Taking Responsibility for Your Emotional Reactions

I was reminded this past week that I am responsible for my emotional reactions – and not for anyone else’s reactions.

Typically, when we experience a negative emotional reaction towards someone else, our first inclination is to blame the other person. “When he said ‘such-and-such,’ he hurt my feelings.” We see our hurt feelings as the other person’s fault, and we believe we need to prevent him from repeating his hurtful behavior or else try to avoid him in the future.

Although it may feel as though the other person “caused” your emotional reaction, the truth is that your reaction arises from a preconditioned sensitivity to certain stimuli. Certain kinds of scenarios trigger you. This is most evident in situations where you find yourself upset by someone else’s behavior while others who are present are not bothered by that same behavior. Each of us has our own unique, built-in “hot buttons.”

Your Hot Buttons

A favorite expression of mine is “Your family can press your hot buttons better than anyone else because they created them.” You developed many of your emotional sensitivities during your formative years. And you have inadvertently strengthened those sensitivities every time you’ve reacted to your hot button issues. In this way, certain mental patterns become entrenched. If, for example, I become upset when someone doesn’t thank me for a gift, I have reinforced my emotional sensitivity to behaviors that I perceive as bad manners.

Address Your Reactions Mindfully

Mindfulness practice can be invaluable in dealing with your hot button sensitivities. If you find yourself triggered by someone else’s behavior, try taking these steps:

  1. Take responsibility for your negative reaction. This is your own emotional response. It is not someone else’s fault that you are sensitive to particular behaviors. You have a habitual mental pattern that arises when you perceive and interpret certain situations in a negative light.
  2. Name the emotional reaction you’re experiencing – fear, anger, hurt, shame, etc.
  3. Drop the blaming storyline. Your mind will want cast the other person as the perpetrator and yourself as the victim. Poor you. If So-and-So hadn’t done such-and-such, I wouldn’t be feeling so … blah blah blah. Do your best to drop this drama-trauma storyline.
  4. Rein in the desire to blame the other or defend yourself self-righteously.
  5. Take the time to feel and then investigate your emotions.
  6. Identify your hot button.

Making Progress

After you’ve done the work of feeling your emotional reactions and then identifying your hot buttons, you can look forward to three improvements:

  1. You’ll recognize your old friend, Hot Button Issue #14, and therefore be less apt to project your emotions onto the offending party.
  2. You’ll remember to take responsibility for and care of your emotional reaction.
  3. You’ll notice a gradual reduction in your hot buttons’ reactive intensity! Something to celebrate!
  4. You have a choice. You can blame others in your world for making your time here on earth miserable, or you can use mindfulness to take responsibility for your reactions. If you choose the mindful route, you will notice that, with practice, your hot buttons gradually diminish and may even disappear.

A Personal Story

This past week, a friend of mine said something to me that I perceived as a vicious attack on my character. When I told her that I wasn’t doing what she accused me of, she refused to listen and kept repeating her viewpoint. My reaction was to feel very angry and hurt.

But then I applied mindfulness to the situation and took responsibility for my reaction. In the process, I discovered a hot button issue I have avoided addressing. The issue can be summed up this way: “When someone falsely accuses me of something negative, and I feel that they won’t allow me to defend myself, I get angry.”

This particular hot button originated in my childhood. One of my siblings regularly blamed me for things I didn’t do, and then my parents wouldn’t believe me when I tried to defend myself. But the specific story behind the hot button isn’t important. What matters is that I recognize this particular reactive sensitivity and work with it when it arises!

In applying mindfulness to the situation with my friend, I allowed myself to feel my anger and hurt. And then my emotional reaction dissipated. I even became open to seeing how my friend may have misperceived my actions.

Most people walk around activating their own and others’ hot buttons without any conscious awareness of doing so. Isn’t it time to free ourselves from this puppet show?

Have fun uncovering and deactivating your hot buttons!

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