Buttons? Who, me?

Hot button 1I’ve just read an article by Mira Luna, called “How to Start a Housing Co-op”. Mira explores the issue in a very readable manner, providing personal experience, a handful of references and a step-by-step how-to-go-about-it guide. It’s a worthy read if you have interest in going the co-op housing route.

Although the article’s focus is on starting a co-op, Mira does give us a glimpse of the other end. She says: “Although problems can come up in any housing situation, the issue most likely to destroy the co-op is internal conflict.” All of us have enough life experience to understand the process that terminates a relationship – we get irritated (perhaps enraged?) with someone, the offence occurs a number of times, and we start on the downhill slope, planning our exit. Concern about that is why we Shedders are often asked, “How do you deal with disagreements?” “Don’t you ever get cranky with each other?” “Do you fight?”

I don’t think I need to bother answering that question.

When Mira talks about “internal conflict”, she means internal within the co-op house. But to really address the question of conflict, we’ve got to go internal within ourselves. Here’s what I see: it’s all about having our buttons pushed. We all have, located somewhere not quite visible to the naked eye, clusters of little hot-buttons, our places of special sensitivity. One press and we’re in a dark place. When an important relationship begins to break down, it’s because we can no longer bear to have our buttons pushed by that person.

When my children were little, they had a well-polished set of buttons. For example, any time Michael wanted a ferocious reaction from his sister, he would say, innocent as a cat stretching in the sun (whilst eyeing a sparrow in the shrub nearby), “Jenny likes seafood.” Jenn could be absolutely counted on to go off like a rocket. “I HATE seafood,” she would shout, at decibels that would have the whole neighbourhood entertained. “You know I hate seafood. Don’t say I like seafood!” Things rarely went well from there. But she had a big button and her brother couldn’t resist pressing it.

By the time we get to middle-age, these buttons can be well-disguised. Let me give you an example. The guys in our household belong to a local Men’s Group – a collection of wonderful men who, for years now, have spent one night each week working on themselves and their relationships. Once a month they invite wives, partners and other guests to join their group. We have a potluck meal together, and then participate in a number of the group’s processes.

I have to say, these guys are very good at spotting when their buttons have been pressed. They’re good at identifying the emotional surge and the incident that triggered it. This week one of the guys offered to “do some work”, meaning he was willing to share an issue and open it up to the group for feedback.

“There I was,” he said, “at work in the middle of a perfectly fine afternoon, feeling good about myself and about life, and I made a perfectly simple mistake. I gave someone a wrong digit to a phone number and as a result they missed a critical appointment. When I discovered what had happened I was devastated. And I still am,” he added. “I can’t shake the feeling or stop thinking about what happened.” His error had had big consequences (for someone else), but he knew his personal reaction was out of proportion to having made an innocent mistake.

We talked about the incident and his reaction. Maybe his perfectionism means he can’t bear making a mistake. Maybe he’d been arrogant and got blind-sided. Maybe the slip-up played into a deeper conviction that he’s someone who really messes things up. Maybe it was just colossally embarrassing. He wasn’t sure where the reaction came from, but he was clear that a very hot button had been pressed that afternoon.

I can look at myself and glimpse my own well-worn hot buttons lurking in the shadows. There’s one on me somewhere that could be labelled “Misunderstood”. If someone has misinterpreted something I did to my detriment, I can be counted on to have a strong and out-of-character reaction. Another is “Abandoned!” Another rather deep one is something like, “I can’t be trusted.” Press any of the above and I’m instantly in a dark and scary place. Fear, shame and embarrassment take over my soul for a period of time, and to cover it up, I act…well, “not myself”, as Rick kindly describes it.

And while we’re on the subject of handling internal conflict, there’s another unattractive side to the existence of hot buttons, relating to how they get pressed. Sometimes they’re triggered by an incident, as with my friend in Men’s Group. But often a good detective might be able to identify someone’s fingerprints on the button. As with my ten year old son with the gleam in his eye, it can be an interesting and lively matter to deliberately trigger a reaction.

After almost 35 years of marriage I am gleefully aware of Rick’s hot buttons and am so good at finding them that I can do it without even thinking. And not to restrict myself to the marital relationship, I’ve caught myself on occasion having a go at a housemate’s button – and in hindsight have noticed that sometimes they have had a go at mine.

It’s a very human thing to do and a sure cure for boredom. We seem to have an endless penchant for mischief. But can you think of any more ridiculous behaviour if you are seeking harmony and enduring relationships?

Hot button 2In her article on co-housing, Mira concludes by saying, “Finding the right people and teaching others willing to learn how to get along (emphasis mine) is key.” Easy if you say it fast, but in reality it’s a lifetime project. I learn how (and how not) to get along from everyone here, on a daily basis. I’m a reasonably willing student. It begins with noticing my hot buttons, and those of others – followed shortly by compassion, generosity and honesty.

* * *

There is the smell of bushfire strongly in the air this morning, resulting from a big blaze that surged through an area across the river yesterday, closing off our local road for several hours. I notice that my nerves are slightly on edge, probably the result of something primal, perhaps the same thing that had the cattle next door bawling in a most perturbed fashion all evening yesterday. This reaction is not a true hot button, but it keeps me aware of how subtle are the influences on my behaviour, and how important it is that I stay vigilant.

* * *

Quote of the day: Parents know how to push your buttons because, hey, they sewed them on.” – Camryn Manheim


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