Have you ever been reacting to someone or some situation, and at the same time been completely aware during that moment that your reaction was inappropriate or over the top, but then just let it happen anyway?
I did that recently. I received an email, and there was something in it that pushed one of my buttons. I’m aware that the button is there, and I’m aware of how I’ve typically reacted in the past when it’s been pushed – unproductively to say the least. In the case of this particular button, my reaction is extreme defensiveness, with some deflection and avoidance thrown in.
I’m now exploring this situation, and thinking about it more closely. As I reflect, I’ve realized that even the phrase “he pushed my buttons” isn’t accurate – that implies that the other person is doing the pushing with intention. He did that to me. I’m the victim of that evil button pusher. He must have been laughing maniacally, like a Bond villain pushing a big red button marked “to end world, press here” just before he hit send on his email.
While I’m sure there are some Bond villains in the world, I don’t believe that was true in this case – or if it was done with intention, that the intention was to help me learn. Either way, it doesn’t matter because I own the button. That button is within me. I made that button, it was created and enlarged by years of insecurity, doubt and avoiding responsibility.
What I’ve realized is that this other person didn’t press my button – I did.
I even knew I was about to do it, I felt it coming, I was completely aware of it, and I even announced at the top of my email reply that I was about to do it
“Dear everybody: Apologies in advance if this comes off as defensive, but…” then a bunch of crap about how I’d chosen to do something else that I thought was more important compared to what I said I was going to do, and everyone look at how much of this other work I’d done, and “oh my I’m so hurt that everyone didn’t recognize the amount of effort I’d put in to this other thing”… blah blah blah-ditty-blah-blah-blah.
Guess what…. it came off as defensive… REALLY defensive. I’m sure it sounded wildly insincere as well. I didn’t feel hurt, I felt embarrassed – I got called out for not doing what I had said I was going to do. I felt like a kid who got caught playing video games when he was supposed to be cleaning his room.
I’ve always tried to be good, to do the right thing. I have one older brother and when we were kids he was a trouble-maker. He would break rules whenever they became even slightly inconvenient. And when my brother would get caught doing something wrong, his go-to reaction was to blame me.
I’m not sure why, probably because I was younger, and couldn’t easily defend myself, physically or otherwise. Sometimes I think my brother would break rules just so he could blame me. Maybe he got a kick out of it, I’m not sure. He would often include me in his little misadventures and I had assumed that was because he was being all big-brotherly and because he liked having me around – so of course I went along with whatever he was doing. He probably just wanted a patsy.
Whenever he did this, I felt like I was on trial for a crime I didn’t commit. I started deflecting – giving excuses, reasons it could not have been me, proof points that I could not have done anything wrong. Simply blaming him back didn’t work, no one believed me – what else could I do? I’m not sure how my brother had earned the status of “truth teller”, but he had and the only thing I thought I could do was to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that it couldn’t possibly have been me, for these 186 well thought out reasons, your honor.
Unlike a trial, these situations often resulted in a tie game for me. My ability to use logical reasoning with my father, who always acted as the punisher, was either inadequate or he wouldn’t process it. It didn’t matter who had done the wrong-doing, my parents always wanted to treat us exactly the same. This was an aspect of “keeping the peace at any price”, which was a huge component of my upbringing.
One of the ways to keep the peace in our household was to always treat us exactly the same. I believe there was two reasons for this. First, my brother and I would often fight loudly, acting like extremely spoiled and entitled brats if one felt the other was being given even the slightest advantage in anything. That probably wasn’t fun for my parents, and it certainly wasn’t peaceful.
Secondly I believe that my father probably harbored some deep guilt, jealousy or angst from his own youth. He had several brothers and sisters, and I know he was particularly devastated when, in his high school days, his parents scrimped and saved up quite a bit of his family’s very limited money to send his older brother to a big American university (we’re Canadian) to play football. His older brother had the skills to have a serious shot at the big leagues, and in fact did have some success. My father also played high school football, but ended up taking a job as a mechanic at the local gold mine. He’s told me this story a few times, and while he’s never explicitly said it, I’ve always felt he’s harbored a lot of jealousy towards his brother and a lot of anger towards his parents over it. I’m sure his family wasn’t particularly peaceful at that time.
I can only guess at my father’s true motivations behind “peace at any price”, though one of the outcomes was that he wanted to treat his kids perfectly equally. The result was we got the exact same gifts at holidays, the same amount of back seat space, the same treats, the same allowances, the same toys, the same bikes, and the same punishments – no matter who was to blame.
All that defensive behavior ever really got me in these situations was shared responsibility rather than sole responsibility for transgressions I did not commit. I hadn’t thought it through at the time and I wasn’t trying to get to shared blame – I was trying avoid punishment completely. Looking back it might seem that if I couldn’t get absolution, I was at least getting revenge – but that wasn’t it at all. The reason we both got punished was because of “peace at any price”, and that meant treating us exactly the same. If Dad couldn’t easily figure out who had done something, it was easier to punish us both.
I wasn’t a perfect kid, but taking punishment for things I didn’t do caused me to avoid, and to not want to..do.
I became introverted and socially awkward, and avoidance became my best friend. Avoidance was the best defense against punishment, but when things couldn’t be avoided, defensiveness was my option. Since that defensiveness tool sort of “worked” when I wasn’t to blame, I also applied it when I was completely to blame.
45 years in, I’m still using the “avoidance” tactic quite a bit. I need to focus on that next. The defensiveness reaction though has over the years it turned into a big, bright, shiny button. I wasn’t a perfect kid, and to this day I still, quite literally and metaphorically, sometimes play video games and avoid cleaning my room.
The scary part to me is not that I have a button. I know I have a lot of buttons, I’m sure I’ve managed to build a damn NASA launch control center inside my psyche for all the buttons in there. Thanks to my training in The Practice with Susan and Joseph, I‘ve become aware of the button. I know it’s there. I know what situations cause my inner kid to go running towards it.
The scary part is that when I wrote that email, I was aware it was happening. I watched with detachment as my inner self pushed that button, like I was someone in a theater watching a car crash on a movie screen.
Awareness means taking responsibility. If you know someone you care about needs your help, you have to help them. If you know something you’re doing is causing someone else pain, you have to stop. If you know you’ve put yourself in a situation that is causing you distress, you need to exit it. If you know something makes you happy, you have to pursue it. If the Universe calls on you, you have to act.
How can you not?
Awareness means taking responsibility. I was aware, yet I didn’t take responsibility and stop myself. I should have paused when I recognized this reaction and behavior. I should have answered the email far differently. The car crash wasn’t on a movie screen, it was in real life and I was driving the car – I could have braked.
But I didn’t. One of the NextStage principles is “Mistakes are just that; You can reach again.” The button is still there, I’ll get another chance to use the brakes.