Upset is Optional

May 6, 2011 at 6:24 am (Attachment Parenting, General, Positive Discipline)

I saw that phrase on a bumper sticker and it reminded me of something similar that Marshall Rosenberg said in Nonviolent Communication: “Violence comes from the belief that other people cause our pain and therefore deserve punishment.”  In other words, we are in charge of our own feelings.  “Upset” seems like such an ingrained response to negative communication, is it really optional?  Is it possible for me to choose to not let something upset me?  For example, can I really choose not to be upset when my kids do or say certain things that push my buttons?  Can I change my buttons?

Past experience might indicate no…that my brain is hard-wired to react a certain way to certain stimuli.  But I actually do think wiring can be changed.  It takes practice and conscious awareness.  Constant conscious awareness.

My PD mentor, associate, and friend, Glenda Montgomery, once explained the concept of  “The Continuum of Change” in how we can change a skill set.  The four levels of change are:

1. Unskilled and Unconscious. Regarding a particular skill, in the begining we are first not only unskilled at it, but also unaware of even how to acquire it.  We can’t do it, and have never thought about it before.  For example, I would be here at stage 1 if I am not good at not letting my kids push my buttons, and I’ve also never even thought about how to work on this.

2. Unskilled and Conscious.  Once we start to make the change, we are still unskilled at it, but now at least we are conscious of making a change.  Stage 2 is when I’m still not good at not letting my kids push my buttons, but now I’m aware of my own effort and responses in trying to change this.  I’m thinking about what I can do to change my triggers, but my responses are still (for now) the same.

3. Skilled and Conscious.  We continue our efforts and we get good at this new skill.  But it still takes a conscious effort to do it successfully.  This is where I think I am now, with regard to my buttons being pushed. I’m much more calm and collected than I used to be when reacting to aggravating behavior, but I still have to think about it.  I have to take a breath (or a mom-time-out), remind myself that my kids’ behavior is age appropriate, and that I am capable of acting in an age-appropriate way, too.

4. Skilled and Unconscious.  We are good at it, and we don’t even have to think about it anymore.  It becomes rote.  This is where I want to be.  When I can respond rationally to my kids, no matter what buttons might normally have been pushed, without even thinking about it.

Will that ever happen?  Maybe.  I’d like to think it’s possible.  Though, I’m happy to hang out at stage 3 for a while, knowing that at least I’m aware of my responses to my children’s behavior, and that I’m getting better at staying calm and not “flipping my lid.”  It might take many more years to get to the “unconscious” stage, but I think that with time and effort emotional wiring can be changed.  I don’t have to let certain things make me upset.

I also like thinking about it this way; they are my buttons to change.  The kids don’t need to change–I’m not trying to get them to stop pushing my buttons–I’m trying to change the way I react.  To say that I behaved in a certain way “because my child pushed my buttons” indicates that the child is at fault for my feelings and behavior.  They are my buttons, and I am in control of their programming.


  1. Amy said,

    Wow – well said, something great to think about for sure.

  2. Emily said,

    thank you! I, too, think I’m at stage 3. My goal is to work my way to stage 4 as my child works his way towards speech and autonomy.

    But man…it’s tough to re-wire ourselves, isn’t it?

  3. Kelly said,

    Yes, it certainly is! And I seem to need more effort in controlling my triggers as my kids get older…when they were young, it was easier for me to expect them to behave age appropriately. When they have tantrums, at least I understood why. Now, as they get older, it’s easier for me to “expect more” out of them. Because they can talk and are so independent, it’s easy for me to think they are capable of thinking, talking or acting a certain way, when really, their brains are still so immature. My triggers come when there’s a disconnect between the way my kids act and the way I think they could be acting. It’s frustrating sometimes, but it’s my own perception of things that’s bringing that frustration on. When I adjust my expectations to meet their level of development (at every age), it’s much easier to respond. But a very slow process for change, for sure!

  4. jaderianna said,

    I love that you managed to get the point of this practice from a number sticker (and using nonviolent communication, etc.) This quote was from Bob Duggan, my father!! We teach this skill (how to recognize upset as a physiological response)at WisdomWell in Columbia and the importance of choosing not to be upset (stop the violence- internal and external!!). I teach this skill in the treatment room with children and parents, as well as in workshops and classes. So glad you got it and are sharing!!

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