Debra Haverson Psychotherapy Services LLC

Helping you find clarity, harmony
and greater contentment in your life
What's Pushing Your Buttons?



We’ve all had it happen. Someone says something or gives us a certain look, then suddenly our whole mood changes. We may feel hurt, angry or confused. We may logically know this situation is no big deal, but there definitely is no room for logic in this emotionally charged moment. Some people keep their feelings to themselves and feel awful for hours or even days; others react in a defensive, possibly hostile way, and the situation may escalate into a hurtful argument.

The brain has a way of storing and processing early childhood memories and associating these with strong emotions. Brain researchers have established that this takes place in the hippocampus and neocortex (cognitive memory) and amygdala (emotional memory). Emotional wounds – or perceived wounds – from childhood lead to the development of internal personality structures that can become activated by daily events that, at a subtle level, remind a person of the feelings from childhood. A person feels a button being pushed (as the popular saying goes) but doesn’t recognize what’s just happened in the brain and why. Psychologists Jeffrey Young, Janet Klosko and Marjorie E. Weishaar call these schemas or lifetraps.*  What’s actually happening is that the body's limbic system unconsciously reacts and mobilizes the body for perceived danger before the more logical, cognitive part of the brain even receives the message. The resemblance to the childhood trauma may be small, but the emotional response can feel overwhelming.

Most people have many of these lifetraps to some degree. The funny thing is that, as children, we developed a way to cope with these intense emotions; now as adults living in different circumstances, these behavior patterns or styles have become maladaptive and cause much unhappiness, especially in our relationships with others.  They may even lead individuals to choose friends and romantic partners who help us continually re-stage the familiar, though painful, childhood situation. Another interesting thing is that a person may not even define events in his or her childhood as traumatic. Smaller chronic patterns of unpleasant interactions with our childhood worlds can produce these schemas also.  [See the article about trauma for more on this subject.]

The good news is that emotional healing is possible if you’re willing to work consistently with it in therapy and as the triggers appear in your daily life. In therapy, we begin by reviewing your life to determine which ones affect you the most.  Next, healing requires that you develop in-the-moment awareness and apply new cognitive strategies to question the accuracy of the emotional information you’re feeling. Finally, we’ll work on substituting healthier, more skillful responses for those old habitual reactions.

I won’t lie: This is hard work at the beginning, but the ultimate payoff is enormous.  How unhappy do you feel?  Do the same unsatisfying patterns keep reappearing in your life? Would your entire life feel easier in the long-term if you could remake your existing relationships or choose ones that bring more contentment?

* Reinventing Your Life (accessible version of this material), Schema Therapy: A Practitioner’s Guide. Also, check out the Schema Therapy Institute website.  Another book on this topic is Tara Bennett-Goleman’s Emotional Alchemy.

© 2008 Debra Haverson

© 2011 Some photos by Rebecca Haverson


What triggers your emotions? 

In the Presbyterian Church of Madison, 19 Green Avenue 2nd floor, Madison, NJ   07940
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Phone: 973-476-4503
Mailing address:  P.O. Box 416, Madison, NJ 07940