Push My Buttons—Invoking Strong Emotional Reactions

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Alison Page

Alison has worked full-time in the writing industry for over ten years, using her knowledge and life experience to create online content, fiction and non-fiction. Alison has published two novels and has ghost-written several non-fiction equestrian books for a client. Alison has been a full-time professional content writer for almost ten years and loves her work as a wordsmith.

Push my buttons or push someone’s buttons means to do or say something that results in an immediate reaction from someone or arouses an instantaneous and usually emotional reaction.

English language idioms like this one are expressions or phrases that convey meanings beyond their literal interpretation. These figurative expressions often carry cultural or contextual significance. They are commonly used in language to add depth, nuance, and vividness to communication.

In this guide, I will delve into the idiom’s deeper meaning, origin, and correct usage. I will also provide tips for using it effectively, along with examples of its usage, variations, and related terms and phrases. Then, you can test your knowledge of the idiom by taking the fun quiz at the end!

Push My Buttons—Invoking Strong Emotional Reactions

What Does the Idiom Push My Buttons Mean?

The idiom push my buttons means to trigger emotional reactions or provoke strong responses from someone. It is often done by saying or doing something that elicits a particular, sometimes negative, reaction. It refers to actions that activate a person’s emotions or sensitivities.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines this idiom as “to cause a strong reaction or emotion in someone.” Similarly, Merriam-Webster defines it as “to do or say something just to make someone angry or upset.”

A personal example illustrates this idiom in action: My poor fiancé has a new boss who really knows how to push his buttons by demanding detailed reports right before long weekends or just before planned vacations. It’s a situation that adds stress, making retirement an eagerly awaited prospect.

Literal Meaning vs. Figurative Meaning

The literal meaning of push my buttons refers to the physical act of someone pressing or pushing buttons on a piece of machinery or a device to elicit a specific function.

However, the figurative meaning of this popular idiomatic expression is to provoke a reaction, usually emotional, in someone.

Variations of the Idiom

There are a few variants of the idiom, which have the same meaning and can be used interchangeably to give your speech and writing more diversity.

  • Press someone’s buttons
  • Press my buttons
  • Press the button
  • Push the right buttons

How Is Push My Buttons Commonly Used in Context?

Push my buttons is a relatively modern idiom used to describe something that’s said or done to provoke a dramatic, instant reaction in someone. You can use the idiom in casual settings and various circumstances. However, its use is generally not appreciated in serious or formal scenarios. 

Here are some ways and tips on using it effectively, along with examples using the idiom push my buttons in different contexts.

What Are the Different Ways to Use the Idiom Push My Buttons?

  • In the workplace: “My colleague insisted on interrupting me during a presentation. That really pushed my buttons!” 
  • In relationships: “When my girlfriend leaves her dirty laundry on the floor, it has a way of pushing my buttons.”
  • Family context: “My kids know exactly how to push my buttons when they leave toys lying around without putting them away.” 
  • Social context: “Certain topics of conversation really push my buttons, especially when they touch on sensitive things like religion or politics.”
  • In traffic: “People who cut in front of me without using a turn signal really push my buttons when I’m driving.”
  • Technological issues: “Software updates and technical glitches really push my buttons when I’m working to a deadline.” 
  • Customer service: “Lousy customer service really pushes my buttons, especially when I’m in a hurry and I don’t have time to wait in line.”

What Are Some Tips for Using the Idiom Push My Buttons Effectively?

  • Context awareness: The idiom is typically used in conversational or informal settings rather than professional situations, so be aware of the context in which you are using the phrase.
  • Appropriateness: Ensure that the level of annoyance the idiom conveys is appropriate to the situation. In some situations where a more measured response is appropriate, this idiom could be too strong. 
  • Body language: Gestures and facial expressions can enhance the impact of your speech, so complement the use of this idiom with appropriate body language to emphasize your point. 
  • Use alternatives: Use synonyms or variations of the phrase to add variety and interest to your language and keep your conversation fresh. 
  • Be clear: If you are addressing a non-English speaking audience, be ready to explain what you mean when using this idiom.

Where Can You Find Examples of the Idiom Push My Buttons?

The idiom push my buttons is widely used across many different media, including TV, movies, books, famous speeches, and the like. 

Online news publications also often quote the idiom, like in these examples:

They know how to push my buttons but it’s gone beyond that, to the point where it is so offensive as a woman. (The Inquisitr)

During an argument 10 days before her death, Robinson had dragged her by the hair into his caravan, held a gun to her head and told her: “Don’t push my buttons.” (The Herald Sun)

What Is the Origin of the Idiom Push My Buttons?

Push my buttons Ngram
Push my buttons usage trend.

The idiom push someone’s buttons first appeared in the United States during the 1920s. At that time, many home appliances were invented that needed merely a single press of a button to do a job. 

Prior to the home appliance revolution of the 1920s, household chores were difficult and cumbersome. Hence, the idea of an immediate response with a simple press of a button gave rise to the idiom push someone’s buttons, sometimes expressed as press someone’s buttons. 

How Did the Idiom Evolve Over Time?

Over time, the idiom push someone’s buttons evolved from its initial appliance-related context to gain a more figurative, psychological significance. It transformed into an analogy for triggering someone’s emotions or reactions, much like pushing a button on a machine elicits an immediate response.

What Are Some Related Terms to Push My Buttons?

Using synonyms and antonyms can provide context to your use of the idiom in conversation and allow you to give your writing and speech more variety and interest.

Push My Buttons—Invoking Strong Emotional Reactions 1



  • Soothe my soul
  • Ease my mind
  • Bring me peace
  • Make me happy
  • Calm my nerves
  • Put me at ease
  • Relax me

Push My Buttons: Test Your Knowledge!

Choose the correct answer.

What Have We Learned About the Idiom Push My Buttons?

The idiom push my buttons means to say or do something to provoke an immediate response in someone, often an emotional reaction.

The phrase is thought to have originated during the 1920s when a wide range of household gadgets became mechanized, and you could do chores at the push of a button. In later years, the phrase became used to express a person’s emotional frustration or irritation in response to a stimulus. 

The idiom is more commonly used in casual conversation than in formal situations. However, if you use the phrase in conversation, ensure your audience understands the context and meaning of the idiom.