Anger: Identifying our ‘Buttons’ and When they are Pushed

Anger pervades our society…From road rage, to hatred for opposing political views, to professional sports and fighting, to bullying, to spousal yelling and abuse, the list is endless. We are constantly exposed to anger and for many individuals it is a common occurrence of daily life. In Western religion, anger has sometimes been labelled as a ‘sin.’ Anger is not a sin, but the effects of anger can be, as we know how much anger can hurt others.  

How Is Anger Perceived in Our Body?

Anger is a normal physiological response to a perceived threat that is interpreted by our lizard brain, otherwise known as the limbic system. This part of the brain, specifically the amygdala, is responsible for processing memories, decision making and emotional responses such as fear, anxiety and aggression. This part of brain was designed to help keep us alive when faced with danger. It shifts our brain and nervous system into a state of ‘fight or flight,’ so we react quickly with little thinking and potential aggression. 

Although we live in a highly civilized world and are not faced with the threat of getting eaten by a tiger on a daily basis. For many, it is a concrete jungle and people feel they need to fight for their piece of the pie. Not only are people in endless competition for jobs, food or a parking spot at Costco, but we live in an ever increasingly fast paced world.

The demands on us are high and our reserves are often depleted.

This is where seemingly innocuous things can send someone flying off the handle because they are in a state of high arousal and their ability to think and cope is limited.

You see a person at the side of the road changing a tire and having a hard time. You ask, “Need some help?” The guy trying to change the tire turns and yells, “Mind your own business!” What just happened? You entered into the personal drama taking place in the mind of the guy trying to change the tire. He was struggling and in a state of high arousal with cars whipping by, so his nervous system was in a heightened state. Perhaps his father always told him he was helpless and couldn’t even change a flat tire. Due to his painful past experiences, your offer for help is interpreted as an insult. 

You are pushing my buttons!

We have all heard the phrase, “pushing my buttons,” and we all have buttons that have been pushed. This saying characterizes the notion of a pre-programmed response that is unmediated by thought. It can fire on a moment’s notice when demands are high and we feel violated. These buttons have been programmed at different times under varying conditions. More often than not, they lead to the predictable response of anger. 

In the book, Working with Anger, Thubten Chodron, writes,

“We all have buttons. When our buttons are pushed, we fly off the handle, blaming the other person for upsetting us. But our being upset is a dependently arising process. We contribute the buttons and the other person does the pushing. If we didn’t have the buttons, others couldn’t push them.” 

Our buttons are hot spots that leave us vulnerable to anger. They give others the power to bring unhappiness into our lives. The person who is experiencing anger often feels innocent. Like they didn’t do anything wrong, but we are responsible for our buttons and our resulting emotions.

Now, this does not include situations where someone lied, cheated, violated a vow or abused you. These are legitimate reasons to take offence or get upset.

However, what the majority deal with on a regular basis is the disproportionate or irrational reactions that are rooted in the baggage or history we carry. 

To help overcome unnecessary anger we need to identify our own buttons. Common buttons may include one or any of the following:

  • Honour
  • Approval
  • Independence
  • Pride
  • Respect
  • Jealousy

What gets you all revved up and ready to fly off the handle? Identifying our hot spots is the first step in reprogramming our triggers. Use a sentence starter like, “I can’t stand it when…” And add in some possibilities like: 

I hate being criticized. (approval)

I hate when others tell me what to do and order me around. (independence)

I can’t stand it when someone talks back to me. (respect)

I lose it when my wife talks to other men. (jealousy)

I hate it when someone thinks they are better than me. (pride)

Once you have recognized some of your buttons then the next time something arouses your emotions and you feel your buttons being pushed you can pause and take a deep breath before you respond. This is the first step in becoming more mindful or aware. Each time you recognize and overcome your anger you build self-confidence and self-esteem. A lack of self-esteem can usually be found at the root cause of anger. 

As humans, we have the power of choice.

We can choose to abandon our beliefs, habits and judgements as we choose to live in a state of evolution and growth. By becoming aware of our feelings when anger is arising, we can pause and observe our thoughts without judgement.

So next time you raise your voice, or make a hostile remark, or again let your spouse down for arriving late, pause before you react because it is in this space that great changes can come. This is the beginning of shedding the husks of self-defeating behaviours. And through greater awareness it can help to reduce the amount of anger in our lives and the lives of others. You never know the ripple effect of how something you think, say or do will affect the life of not only the person in front of you but all those they come in contact with.

So let’s make sure the mark we leave is a positive one, not one we will regret. 

Dr. Thom

For further reading and as reference to this article check out, The Cow in the Parking Lot. A Zen Approach to Overcoming Anger.