One fine sunny day Theresa was driving down the M20 towards the south coast with her friend Gavin, enjoying the conversation.
That was until another car, driven by Jean-Claude, overtook and cut dangerously across Theresa causing her to brake hard.
Theresa was not going to let him get away with that! She stamped hard on the accelerator and sped after Jean-Claude shaking her fist and questioning his parenthood.
She eventually drew level with Jean-Claude who just looked across, laughed and gave a one-fingered salute as he sped off towards the Channel Tunnel (after a successful trip picking up several cases of fine English wine).
Even hours later Theresa was still thinking about the incident. It had polluted her whole day. How dare that rude man act so aggressively and just laugh in her face about it. Just who did he think he was?
Theresa hated thinking that someone was getting one over on her.
Gavin had said nothing. He knew that to try and reason with Theresa in the frame of mind she was in would be a waste of time.
At dinner that evening Theresa said to Gavin “I just can’t get over that idiot on the motorway this morning. It makes me so angry!”
Gavin replied “Has it ever occurred to you that your reaction has a lot more to do with your state of mind than with what happened?
Although it seems like the driver made you feel that way your reaction came from how you were already feeling. There is no outside circumstance that can ‘make’ you feel how you feel because life just does not work that way. I mean, do you really want to be such a victim of what happened?”
“What do you mean?” asked Theresa.
Gavin replied “What that man did was dangerous, and I can understand your reaction at the time. But that was eight hours ago, and you are still going on about it!”
Theresa reflected as she considered what Gavin had just said.
A few days later Theresa was once again with Gavin and said “You know you are right. What you said really made me think. I can see that I was experiencing my reaction to the situation and that I can just let things go. I don’t need to keep going over and over them because that serves no useful purpose whatsoever.”
From then on Theresa calmed down not only in her driving; she became far calmer in general and felt much better for it.
So, can other people really push our buttons?
Much of the conventional wisdom supports this as being true. For example, Professor Steve Peters wrote in the popular book ‘The Chimp Paradox’ that people in our lives can be a significant cause of stress.
But it is our own thoughts that create our experience, not other people.
Dr. George Pransky in his book ‘The Relationship Handbook’ provides an accurate and far more useful level of understanding…
‘Negative emotions such as anger and regret are personal reactions to life. They arise when our level of understanding is low. The blacker the emotion, the more personally and subjectively we are reacting to life. Conversely, when we see life with perspective we experience pleasant, positive feelings.’
Our emotions and reactions tell us what is going on in our thinking, they are not information about the world outside of us.