maybe raising subjects that are touchy for him/her) until they are feeling anxious too.
*You feel hurt, by life and your partner, so you’ll “bite” until they feel hurt too.
The underlying hope in all those examples is that if your partner feels the same way as you do right now, maybe he/she will do something to “fix” it!
It is – like most of the unhelpful things we do – a very human reaction. But unfortunately, instead of bringing you closer when you need/want support, that type of behaviour actually drives a wedge between you.
So what can you do to change it?
As always, change starts with awareness. Next time you are pushing buttons, notice it. Try and figure out what you are doing, whether it makes sense to attack the other, or whether you are just reacting to the (overwhelming) feelings inside you.
The next step is the easiest, and the hardest.
Speak up about how you are feeling inside. Instead of biting their head off, show them where you hurt. By making yourself vulnerable, by accepting your emotions, and not blaming your partner for them, it is much more likely that they will try and take care of you than if you make them feel like crap as well.
It takes time to change from reaction to awareness. It takes efforts to practise other ways of being.
My work as a therapist is to help clients figure out how they would rather be in their life, and how they can act differently to make that change happen.