The Uh-oh Button

When I was a little girl, my mother taught me about intuition. She didn’t call it that – and it took years before I could put that word to it myself – but that’s what it was.

It had a name. The uh-oh button, as she explained it, was a button in the pit of our stomachs that, for most hours of most days, was dormant, turned off and just sitting there quietly inside us. But once in awhile, the uh-oh button would be activated. We could feel it there, switched on suddenly – a subtle tightening, a flutter, or maybe, at times, a heavy, churning ball of anxious dread and vigilance down low in our guts. Uh-oh. Something bad is about to happen. Uh-oh. I shouldn’t be here. Uh-oh. This person/place/situation is not safe.

The uh-oh button was different from fear. You could be afraid of something and still know that it was ok. I was afraid of the basement in my grandmother’s house for years – a dark, musty den inhabited by my cool musician uncle. There were spiders down there. It scared me, but it didn’t activate my uh-oh button. But the neighbor who would stand out in his yard looking at us as we left for school did. The woods by my house? Scary, but not uh-oh button material. A friend’s house that didn’t feel quite right – uh-oh button for sure. I couldn’t tell you why. I just knew. 

The steadfast rule when dealing with an activated uh-oh button was clear: ALWAYS LISTEN TO THE UH-OH BUTTON. The uh-oh button is a truth teller. It does not lie, and when it is turned on, you must abide. Get help or remove yourself from the situation all together. Leave. Find a trusted grown-up. Say NO. Pause. Run. Scream. Slow down. Do what you needed to do to find and restore safety. This needn’t be dramatic necessarily. In some cases, it was just a feeling in a situation that made you know that situation was not for you and you should probably just make your exit quietly. But the feeling, the knowing, was the same.

This was very powerful information for a 4, 5, and 8 year old to have in West Virginia in 1983. It was told to us in that otherworldly time between bath and bedtime when children are often at their most receptive, their most earnest. It was deeply serious – certainly not a joke – but it was kind of fun to think about: a button in our stomachs that is also a built in warning system? It was the stuff of super hero stories and felt like a secret pact we were entering.  

We took this pact seriously and talked about it regularly. The uh-oh button was useful  – a shorthand way to share and convey our inner knowing. Even more important was the understanding that when we did share it, we would be believed without question. We did not have to justify. We did not have to explain, but could simply say “my uh-oh button was on” and know that that was enough. The message was that, even as little girls, we had inner wisdom and that wisdom was to be trusted.

When I think back to that time – me as a five year old, the middle child of three girls living in what I now know to be the very best part of my childhood, I feel a mixture of pride, gratitude and sadness. I am proud of that little girl, strong and open, sensitive and knowing. I am proud of myself and my sisters for the adults we’ve become (we still reference our uh-oh buttons regularly; the shorthand remains). I feel grateful that I had a mother who, for all her faults, had the wherewithal to teach her daughters something they could use to protect themselves – their bodies and their souls. Grateful for her trust in our knowing.

And, beneath all of that, there is a small well of sadness.  Sadness because now, as a 41 year old mother of a strong and open, sensitive and knowing five year old little girl myself, I see all the very grown-up ways in which I betrayed my connection to my uh-oh button and lost trust in my intuition over the years. I see how I and so many women I know let people tell us we should not believe ourselves – should not trust in our own knowing about a million things, big and small – and we believe them. How we look to others to validate us, as if they know more or better about us than we do. I see how I abandoned myself and how my intuition tried gently – and then not so gently – to wake me up. 

I want to teach my daughter what my mother taught me and more. I want her to know that the things that make us uneasy in adulthood might look different from those we experience in childhood. Inappropriate relationships, unaligned choices based on the needs of someone or something else, living out of sync with what we know to be our own personal truths – those are the things that can activate an adult’s uh-oh button, subtly, quietly at first perhaps, but always there, singing steadily in our bodies. The uh-oh button never gives up. I want her to know that staying close to that inner knowing is crucially important. I want her to know that I will always believe her and, most importantly, I want her to always, ALWAYS believe herself. 

Despite the ongoing onslaught of extremely depressing news we’ve had rolling in lately, I have a lot of hope right now. I see more and more people waking up and trying to connect back to their inner guidance systems and that can only be a good thing. It feels like a collective shift. I have hope that more of us will remember how to let our inner knowing guide us than not. And I’m happy to report that me and my uh-oh button are super tight again. Hallelujah.  

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