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How To Keep People From Pushing Your Buttons

Charles Cherney

Passionate about teaching after graduating from Harvard, I ultimately found myself drawn into the world of real estate in Cambridge and Somerville...

Passionate about teaching after graduating from Harvard, I ultimately found myself drawn into the world of real estate in Cambridge and Somerville...

May 18 7 minutes read

How To Keep People From Pushing Your Buttons

How To Keep People From Pushing Your Buttons (1994) is by Albert Ellis and Arthur Lange. I learned of this book from a blog post by Eric Barker. As stated in the introduction, "the book gives you specific, realistic ways to keep people and things from pushing your buttons."

The book promotes the Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) technique when you are faced with situations that push your buttons.

Consider the ABCs:

A - Activating Event.

A leads to

B - Your beliefs about Activating Event.

B leads to 

C - Your feelings and behaviors.

"What do we do at Point B when we run into a difficult situation or person at Point A before we wind up feeling or acting at Point C? There are lots of words to describe what we do at Point B: we react, choose, perceive, decide, analyze, make a judgment, size up the situation, assess it, imagine - all these words and more fall under one rubric, one umbrella term: We THINK! And the way we think in response to a specific person or situation will largely determine both how we respond emotionally and behaviorally at Point C, and whether we let the A's push our buttons."

Indeed, as the authors point out, "It is not what is actually, verifiably true at Point A that counts, it's what you think about it at Point B that will largely determine how you wind up feeling and acting at Point C."

In plain English, the two authors believe that "what you think in a specific situation will determine both how and how strongly you respond to that situation (and any people in it)." Strong feelings are fine, they add. "It's the overreactions that mess us up."

In short, "people and things do not actually push our buttons. . . .We push or our own buttons! And we can learn not to push them!"

The solution, Ellis and Lange contend, lies in adopting realistic preferences. "Realistic preferences are not suggesting that you can or will be successful - that you can handle the situation perfectly, or that everything will turn out fine. Realistic preferences are saying that it is okay to give 'it' a try - even if you might fail, be rejected, or the like."

The book is filled with examples. The examples are meant to make clear that in every button-pushing situation, you have the option of adopting realistic preferences. That is, you have the option of acting like a mature adult. Imagine that!

Consider one example from the book:
- You work hard every day and go the extra mile to get the job done.
- Your boss, however, rarely expresses his appreciation or recognize your efforts. He is quick to point out your mistakes.
- You are getting sick and tired of his lack of positive response to you and all his negative energy.

Possible responses:
A)  Awfulizing - What if I am just doing a mediocre job? . . . Why can't he just balance the criticisms out occasionally with a positive comment?

B) Shoulding - What a lousy manager I've got! I've got to stand up to that louse and tell him off.

(Responses A and B can slow down your efforts; lead to sulking and sarcasm and complaining and argumentativeness.)

C) Rationalizing - It's probably like this everywhere.
(This response can lead to withdrawing; losing your morale; being less productive; keeping it all to yourself.)

D) Realistic Preferences - I'd like my boss to appreciate my efforts more, but that doesn't mean he has to. I'd prefer that he say some positive things, as well as the criticisms. I'd like him to respect my work and to let me know that he does. If it doesn't improve, I'll regret that. I'm seriously concerned - and I'm committed to doing what I can about this, including talking with him without sounding whiny, defensive or negative. (And, one might add, moving on if need be.)

As we all know, there is a whole lot of response A and B and C going around. Response D is rare - and right. Acting like a grown up really has its advantages!

Generally speaking, a lot of us are weighed down by irrational beliefs. Consider these ten outlined by Ellis and Lange (the first four are the big ones):


1. A big problem for most people is that they care too much about what other people think. "Many people expend enormous energies trying to get others to like or respect them."

2. Another issue is excessive fear of failure. "Simply stated, it's worrying too much about screwing up." Fear of failure can lead to lack of risk-taking and missing out on many interesting experiences.

3. Low Frustration Tolerance. "People and things should always turn our the way I want them to - and if they don't it's awful, terrible, and horrible and I can't stand it." 

4. "If any of the first three bad events happens (if I'm not liked or respected, if I fail, or if things don't turn out as I'd like - or at least fairly), then I'll always blame someone for it!"

5. "If I worry obsessively about some upcoming event or how someone really feels about me, things will actually turn out better."

6. "Perfect solutions exist for every problem, and I must find them - and immediately!"

7. "It is easier to avoid difficult situations and responsibilities than to face them."

8. "If  I never get seriously involved in anything, and maintain a detached perspective, I will never be unhappy."

9. "It was my past and all the awful things that happened to me when I was a child, or in my last relationship, or in my last job, that causes me to feel and act this way now."

10. "Bad people and things should not exist, but when they do, they have to seriously disturb me!"

The authors propose we grow up. Awareness is the first step. The book concludes with this manifesto:

"You very much want to be a winner at things you undertake, and you want also to enjoy the game even while paying attention to how and why you're playing it. You want to do things that you believe are meaningful and worthwhile - to best of your ability, with pride and enthusiasm. You want to have good, healthy relationships, and to put something into them regularly. You especially want to minimize the button-pushers who get in the way of your enjoying the trip. Don't let yourself become a casualty of your own efforts in life! You only go around once. Enjoy. Our invitation and challenge to you is clear: "Go get 'em!" And we don't mean the button-pushing people and things - we mean your own screwball thoughts and emotional overreactions. Change them, and you will be a winner in what really counts. Go get 'em!"

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