For some of us, the month of December means family gatherings which are an opportunity to meet in a new way any of those people who have pushed our buttons in previous gatherings. For those of us for whom such events come at another time of year, this teaching may be pulled out again on those special occasions. Of course it is not necessary to wait for special occasions – opportunities to confront button pushers come every day.
This teaching did not originate with me – it comes from the modern shamans Carlos Castenada and Harley Swift Deer Reagan, who taught about defeating “tyrants” in our lives. Tyrant is a strong word – many people on the planet are in the grip of the leadership of tyrants – those who control your life, your mind, your spirit. But when that same word is used for people in our everyday life it means when their impact on us feels exactly the same as the grip of a tyrant.
You know who they are, these people are not strangers to you, and when they come into your space your blood runs cold, your heart races, you knees get weak – or any number of physical experiences that signify loss of control or fear.
We can call these people our Button Pushers, but it is important to know that a button is pushed inside of us because it is already there. In Shamanism people give thanks for Button Pushing because they show us what still needs to be healed inside us. My seasonal gift is some of the more familiar button pushing approaches with a guide as to how to confront them in way that changes your interactions completely. Try to keep one humbling thought in mind: Every one of us can be another person’s BP.
Button pushing behaviours are what we call in Gestalt creative adjustments. They originally were created by us in moments of unsupported fear, and they were intended to save our lives. The bad news is that the behavior arises in situations in which it feels as if we are still fighting for our very lives. This is why the following rules are important of how to encounter a person who pushes our button:
1. You can never beat them at their own game. They fight in this way because they believe their lives depend on it in this particular situation. Sometimes we seem to want to give them back what they give us. Forget that.
2. You can never beat them in the time honored predictable way you do. That is probably already apparent to you as you have doubtless had many tries. Unless you try something different, the outcome is predictable
3. The “good news” is these are mostly people we know, people we love, are in relationship with, work with and live with, so you will have many opportunities to test out these new approaches.
4. Once you successfully break the pattern with your button pusher, you will never encounter them in the same way again.
Three of my “favourite” holiday button pushing behaviors are: Guilt Tripping, Criticizing, and Passive Aggression. For each I give a short description of what it looks like and why it is done, followed by a way for you to break the pattern that changes forever the dance of “tyrant and victim.” Once you can identify the behavior in someone in your life you get to experiment with breaking pattern, and look forward to the next family gathering as an adventure.
You need to experience this famous approach in your body, in order to never confuse it with any of the others. For me the feeling of being guilt-tripped feels like a blow to my stomach, or a screwdriver in my heart. Some people think the ability to be a good guilt tripper is inborn, not made. It‘s delivery depends on being master of timing. They can deliver a remark that will stop you dead in their tracks and you find yourself making excuses, over explaining yourself and generally feeling you want to run away and never return.
The Guilt Trip sentence can begin with “I might have known you would… (fill in the blanks; forget my birthday, be out of town when I arrived, return my gift…). The person will refuse to say directly that your actions hurt them so they turn it around with an accusatory innuendo : “You should have known.” The usual response is to get defensive and argue, but this simply fuels their fire: “I knew you would deny it!”
Why They Do It: The Guilt Tripper is looking for love, which is ironic since their approach will likely produce the opposite effect. As children they probably learned that love was conditional. They may have had a parent who was a guilt tripper and drew all the attention to themselves.
How they Get Us: Guilt trippers “get us” because there is always some truth in what they say. We may, as they say, be avoiding their company, sometimes because we are turned off by them, sometimes simply because of our busy lives. We may ourselves have guilt over the things that seem to cause them pain: our own unresolved issues in a career or a marriage or to have or not have children. If we did not have a little of that pain inside ourselves, we would be able to separate their suffering from ours.
How to Break the Pattern: Here is a foolproof method to end the game of guilt tripping and liberate the love underneath. The method is called Flooding and it is part of an approach called Humor. Some of you are naturally funny – Joanne Greenham used to say you have a clown in your head. If you are always serious this will be a difficult approach to master, but It goes like this: When the Guilt Tripper “turns the screwdriver” with a remark like: “You haven’t phoned me for a month…” do the following steps. Note it is essential to do them in the order described, and to do all of them or they will backfire:
Step 1: You agree with them:”Yes you are right,” and then
Step 2: You add: “but it’s worse than you think.” At this point people who have an Inner Clown can have a field day. If you do not you may have to practice. You literally “flood” their concern by making it as absurd as possible. “You know how small they are making the phones these days well I lost my phone in my left ear and I have surgery scheduled for tomorrow. I can barely hear you now – could you speak a little louder?”
You may find it hard to believe until you try this, but a well placed flood will send both yourself and the Guilt Tripper into peels of laughter. You have illuminated for them the silliness of asking for love in this convoluted way. You can follow the laughter with an assurance that you do love them whether you phone or not, whether or not you ever wear the sweater or tie they gave you. Once you have successfully “flooded” this BP, they will rarely use it on you again.
Criticism, Verbal Torment
“Sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Is a rhyme for children which has never been true. Children are deeply hurt by words – some words can cut in the places where a child already hurts – places like their body image, their social fears. This BP uses words to hurt, and they are good at it. The Verbal Tormentor must have the final word, so it is virtually impossible to out maneuver them at their own game.
Verbal Torment has the following characteristics:
– They seem to know the places where you are most vulnerable and will “attack” that aspect of you.
– The intention is to wear you down and they always have the last word.
– If you use logic, that feeds into their game.
– If they feel your button has not been sufficiently pushed, they will resort to sarcasm, or increase their volume, or take a demeaning tone.
– Verbal torment hurts! It will throw you into justifying yourself, defending yourself, and can trigger you into a state of shock at the outrageous remarks. In this moment, the person using this approach is fighting for their life!
Why They Do It:
As children, these people were in situations where they were blamed unfairly, and so they are unwilling to accept any blame as adults. They literally panic at the sense of blame, and are unlikely to be willing to share any blame either. They have never been heard so they don’t expect to be, and so they use cruelty or yelling to get their point across.
How to Break the Pattern:
Don’t argue! Arguing fuels the fire, and only adds to their experience of not being heard. You may find yourself responding by becoming highly logical and then moving into guilt tripping, bullying, passive aggression or feeling like a victim. None of these will work. Remember this BP needs to win, and if you need to win you will lose.
When there is no other way to win, look to your “inner absurd” for the way out. Can you take a moment of sufficient distance to use the ridiculous to derail their train of verbiage and provide an instant insight into the absurdity of their intensity. You are probably feeling like a victim so this technique is not an easy one to pull out of your hat. Once you have tried it and witnessed its effect, you will never respond to a verbal torment in any other way.
One of my students who is in relationship with a critic keeps a clown nose in their pocket for such emergencies. In the midst of a tirade they quietly slip the nose on. It is impossible to keep the tirade up. Other props I have seen are a baseball cap with an arrow through it hanging in a prominent place in the home. Couples can agree that when the tormenting begins they will use one of these ridiculous props to break the intensity. A woman I know just blurts out the word “sex” in the middle of her critical mother’s “runaway train” of verbiage. To her mother’s startled look she says I don’t know what happened but I can’t stop blurting it out.
If you have never tried this technique yourself then you may not understand its power. For those of you who do not know how to do it here are some experiences in passive aggression. (Those of you who are skilled each have your own unique way).
In the presence of another or in a room of people:
– sigh heavily, or
– rustle a newspaper with an angry gesture but say nothing, or
– fold your arms and look sullenly down
Next time a situation with someone you trust brings up some resistance, ask their permission to experiment with one of these techniques. Then share the impact of doing and receiving an act of passive aggression. In a “live” situation of passive aggression the power of the feeling will be too strong to have this kind of awareness.
Why they do it:
if you find yourselves in situations where you believe that even if the other tried to help you they would only do something stupid, then you have captured the essence of passive aggression. The approach is one of a child who is angry because the one thing they want – your caring – is not available for them. It is a creative adjustment to an environment in you cannot show your anger for not being seen or cared for directly. The tragic aspect of this is the indirect expression of anger is never even noticed.
Some people will create what I call “laser eyes” or other physical ways to expose they have been hurti in your presence. This approach is intended to show the other the depth of ones hurt but it rarely works, Instead someone gets angry with them. Despite the fact that it didn’t work in childhood, passive aggressives return to it over and again as a pattern of frustration and longing that is never satisfied. The only satisfaction becomes the technique itself. In time it is forgotten that the original impetus was a desire for caring. They simply feel wronged and misunderstood and will deny being angry. It is you who get angry with them. It is as if you catch their anger.
How to Break the Pattern: Timing is everything! Passive Aggression comes with a deeply engrained belief that you won’t come after them if they leave the room, and that even if you do, you will say the wrong thing. It includes being very wary of even the slightest phoniness or inadequacy in your reply. The other is set up to fail. To break this pattern, takes caring, and patience.
There are two ways. In each one, timing is everything. An ill timed response, for example one made during the passive action itself, will send you back to square one.
1. Body language: From childhood on much of our communication is through our body language. The greatest cause of disappointment and anger between people is that we continue to ignore the unspoken messages we send to one another. Passive aggression is unspoken language that says this: “Are you crazy? Can’t you see that I am in pain?” Meanwhile the victim of passive aggression is usually saying something like: “Why don’t you talk to me? Stop doing that and look at me! Just say something!” which makes them feel even more misunderstood.
If you live with a passive aggressive person (or if you are a passive aggressive person) you need to increase your sensitivity, like the fairy tale about feeling a single pea under a stack of mattresses. Whether the passive aggressive person sighs, or rattles a newspaper, or looks away, you need to learn to respond appropriately to the body language as if they had spoken words. This might be a “Wow, I felt that.” Their immediate response will surprise you. It is what they have wanted all along – acknowledgment with caring. Once the pattern is broken, the two of you can discuss what is really going on face to face.
2. Another way to show caring is to express it outright. Be aware that in the midst of passive aggression a person is very wary of being manipulated or tricked, and although caring is their greatest need they do not believe they will ever get it. If you are going to express caring, then timing is everything. While the door is being slammed is probably not the right time. Find a moment in which you can really reflect what it is you love about this person. (If you didn’t love something about them you would likely not be putting up with the behavior!) When you remember it then speak it out. If it is honest the child within the passive aggression will hear it as a clear statement of caring and come out of their shell. That is the important moment to begin to communicate about what really is going on.
Most important to remember is that the greatest buttons that are pushed are those we push within our own selves. Often when we are kind to others we are showing the world how we ourselves desire and need to be treated. That is a form of body language by which we signal others to care for us by caring for them. Kindness to ourselves is the greatest achievement of our lives journeys. This is what we can pass onto the children. See you in the New Year!
Copyright 2016 Jay Tropianskaia