How to Keep People from Pushing Your Buttons: Summary

How to Keep People From Pushing Your Buttons book cover

How to Keep People from Pushing Your Buttons (1994) is a book on cognitive-behavioral techniques (CBT) that help readers control their minds and state.
Albert Ellis presents the ACB model as a technique to control one’s emotional state and prevent nasty people and situations from upsetting our mood.

Bullet Summary

  • We all think (mental response), feel (emotional response), and act (behavioral response) when faced with an event or individual (stimulus / activating event)
  • Most people wrongly think that feelings and actions stem from events. If someone says something mean, then you naturally feel dejected. But that’s wrong, it gives power to button pushers
  • Instead, you can direct and control how you feel and act in a situation by directing and controlling how you think 


About the Author: Albert Ellis (September 27, 1913 – July 24, 2007) was an American psychologist who developed Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). He is also generally considered one of the originators and early proponents of cognitive-behavioral therapies (CBT).
Ellis is also the author of “How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable“.

The 4 Screwball Feelings You Need to Handle

The 4 feelings are:

  1. Excessive anxiety
  2. Excessive anger/defensiveness
  3. Excessive epression/burnout
  4. Exessive guilt: if you make yourself overly guilty, people can manipulate you

If you’re wondering what’s “excessive”, well, it’s “excessive” 95% of the times you think it’s excessive.

And as a general category:

  • Any over-reacting and self-defeating behavior

When you experience one of these feelings, you will not handle the situation as effectively as you could, and you will probably upset yourself -ie.: you let someone or something push your buttons-.

Warning: don’t necessarily trust what people say

Watch out: Don’t 100% trust other people’s opinions of your behavior. (“Oh, you’re just overreacting”). Sometimes they are right, but sometimes they are just using dark psychology to manipulate you.

The ABC of Button-Pushing

  • Activating events: specific people, events, or succession of events that can push our buttons. They can even be positive events, sometimes, like weddings, job opportunities, etc.).
    • Real crises: it’s fair to get worried about these ones. But, usually, we tend to rise to the occasion 
    • Daily frustrations: these are the ones we unnecessarily allow to push our buttons 
  • Beliefs/thoughts: there are four main ways we think about our situations and events (here I list 5 because Ellis adds another one in another chapter). In red the bad ones, in green the one you should use:
    • Catastrophizing / awfulizing: you make things a bigger deal than they actually are.
      Catastrophizing can start with “what if” scenarios when our answers only deal with worst-case scenarios (awfulizing). It can also start with stock phrases like “I hate…”, “I can’t stand it when… “
    • Shoulding (absolutist thinking): “I must”, “I have to”, “I should” (shoulding, musting, or demanding). Comparing yourself to others is a form of shoulding, and they all put unduly negative pressure on you that makes you feel bad.
    • Blaming people rather than their acts: 
    • Rationalizing: “Who cares!”, “and so?” “it doesn’t bother me”. They are underreactions and poor attempts to deny or play down what’s happening and how we truly feel. Some rationalizations are cover-ups for our pain, fears, or for our sour grapes. We try to con both the people around us, and ourselves, and we rationalize to avoid dealing with our button pushers. 
    • realistic preferences: “I want”, “’d like”, “I’d prefer”, and “It would be better if”. They all have an overt or implied “but” in it. Such as, if the person or the situation doesn’t turn the way you want, you’ll still be OK with it.
      Example: When you tell yourself, “I’d like my boss or coworker to treat me well,” you imply, “but he or she doesn’t have to” And then you add: “It won’t kill me if that person doesn’t. I can still handle things.”
  • Consequences: represent two things:
    • Feelings
    • Behaviors in the specific situation occurring at Point A

Keep this in mind:

It’s feelings and beliefs that cause behaviors, not evens.

But that’s not how most people think and act. Most people don’t have this mindset.

Most people have a “victim of events’” mindset

Most people’s pre-programmed mindset is that events cause behaviors.
Like this:

But that’s a poor mindset that allows people, events, and the external world to control your emotional state, as well as your behavior.
Says Albert Ellis:

Let’s say you had a fight with your spouse.
In reflecting on what happened (especially if you’re still angry), you might recall that you said some pretty nasty things, but perhaps quickly explain them by saying, “Well, he started it” or “she made me so mad. . . .”
What you would be saying is that his or her behavior (the Activating Event) caused you to act the way you did (at Point C). But that would not be completely accurate: You also contributed by what you were thinking about him or her at Point B.

Instead, the correct model for empowered folks who control their minds is this:

Says again Ellis:

It is not what is actually, verifiably true at Point A that counts, it’s what you think about it at Point B that will largely determine how you wind up feeling and acting at Point C.

This model also means that you must take responsibility for how you think and for how you mentally frame events in your life.

Some examples the author provides:

  • Example 1: If you believe it’s awful to screw up, you will avoid those “risky” situations, or you will fulfill your own prophecies. But if you believe that screwing up is not great, but it’s OK and you can handle it and that you will learn a lot and that it’s great to try and learn, then you will go for it and either win, or learn
  • Example 2: If you believe you have to have someone in your life to make you a truly “whole” person, you will be miserable when you don’t, and “they” will be able to push your buttons. If you believe it’s better to have someone but you’re OK to be alone and it’s better to be alone than with a value-taking partner, then you will OK when you’re single and you will pick better partners

Addressing Rationalization

There is usually some truth in rationalizations, so that they can seem plausible.

That speck of truth can make it harder for us to realize we are making excuses. 
To check if you rationalizing as a way of making excuses, ask yourself:

  • “Is my explanation for failing, or getting upset, or avoiding this situation a true reason?
  • Am I taking responsibility appropriately, or am I placing blame on someone or something else to avoid failure, rejection, or blame?
  • If I do take responsibility for my inappropriate feelings or behaviors, does that make me a bad person because I overreacted?
  • Can I admit to my own feelings and behaviors, and the results they produced?”

Rationalizations when you make excuses for poor behavior are also likely to lead to submissive behavior.
When you make excuses for someone who is making you wait for hours, for example, you must keep on waiting. And if you ask what’s going on, you will do so meekly and submissively, as if you are disturbing them.

Example of Using the Model

Imagine you get a poor performance evaluation at work:

  • Rationalization: My poor performance evaluation is only because I don’t play office politics like the others. It has nothing to do with how good a job I’m doing. Everybody couldn’t get an excellent rating; I’m just the sacrificial lamb. 
  • Challenge the rationalization: Am I avoiding taking responsibility for the poor evaluations? Am I afraid to consider the possibility that I did not do as good a job as I could, or as the boss expected?
  • Fix your rationalization: Ask someone in the office I trust what they think of my work; talk to the boss about specific areas for improvement, and what has not been getting done satisfactorily, and what his expectations are for a better evaluation; submit a plan of action to the boss as to how I intend to meet the improvements.
  • Swap with realistic preferences: I’d like to believe that my poor evaluation is only politics but it would be better if I asked someone I trust and my boss for specific feedback and get to work on improvements.

Please keep in mind that to internalize the model you need to:

  1. Take responsibility for your feelings and behavior
  2. internalize that changing the way you think in reaction to others is a worthwhile endeavor
  3. Stick to it systematically, because it’s not a one-shot fix, and it takes time and effort

Addressing Fears With ABC: Example

On his first public talk, Ellis was tense and anxious.

As it’s natural to most people, he started with awfulizing:

“What if I do a terrible job? What if everyone is bored to death and starts talking among themselves? What if I get asked a question I can’t answer? 

Then, he started shoulding:

“I should be able to give a talk to a group. I’m an adult person; I shouldn’t let this bother me. If I can’t do this, mother was right—I’m a turkey: I’ll never amount to anything!”

And a few rationalizations:

“So what? Who cares? Big deal! It doesn’t bother me if the audience doesn’t like what I have to offer. If they’re too stupid to appreciate what I have to say, that’s their problem!”

And that’s how he fixed his mindset by replacing the bad mental habits realistic preferences over and over, each time he slipped into awfulizing, shoulding, or rationalizing: “

I’d like this group to like me and think highly of what I have to say. If they don’t, that’s unfortunate—but it’s not awful unless I make it so. I want to do a good job, and I will put every effort into it—but if I don’t, that won’t be terrible and horrible. I’ll regret it and be disappointed and seriously concerned about it—but also committed to finding out how to improve on it.
I’d prefer to answer every question brilliantly—but if I don’t, I can handle that without shoulding on myself.”

Also please notice that Ellis uses not positive affirmations to convince himself that everything will be fine. 
Instead, he went to the heart of his anxiety, the belief that he had to do a great job at all costs, and that the group had to like him.
He moved from “had to’s”, to “wants”, and from “shoulds” to preferences.

Says Ellis about the effects of ABC:

You will be concerned before you speak, and disappointed if you do blow it—but you won’t let the presentation push your buttons. In my case, I was able to reduce my anxiety significantly before and during the talk.

Plus, he was able to assess himself objectively, and learn from it.

Responsibility VS Blame & Fault

Taking responsibility for your feelings and actions is crucial in the ABC model -and, I would add, for an empowered life in general-.

However, it must be a healthy form of taking responsibility”.

Says Ellis (edited by me for brevity):

First, we do not mean that you should blame or attack yourself for your poor behavior.
Blame, and fault are not interchangeable – they actually have very different meanings.
Responsibility means that you are accountable for your feelings and actions, because you have the capacity to direct and control them. Blaming yourself means that you put yourself, your entire person, down for having acted badly. Taking responsibility is healthy; blaming yourself is destructive.

ABC is Not Positive Thinking

Thinking positively has its benefits.

But the ABC model and cognitive behavioral therapy in general (CBT) are not always and necessarily about thinking positively.
Instead, they say that how you think about something will determine how you behave. And sometimes, thinking negatively about something might add more value to you than thinking positively.

Says Albert Ellis:

Positive thinking surely beats negative thinking.
But sometimes it can be a con or a distortion of reality.
Sometimes the objective affirmations we are encouraged to tell ourselves are just a bunch of subjective baloney. There is a third option: realistic thinking.

Ellis encourages realistic thinking. Assessing situations for what they are, without catastrophizing.

Realistic preferences VS positive thinking

Says Ellis:

Realistic preferences are not suggesting that you can or will be successful—that you can handle the situation perfectly, or that everything will turn out fine. Realistic preferences are saying that it is okay to give “it” a try—even if you might fail, be rejected, or the like.

If you fail, you don’t tell yourself that it doesn’t matter -that would be a rationalization-, but that you will most likely be able to handle it.
And whether you will try again or do something else, you don’t get on your case.
And, to paraphrase Ellis:

It’s already not great you didn’t win, should you also be miserable about it? 

10 Screwball Beliefs by Albert Ellis

The top 4 are the most common:

  1. Worrying too much about what other people think of you: it creates a strong fear of rejection and, adds, it gives others judge powers over you. The causes are the awfulizing, shoulding and rationalizing, and you can think that.
    1. People-pleasing behavior
    2. Auto-rejection and preemptive rejection: Attacking others first as a way of not being rejected first
  2. The belief that you can’t fail at important tasks [in business, school, sports, sex, relationships, etc.] and if you do it’s terrible and you can’t stand it: it leads to excessive fear of failure, inability to take criticism, not trying new things, and not learning and growing
  3. The belief that people and things should turn out the way you want them to – and if they don’t it’s awful and you can’t stand it
    1. The belief you should always be treated fairly: My note: I believe that to draw your boundaries and stand up to abuse, it’s sometimes helpful to think that you deserve fair treatment
  4. If any of the first three bad events happens [if I’m not liked/respected, if I fail, or if things don’t turn out as I’d like], then I’ll blame someone for it! They acted wrongly, as they should not have done, and they are rotten people for acting in that terrible way! dysfunctional groups always look for those who are to blame, while the most effective ones focus on solutions
  5. If I worry about an event or about how someone feels about me, things will turn out better
  6. Perfect solutions exist for every problem, and I must find them
  7. It is easier to avoid difficult situations and responsibilities than to face them
  8. If I never get seriously involved in anything, and maintain a detached perspective, I will never be unhappy.
  9. It was my past and all the awful things that happened to me when I was a child, or in my last relationship, or in my last job, that causes me to feel and act this way now.
  10. Bad people and things should not exist, but when they do, they have to seriously disturb me!

The exercise Ellis proposes is to score how strongly you hold any of these beliefs, and focus on them first.

The steps to change your limiting beliefs are:

  1. How am I dysfunctionally feeling and acting in this situation?
  2. What am I thinking to make myself upset (overly anxious, angry, depressed, guilty or acting dysfunctionally):
    • (a) about myself?
    • (b) about others?
    • (c) about the situation?
  3. How can I challenge and dispute my irrational thinking?
  4. What realistic preferences can I substitute for my irrational thinking (awfulizing, shoulding, and rationalizing)?

Solution for Worrying Too Much

Realistic preferences to deal with worrying too much about what others think:

I’d like you to like and respect me, but if you won’t, that’s not awful, terrible, or horrible, and I can stand it. I am seriously concerned, because I think our relationship is important, and I am committed to doing everything I can to make it better. But I am not going to make myself miserable trying to win your approval, liking, love, or respect, then I have two choices: (1) I can accept that you do not like, love, or respect me; or (2) I can leave and/or find relationships wherein I can get my wants met.”

Your goal

Remember, perfection is not required.

Improvement is the goal.

Ellis says you should aim for three goals:

  1. Don’t let the negative feelings happen so often
  2. Make them less intense when you do overreact
  3. Don’t let them last so long

Albert Ellis ends the book by saying that both achievement and enjoying life are important. And it’s possible to have both.

Exercise 1

The first exercise is to become aware of what are the people and situations that push your buttons.

Draw three columns on a sheet of paper, and write down your:

  1. Dysfunctional Feelings and Behaviors (C’s)
  2. Events (A’s) That Preceded These Feelings or Behaviors

Ask yourself whether your feelings and behavior are indeed behind dysfunctional.
You can learn to distinguish between your functional (self-helping) and dysfunctional feelings and behaviors by asking yourself questions like: “Will it help my relationships with others?” “Will it affect my health?” “Will it help me fail or succeed at my goals?” 

Then, on the third column, write:

3. Functional Substitute Feelings or Behaviors

Ellis says that you want to confront your activating events. Especially if it’s people. If you don’t you will probably not overreact, but you don’t address the issue, probably make it worse off, and certainly you are not improving yourself.
Ellis recommends that you make a list of the difficult people you will soon confront.

Real-Life Applications

  • Daily practice to improve your life: practicing ABC daily will most likely help you control and direct your mind and thoughts. However, one must stress the continuous practice of the principles, as Ellis himself reminds more than once


  • Some definitions could have been more consistent

The author sometimes refers to “shoulding” as “absolutist thinking”, but shoulding is only a subset of that category. 
I think more attention to the definitions could help people to better understand the concepts.

That’s by the way why this website launched a dictionary of power-related terms:

  • Some categories could have been more consistent

The author first says there are 4 main ways of thinking about events, and 3 of them stink. But in an exercise, he adds a fourth “stinky” mental habit. That can be confusing. 

  • Disagreed with some relationship vulnerability

About a man who feels insecure and jealous about his wife on a business trip, Ellis recommends him to tell his wife once she comes back:

I just want to know that you didn’t encourage anyone, and that you didn’t respond. I’d like some reassurance that you’re committed to me, and that nothing happened.

Ellis says that while some people might feel that makes you come across like an insecure wimp, it’s not true. But personally, I’m not 100% onboard and I think that would definitely impact the relationship power balances.


  • Enlightening

Great wisdom and a gem of personal self-empowerment.

  • Entertaining: AE is a true character

As you learn from top-notch material, you will also smile or laugh -which, by the way, is part of AE’s therapy strategy as well-.

Here are some examples:

They took me into a small room with an officer, and inspected me carefully and thoroughly. They were looking for a bomb! I can tell you right now, I wouldn’t put a bomb where they looked for anything in the world. No cause, no crusade, nothing would get me to put a bomb where they checked!

On “trickle-down” shoulding:

Some of us are simply great at shoulding on other people. A boss gets “shoulded on” by his boss, so he shoulds on someone he supervises—and so on, down the line. It’s the “trickle-down” theory of shoulding, until someone at the bottom goes home and kicks the cat or takes it out on a helpless family member.


The quotes are a mix of great humor and wisdom.

On social status climbing as a form of “shoulding” on other people:

I (A.L.) live in southern California, in an area where shoulding on people is an art form.
So many people there run around worrying about how they stack up on the status pecking order!
The first thing out of their mouths when you meet them is name-dropping something—anything: “I was driving in my new BMW [or Mercedes or Porsche] the other day, and there was a lot of traffic.” You stand there with a blank stare, wondering what the point is, until you realize it was to remind you of his or her new Beamer. You think, “Frankly, Scarlett. . . .” But they work the impressive facts in somehow, anyway.

Or on value-taking social-climbing questions:

Other people have to check you out when they first meet you: “Oh, hello—where do you live?” “Oh, but what section?” “Oh, well—do you live in the tract homes or the custom Presidentials, where we are?” “Oh. But do you have a view?” Eventually, after you finally answer a question that reveals you are not as good as the questioner, the “Oh” sounds much less interested, and infinitely more disapproving. I work regularly on not letting them push my buttons in these ways.


I loved “How to Keep People from Pushing Your Buttons”.

Even after having read many books on self-help, positive psychology, and optimism, I still learned hugely.

Also read:

Or get the book on Amazon

Scroll to Top