When a person really knows how to push your buttons, how do you stop yourself from giving in and losing your temper?
Thank you for writing in! Your question describes a situation that we all find ourselves in at some point. Indeed, it is a challenging one, mainly if that button-pusher is someone close to you. In my response, I offer a couple of meditative practices that you can try to navigate this relationship more effectively.
Keeping your cool when someone is getting under your skin involves emotional awareness, affect regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness skills. Let’s look more closely at how to develop more knowledge of your emotional states.
The first step is to become more observant of what you are feeling in relation to this person moment-by-moment. Rather than try to figure this out when you are in the hot seat, it is more useful to work on these skills when you are in a state of balance. Take note when you are starting to lose your temper. Here’s where a mindfulness practice can help you track your emotional experience and maintain emotional balance. Take a few minutes to try this exercise to cultivate this skill.
A Meditation For Emotional Clarity
Take a minute to connect into your breathing.
As you continue to focus on your breath, scan your thoughts, emotions, and body sensations to get a baseline measure for how you’re feeling. You will need this understanding to be able to determine how different events change your response.
When you feel settled, bring into the mind a situation in which you felt mildly triggered by someone. It is best to start with a minimally triggering interaction here. Beginning with a big trigger or trauma can result in flooding and is not advisable and can be dis-integrating rather than integrating.
As this situation comes into your awareness notice now the changes in your mind or thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations.
As best as you can, see if you can stay with this experience long enough to be able to take note of how it feels.
When you are ready to complete the practice, take a few long, deep breaths to create a feeling of calm and equanimity, and use a clear exhale to release this exercise.
Take a few minutes to journal about this practice so that you can record this data to inform your development of coping strategies.
If you try this practice and have difficulty noticing or articulating your experience, know that is part of learning this type of awareness. Many of us are overtrained cognitively, and subsequently, may experience some challenges in locating the emotion in the body. It takes time and practice. Some may find, in doing this training, they experience a tightening through the muscles, a clenching of the fists, a clamping down of the jaw, and a feeling of heat in the body, among a variety of different emotions and sensations.
Now that you have this data about how you tend to feel when you are triggered, you can work to deliberately counter these areas of tension when they arise.
For example, if you are in a tight spot with this person and notice the jaw clenching, then you can intentionally take a breath into that clenching, and with the exhale deliberately let it relax. Follow this same approach for all other areas that tense up.
Similarly, it is best to practice intentionally relaxing these muscles when you are not triggered. I recommend clearing time every day to practice progressive muscle relaxation. Essentially, this practice involves purposefully tightening all the major muscles in the body, holding that pressure for a bit (however long it takes to get familiar with the tension), and then exhale to let that stress go. This practice develops your ability to notice and release tension more readily.
The goal of these practices is to prepare yourself to stay centered when interacting with this person. The importance of keeping a clear mind is that it gives you the opportunity to relate to this person with reason, logic, and healthy assertiveness.
After considering the above, you must also assess if this is a toxic relationship. A toxic person is one who dims your spirit, sucks your energy, attacks and ridicules. None of those feel good at all, so you can see why a healthy choice may be to end the relationship. However, if they are here to stay, consider the following strategies outlined in The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook by Matthew McKay, PhD, and colleagues.
The first approach is to get yourself grounded before interacting. You can get rooted by using the skills that you developed in progressive muscle relaxation and deep breathing. These two fundamental skills are tremendously valuable. So, literally take a few minutes or longer to center yourself before meeting this person.
Another option is to imagine ahead of time how the interaction may go. Remember that adage that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Plan for whatever attack strategy you think will come, so you are ready. Lastly, experts suggest that you may even have a script prepared and memorized to guide your interaction. If you stick to your written plan, then there is no reason to get triggered or off balance. You have not given away your center. You’re focused.
When you are free of the interaction, you may take some time to reground yourself and offer yourself some healing energy and blessings. For example, you can put your hands on your heart, breathe, and say to yourself, “May I have peace in my heart, peace in my mind and emotions, peace in my body, and peace in my spirit.” End this blessing with a sweet, long, full breath in through the nose, and a long, relaxing, audible sigh out through the mouth.