Do You Let People ‘Push your Buttons’?

We often hear the saying, “He pushes my buttons.” Or, “She knows how to manipulate me.” But what do these complaints really mean? Steven Stosny, Ph.D. at states that “Emotions move us.” Indeed, the Latin root of the word “emotion” literally means “to move”; preparing us to do things by sending chemical signals to the muscles and organs. Whenever you have an emotion, you’re moved to do something. But whether or not you act on it is your choice.

To understand why emotions move us, we first have to define what emotions actually are. In my book Grow Up America! (available exclusively at, by the way) I define emotions as “broad categories of feelings and self-statements that are an expression of your ongoing value judgments, ideas, and observations. Emotions represent those judgments and ideas in automatized, immediate form.”

While biologically influenced (everything is, since we’re biological beings), emotions are not solely biological. They manifest themselves as thoughts in an automatic, condensed form. When you’re angry, that feeling is the product of a belief you hold about someone or something. “Joe screwed me over!” is the product of your belief that Joe factually did something, and your underlying conviction that it violated some rule of conduct or morality. When you say that someone knows how to push your buttons, what you’re really saying is, “This person knows how I think, what’s really important to me, and how to say or do things that encourage me to experience feelings within that context.”

Often, the statement has a negative connotation. But it really depends; maybe it’s sexual or romantic arousal, pleasure or humor; maybe it’s a determination to distract you, put you down, or otherwise throw you off course. It sometimes seems as if others are “making” us feel a certain way. But ultimately, feeling a certain way is due to our own ideas, beliefs and convictions. As an example, you might tell a small lie or do something you consider wrong. Then a friend exposes your lie. You might feel like this friend or associate is making you feel guilty. But that’s not true. While the friend might be the precipitating factor for your emotion, he or she is not the cause of your emotion. In that case your emotion — guilt or shame — is caused by the fact that you actually did something that you consider to be questionable by some standard.

Facts combined with evaluations about those facts are the real causes of emotions. The late cognitive psychotherapist Albert Ellis, Ph.D. had a great way of illustrating this point. Ellis said that all emotions are caused by two things: One, an activating event, and two, an underlying belief, assumption or idea. The celebrated therapist made this into a convenient, easy-to-remember acronym: ABC: A: “Activating” event (e.g., I tell a white lie). B: “Belief” (e.g., your premise that lying is wrong, even a white lie), and C: “Consequence” (the emotional consequence, in this case — shame or guilt).

The emotional consequence will depend on your underlying belief or premise. If you don’t believe white lying is wrong, or if you’re a sociopath and don’t even think lying is wrong, then you will not feel guilt or shame. You might feel something else, but not that.

Use your reason and common sense to figure out the actual cause of your emotions. Don’t get distracted by blaming or fixating on other people. That will be a big step in you taking responsibility not only for your emotions, but ultimately for your life.