Know Thyself - know your hot buttons!

We all have our own 'hot buttons' which trigger painful, and often hidden, memories. It's not our fault that we have them, but it IS our responsibility to identify and de-activate them!

Go to the profile of Maxine Harley
Jul 31, 2017
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I've recently been starkly reminded of how much we overlay the present with the past in all of our relationships.

Just because you feel bullied, controlled, judged, ridiculed or overlooked doesn't necessarily mean it's happening to you. It may just means that your 'hot buttons' have been pressed.

What may be happening is that your brain is making a fast link to something that felt similarly painful to you in the past (clue: your childhood relationships and experiences).

It may only take a word, a look or a gesture to hijack your present-time adult rational brain, and for you to be catapulted back to those earlier feelings of pain and shame, rejection and fear, compliance and conditional acceptance ... and for you to react emotionally 'as-if' it were a real occurrence in this moment.

(Caveat – if you have hard evidence from more than one third party that you really are being bullied etc. then you must get the support to take action and distance yourself from any abusive behaviour)

We all have our 'hot buttons' which trigger painful, and often hidden, memories.

It's not our fault that we have them..but it IS our responsibility to identify and de-activate them!

We must shift our focus to a place of observing an interaction instead of being emotionally hooked into exploding (to defend ourselves) or imploding (and withdrawing into sadness, self-criticism, victimhood and perhaps depression).

When we can separate the past from the present, and make the emotional space necessary to be able to take an enquiring perspective - we can then see any mismatch of context, and projections from the past onto the current relationship experience.

It works both ways too. You may be on the receiving end of someone else's projections, and find yourself accused of being and doing things that, when you check these out with yourself, you know don't actually fit this time and place.

In that case it helps to assertively say something like...

'I hear what you are saying and feeling about me, and I've now checked out with myself if this feels correct. It doesn't seem to fit what I see as going on right now. Maybe it's something from somewhere else that has been brought into our relationship that doesn't really belong here.'

Some examples of common 'hot buttons' are:-

  • Criticism – feeling criticised by someone, when this hasn't really happened (and perhaps not owning the fact that we are actually the one being critical)
  • Judgement – We can feel judged, or accuse someone of being 'too judgemental', without any hard evidence to support this. Negative judgements involve degrading someone else's choices and behaviours
  • Belittlement – we feel squashed, insulted, ridiculed, put down and of little significance to the other in that moment. We feel 'small' – because these painful feelings originally came from a time when we were small and unable to protect ourselves
  • Taken for granted – when it feels as though someone has expectations that we will give them what they want, without any regard for our feelings and preferences
  • Integrity challenges – feeling that our character and integrity is under attack, and 'as-if' we have bad motives
  • Control – when it feels like someone is trying to control you. Be very clear if and how this might be happening, and what you might be sub-consciously inviting or allowing to happen. Actual control can be seen objectively as well as felt subjectively.

Perhaps the other controls the times and dates of contact between you, or takes over the conversations, and your verbal input is blocked, ignored or talked over.

Being ignored or blanked is a passive way of controlling a relationship or interaction. This is also called stonewalling and is one of the four indicators of a relationship in trouble (along with contempt, criticism and blaming). 

Intellectualising and meandering conversations are also ways of controlling the interaction with a brick wall of words that keep the other at a distance, and block out their opinions and input.


In psychotherapy and therapeutic mentoring it may be that such projections get overlooked – because they aren't being triggered in the therapeutic relationship, and the client is giving only their version of events.

It takes a wise and experienced psychotherapist or therapeutic mentor to look deeper into the underlying causes of the emotional pain. To find out what from the past is being re-lived in the present.

In couples therapy it can be particularly tricky to unpick the projections – the tit-for-tat, ping-pong of accusation and reactions.

A question I've found very useful for uncovering this is....

How would you have to change for you not to be so affected by their (partner, boss, colleague, spouse etc) behaviour?

Self-awareness allows us to access and know our own hot buttons – and then comes the task of putting them in their rightful place, back in the past.

The next task is to learn how to restore our emotional equilibrium and to hold a detached objectivity in our present day interactions, and to control our own responses to possible triggers.

Don't expect this to happen overnight – even those of us who know about hot buttons, triggers and projections this can find ourselves off guard and 'hooked' into a toxic interactions too!

We do have a choice.

We can either work through this stuff alone (or with the other party if possible) – whilst showing our vulnerability as well as our empathy – which brings us a closer and more respectful relationship.

Or we can stay in that angry, confused victim mode, and walk away whilst blaming the other for our bad feelings.

The latter option means that we stay stuck with our hot buttons until the next time they are pressed – and we are given another opportunity to work out what's really going on for us on a deeper level.

If this button pressing is happening in the workplace there may not be the chance to work it through with a boss or colleague.

That doesn't have to mean that you are stuck with it - or that have to take your hot buttons along with you to your next job!


Maxine Harley (MSc Psychotherapy) MIND HEALER & MENTOR

www.maxineharley.com – Lots of FREE resources available here. Also help for your inner child's recovery from a troubled childhood, and difficult or toxic parents (with two therapeutic coaching programmes called 'Recover From Your Mother' and 'Cast Off Your Father's Shadow'). 

Also 5 self-help online courses (£37 each - or £27 with code TENOFF at the checkout) helping you to help yourself to a better life - for you, your relationship, your children and your business/career

www.maxineharleymentoring.com – helping women to understand and manage their emotions, boundaries and behaviours – to FEEL better so they can BE, DO and HAVE better in their lives

www.the-ripple-effect.co.uk – a series of 10 self-help online workshops to help you with different aspects of your life

www.qpp.uk.com – changing the deeper sub-conscious belief system or S.C.R.I.P.T. (c) - Sub-Conscious-Rules-Influencing-Present-Time


Go to the profile of Maxine Harley

Maxine Harley

MIND HEALER & MENTOR - Psychotherapist (MSc), Author, Columnist & Blogger. Please see www.maxineharley.com and www.maxineharleymentoring.com, S.E.L.E.C.T. Your Life Company Ltd.

I help women to FEEL better - so they can BE, DO and HAVE better! As a MIND HEALER I specialise in helping women to recover from a troubled childhood and toxic parents, to heal and transcend their emotional wounds, re-parent their inner child, and make peace with their past. This enables and empowers them to become better parents, partners, professionals - and all round happier calmer people :-) As a MENTOR I offer different levels of therapeutic self development - including MINDING YOUR BUSINESS, MINDING THE GAP, and MIND MASTERY...please discover more at www.maxineharleymentoring.com

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