• Rev. Joel L. Tolbert

Pushing Buttons

Our oldest son, when he was very little, was amazingly curious about buttons. He was very cautious and careful, and would reach for any button he saw on electronics or toys or elevators. Then he would turn to me and Jill to check and see if it was okay, and he got so much joy out of pushing it.


I wonder, do you have any "buttons"? How does it feel to you when they get pushed? Do you have anyone in your life, family, work, or maybe even church that seems to enjoy pushing your buttons?


I've learned I have a few buttons, places where I am most sensitive and most likely to be quickly defensive, even before I can take a breath, slow myself down, and try to respond normally. If someone suggests I let them down, well, I might have. I might have done my very best, or I might have not had enough room in my life to give them everything I wanted to, or that they needed. If someone tells me that, its a button for me. I hate to disappoint. I hate to underperform. It hurts to hear that critique, and I feel button get pushed, and the rush of defensiveness and shame flood my face.


Maybe you have a similar button to mine, or maybe a different one? Maybe you don't like feeling like you are being left out of the loop on something? Maybe you don't like it when it feels like someone has been talking about you when you weren't present? Maybe you don't like it when you're trying to do something and someone else interrupts you? Or maybe, you don't like it when someone checks their phone while you are mid-sentence talking to them?


What happens to you when your button gets pushed? What is your fastest reaction? How does it come out of you onto others? Is there a better way you wish you could respond than your first reaction once your button is pushed?


For me, I'm not always fast enough, calm enough, self aware enough to do this, but here's my strategy.

  1. Before I say or do anything, I (try to) acknowledge inside myself that my button just got pushed. The person or situation that pushed it might still be happening. The person might still be talking. Okay, let them keep going. Move your attention for a minute from outside, what they are saying, to inside, what is happening in you from that button push.

  2. Stay quiet. Try to keep your mouth and body quiet from any quick responses. This isn't a compression of who you are or what you are feeling. This is a moment when we say, "Let's be intentional, not reactional. Let's make sure the next thing we say or do isn't something we regret or have to undo later."

  3. Pause and take note of all the things happening in me from that button push. Notice the first, second, and third thoughts that are going through my mind. Notice the multiple feelings, and see if I can name them. Notice how the body changes, in temperature, a desire to stand up, a fist that clenched, whatever might have happened.

  4. Breathe. Take a deep, long, slow breath. Sometimes I imagine the button right over my heart, pushed in by whatever was being said or done. I think of the deep breath as lifting my lungs and heart back up against the pressed button, unpushing it so to speak. It might take a few breaths, each one slow and deep, held for just a moment, a bit longer than normal, and then released slowly and fully, even with an audible sigh if that might help.

  5. Now, check your thoughts, feelings, and body again. After a few breaths, the biggest, fastest thoughts, feelings, and body reactions will probably slow down and soften. They won't disappear, but they won't suggest any need to fight or flight or freeze either. If they are lesser, move on. If they are still intense, keep breathing and wait.

  6. Okay, if you're able, confess to the person before you some of what you were feeling. The phrasing here needs to be careful. Try something like this... "I noticed when you said/did.... I felt (name one or two of the emotions) and in my body I felt (name one or two of the body issues)." If they enjoyed pushing your button, they might go for it again. That will help you decide what to do next, perhaps leave the conversation for another day. If they didn't know about your button or didn't mean to push it, they might shift and try to find a new way for this conversation to proceed. That will help you decide if you can linger and grow this relationship through this tough spell.

I tried this good ol' tactic today, and it didn't work so well. The steps are sound. I just couldn't slow myself down. I couldn't stay in the breathing until I was calmer. I couldn't stay quiet while I waited. And now, later in the day, I am still feeling it again.


This calls for prayer. In prayer, I will repeat this process, attempting to be vulnerable and honest before God, to get some help with my buttons, and to give me some grace and guidance on how to make whatever amends I might need to and do better next time.


May your buttons get harder to push. May your reactions when pressed become shorter and smaller. May you never enjoy pushing someone else's buttons, nor may anyone enjoy pushing yours. And may God's grace help us all love ourselves and one another through it all.

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