Chronic Emotional Button-Pushers

I’ve been reading a lot about button-pushers lately. You know the ones…the people that try to get a rise out of you, and like to get an emotional reaction. I am not talking about harmless practical jokes (like setting your coworker’s stapler in jello, knowing they will get a good laugh…heh heh), I’m talking about topics and issues that they bring up because they know you will have a strong negative emotional reaction to it and they seem to enjoy watching you react negatively. Some people don’t even hide the fact that they enjoy it, they will be openly gleeful and even laugh. Of course there is a wide range of severity when it comes to this pattern…some people may exhibit this behavior constantly, and with others it may only surface once in awhile.

In any case, it is essentially emotional manipulation. Why do people do this? Fun? Entertainment? It comes down to the fact that it’s a power game and a control issue.


Those that desire this form of control, either never had that chance growing up (always felt a loss of control or a powerlessness) or got addicted to that behavior at some point, and take it out on others.  These provocateurs are living in a constant state of stress and look to inflict stress on others.  When they achieve the desired reaction, they become satisfied.

[Another reason people do this is as a passive-aggressive stance because they don’t feel safe being direct with the person about how they feel. They are unable to speak rationally with the individual whose buttons they are pushing, and they know it, and therefore they feel a sense of powerlessness, so that is why they resort to being passive-aggressive. In this blog post, I am not speaking about these cases. That is another case and another topic for another time.]

So people who are aggressively pushing your buttons and attacking you…how do you know you are in this pattern? Here are some hallmarks:

  • They don’t respond appropriately to rational statements.
  • They do not seek to validate your position: they will instead ignore, explode at, or laugh.
  • Their responses to your viewpoint will come with the intent to provoke you further.
  • The conversation will feel unbalanced.
  • They won’t respect your desire to disengage.
  • You will start to second-guess yourself.
  • You may feel hurt.
  • You may feel confused.
  • You may feel sick.

Now here’s my experience with this:

In a previous relationship, the further along we got in the relationship, the more often the individual I was dating would respond irrationally or defensively to a topic of conversation.

If I was the introducer of said topic, my intention was to communicate in order to come to an agreement or clarify a recurring issue. Or sometimes my intent was totally benign, and I merely wanted to lightheartedly share something interesting. But somehow his responses became more erratic and the topic often veered off and went to a very negative place. His responses seemed totally out of the blue and they were unexpected for me (having never experienced this type of behavior before and being a person whose first instinct is to avoid conflict), so at first I responded very carefully and patiently, asking for more clarification.

I discovered that no matter how I responded, he would find a way to try to escalate it, or lay blame about something (it almost didn’t matter what). He also wouldn’t respect my request to address it later when he was calmer or when I was calmer. By the end of the conversation, usually I would be completely flabbergasted and in tears and he would be defensive and angry. And I would be totally confused as to how it got there.

In my rational mind, I knew that this wasn’t justified and that things had completely veered off-course. But it’s difficult to speak rationally to someone who is in an irrational state. And the more you try to state your viewpoint, the more they twist your words around. You will not feel validated. I was left feeling powerless, unimportant, small, and confused.

The capper on this crazy pattern was this: a little time would go by (usually not much!) and he would suddenly feel remorse at his behavior and profusely apologize. After so much damage had already been done. This happened maybe 4 or 5 times…and I felt more broken down each time. Until I realized that obviously it was an extremely unhealthy pattern which I was not willing to tolerate and I would no longer be a part of it.

I made a decision to not allow myself to be hooked into that pattern any longer, and not allow my emotions to be manipulated in such a way. And you can too!

If this is happening to you, disconnect the wires to those buttons! Who cares if they know what your buttons are. Don’t react. Redirect the conversation to something totally unrelated. Request that you address it later. If they don’t respect your rational requests, LEAVE. Realize that it’s a game and you don’t have to play.  Take your power back, gosh darn it!

And that’s what I have to say about that.