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Everyone has “hot buttons.” They’re your tender spots, the places where you’re most sensitive, the points where you get irritated, or hurt, or angry, and have to respond. The trick to preventing them from messing up your day is awareness: The more aware you are of what rattles the bars of your cage, the more you’ll be able to catch yourself before you do any damage. If you don’t, you’ll be doing cold turkey for a while as you try to recover from some bad mistakes.

Hot buttons are strong values triggered by specific events or circumstances. Most of the time these values are quiet and unobtrusive, but when triggered they typically take over and direct your behavior. They also carry a strong emotional charge when they’re activated, so that behavior is going to be emotional and extreme. There’s nothing rational or considered about a response that comes from a hot button. It’s pure emotion.

You can see hot buttons in action whenever people start to talk about “matters of principle” or become angry over something that seems unimportant. You’ll know you were acting under the influence of a hot button when you regret what you did or said the moment you cool off. The words just popped out, you turned away and slammed the door behind you. You didn’t think about it until afterwards. At the time, it was simply what you had to do. That was a hot button.

Hot buttons make some people mad, others sad. All of them kick people into an instant response. Press someone’s hot button and you’re certain of making something happen.

Dealing with your own hot buttons
Your hot buttons are dormant most of the time. They only come alive when something hits one of them. The rest of the time, you’re almost unconscious of their existence. So you’re not ready to deal with them when they spring into action. That’s why people act first and think about it afterwards, when the damage has been done.

Here’s how to become more aware of your own hot buttons:

  • Think carefully about times you can recall where you acted or spoke in haste and regretted it afterwards. Write down what triggered the response. Was it something someone said? Or something they did? Be as specific as you can.
  • Look for patterns. Does the same trigger come up several times? Do you always get mad when people patronize you (I know I do!)? Or when they bring up how hard they work? Or their expensive vacation plans?
  • Try replaying one or two especially volatile occasions in your head. Check your emotions as you go along. When did you start to get irritated? Or upset?
  • Talk to close friends and loved ones. What do they know that makes you instantly grumpy or difficult? What have they learned to avoid, unless they want to “set you off?”

The only way to deal with a hot button that’s been triggered is call a mental “time-out.” Take a moment to breathe. Slow down. Try to delay your response if you can. If not, try to limit it to signaling you’d like to say more at another time.

Many of life’s problems are caused by these unconscious hot buttons. If you can control yours better, you’ll save yourself much grief and apologizing.

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