Mindfulness when difficult people push your buttons

Drawing of distressed man holding his head in his hands

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

The greatest sources of comfort for many people are close family or friends. But these same people can also cause great pain and sorrow. Use mindfulness when others push your buttons and stir up emotional reactions.

Often others resist your attempts to find a new direction in life. Those closest to us can be the least understanding.

Ideally, they’d be kind and supportive, not critical, invasive or manipulative. Sadly, not everyone is happy when others want to try something different. Sometimes those closest to us resist us changing in any way.

Close people know your weak spots

People close to you know where you’re vulnerable. They also know what makes you react. Perhaps they’re insensitive and don’t realise the impact of what they say. Maybe they’re playing devil’s advocate to prevent you making mistakes.

Whatever the reason, it can feel as if they’re trying to hold you back.

Mindfulness when others push your buttons

Do you rise to the bait every time someone close seems to be critical or negative? Are you sad, hurt or angry that they seem so mean? Do you want to stay calm in the face of their teasing or criticism?

NB: Check out this article first to practise your skills with people you don’t know very well.

1 Mindful acceptance

Mindful acceptance of both others’ behaviour and your reactions will help you cope. Aim to remain neutral, and to notice without judging what they say or do. Remember to practice mindful breathing throughout.

2 Notice and describe

Be a neutral observer as much as possible. Describe the situation to yourself. Avoid making judgments about how terrible it all is, or how horrible the other person is being.

Example 1

Imagine you are a young adult student, living with your parents. Dad wants you to stay home tonight instead of going out with your boyfriend Jack. He thinks you should finish your essay first.

You notice he seems quite worried and a bit angry. You also notice you feel hurt he thinks you’d neglect your assignment.

This is useful information

You guess Dad’s worried you’ll fail. You therefore let him know you’re up to date with your work. You’re an adult and can keep up with your study without him telling you what you should do. You thank him for caring, and notice his reaction.

By observing a number of factors, you guessed one possible reason for his attitude. You may have thought of several other reasons too. However, at first you didn’t know which was more likely to be right.

Weigh up the evidence

Therefore you gained some evidence by noticing Dad’s tone of voice, what he said, how he looked, and your own thoughts and emotions.

And you considered these together to get an overall view of the situation – before you made the assumption he was out to get you.

You also noticed Dad seemed calmer after you explained your position. By remaining calm yourself, you dampened down both your own and his reactions. However if you’d flown off the handle immediately he’d spoken, you’d be in the middle of a blazing row now.

By refusing to jump to the conclusion he was trying to make your life hard, you were able to put your mindfulness skills into action. This allowed you to weigh up the evidence and come to a more reasoned conclusion.

Staying neutral 

Clearly it’s harder to stay neutral with people you know well. You may have family or friends who are difficult to deal with. They may have hurt or annoyed you in the past. They may know your vulnerabilities.

Use the same technique as above to remain as neutral as you can when you have to visit them. This gives you a greater chance to put your assertiveness skills to good use as well.

Choose to notice the body language of these individuals, the tone of their voice and what they say, as if you’re watching from behind a screen. Describe to yourself what you see without making any judgment.

Example 2

Anita decides to use mindfulness when others push her buttons. Her boyfriend Juan is often sarcastic and mean to her about her desire to be a florist.

The next time he’s like this, she notices he narrows his eyes, contorts his face and speaks in a contemptuous tone. He also kicks her kitchen table and shoves aside her books and papers. He tells her she’s stupid for thinking she can change her future.

Up until now, Anita shouted back at him as soon as he criticised her.  

1 Using mindful awareness

Now she stands for several seconds while she notices his behaviour. She breathes mindfully and describes Juan’s actions and appearance to herself before she says anything.

Anita also notices how Juan’s behaviour makes her feel – hurt at his lack of respect, angry and disappointed that he won’t support her, and momentarily discouraged. Then she also notices determination to persist with her dream rise up. She knows she’ll keep going whether he’s pleased or not.

Right then, she’s not sure how to answer his criticisms. However, she knows she needs more skills to stand up to him.

2 Remaining neutral when provoked

Later, Anita looks up some websites on assertiveness skills. When she’s more confident, she lets Juan know in a quiet moment how she feels about his behaviour. He reacts by flying into a rage.

Anita’s not sure if Juan will ever accept her desire to for a better life. If he can’t, she’ll have some hard decisions to make about their relationship.

In the meantime, she continues to use her mindfulness skills to remain neutral whenever she senses he’s trying to bait her. She’s still hurt that he’s angry and aggressive, and often she’s tempted to shout back at him.

However Anita knows she’s much calmer since starting mindfulness, and spends less time stewing over Juan’s behaviour. She’s more concerned with following her own goals, and isn’t responsible for Juan’s inability to take advantage of opportunities.

Anita keeps letting Juan’s comments roll over her without reacting.

And because she knows him well, she can often predict what he’ll say or do. Then she can remind herself beforehand to remain neutral and use her mindfulness skills.

3 Noticing the instant you react

Don’t be surprised by the behaviour of someone you know is difficult. There are many reasons why people may act strangely at times. In the observer state, be ready to notice the instant you start to react. Smile slightly to yourself: you knew they might be provocative. Then remind yourself to remain the observer without reacting.

Notice if you’re sad or annoyed the other person needs to make these comments. Notice the emotion and let it go. You don’t have to respond to their comments with more emotion.

4 Accepting emotion without adding more  

Don’t be sad that you’re sad, or annoyed that you’re annoyed. Just notice the emotions you feel and allow them to drift away. You don’t need to add more emotion by getting sadder or angrier.

Thank the person for their comments. Say you’ll consider what they’ve said. That can leave them with nothing much to complain about.

Then move on to another topic.

5 Changing the subject tactfully

Ask the other person what they’ve been doing. They may try to go back to criticising your plans, but let them know that topic is finished, and you want to know how they’re doing.

As they talk, mindfully observe your emotions and thoughts. With the other part of your mind, follow what they are saying. You may notice you’re still annoyed or hurt. That’s OK.

Allow the feelings to be there, and they’ll eventually subside as you focus on other things that are more pleasant.

6 The observer in you

The observer part of you watches as you interact with others. This doesn’t mean you have a split personality. It simply shows that as you gain greater awareness of your own thoughts and emotions, you can operate in different modes.

People who like to tease

Some people seem to like teasing others to get a big reaction. Use mindfulness when others push your buttons. 

When you’re about to see them, remind yourself to remain neutral. You already know they act like this, so be prepared. There’s no point in getting angry or upset. That’s what they want.

Observe how they act towards you and others. Do they tease everyone, or just people who get rattled easily? Take the wind out of their sails by refusing to do what they expect. 

React differently to the way you normally react. If you normally retreat, smile and shake your head slightly. Be amused at their behaviour. Make a joke about them wanting to get you all hassled; ask them playfully why they don’t have anything better to do.

Persist in acting differently to normal. See if they still try to get you riled up.

1 Be interested, not upset or angry

Be interested in their body language, facial expression and tone of voice. How exactly do they provoke you? Notice mindfully what strategies they use.

Do they suggest you’re stupid, weak, or that you’ve done something wrong? Do they know you’ll leap to your own defence to stop others thinking you’ve done something wrong?

What if you shrug your shoulders and say “And?” or “Big deal,” or “Oh well.”? Mindfully notice their reactions. Persist in your new strategy. See how long they keep trying before they give up.

2 Observe your emotions

Observe your urge to respond to these people in unhelpful ways. For example, you may want to be sarcastic or lash out verbally. Or you may hide your hurt and say nothing.

3 Be interested in your responses

Would responding angrily be an effective way of interacting with others? How would others respond if you were always angry or sarcastic? Would you get your message across?

Or would others switch off and ignore you, or worse, bait you more to get you really riled up?

4 Use assertiveness where you can

On the other hand, remaining silent often isn’t effective either. Notice any fears you have of not upsetting or inconveniencing others. Or fears of making a fuss. 

Will others ever understand your needs or wishes if you don’t tell them? Or will they understand they’ve been upsetting you?

Short-term gain, long-term pain

How would staying quiet work for you in the short-term? Obviously, you may avoid short-term discomfort by not speaking. And sometimes you need to be careful about when you speak up. 

But does this strategy work in the longer-term?

Do you need to learn assertiveness skills to complement mindfulness when others push your buttons? Of course you would need to choose the situations in which you spoke up carefully.

Habitual reactions often aren’t helpful

By now, I hope you’re noticing some of your habitual reactions. Our knee-jerk, natural reactions are often counter-productive when dealing with difficult people. Sometimes we need to know how or when to use another strategy.

So keep practising mindfulness to gain more insights into your own and others’ behaviour!

Use mindfulness when others push your buttons.

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