I Didn't Really Mean That: 34 Control Patterns We Use to Keep From Experiencing Our Life

Photo by  Faramarz Hashemi
“A Control Pattern helps you feel right, comfortable, safe, or certain versus being open to the moment just as it is.” - Susan Campbell, Phd.

We all employ tactics to mask the directness of what we are feeling and thinking. Psychologists have called these forms of self-deception, defense mechanisms, ego-defense mechanisms, and control patterns. From sarcasm to rationalizing to fantasizing, the range of behaviors our mind uses to give itself the illusion of safety is extraordinary. 

Susan Campbell, psychologist and author of Getting Real, describes them this way:

“A Control Pattern is any behavior or thinking habit that you use unconsciously/compulsively to help you avoid feeling out of control, anxious, not knowing, foolish, or helps you avoid the risk of being criticized, controlled, judged, abandoned, rejected, ignored (or any other feared outcome).” 

I’m fascinated by this definition because for many of us, myself included, avoiding these types of feelings is the sine qua non of a successful, cultivated, and civilized life. 

We go to extraordinary lengths to construct our lives and the presentation of our lives in such a way as to maximize avoidance of criticism, of feeling foolish, of being ignored or rejected. 

And yet, by another paradox of psychological life, it may be the very avoidance of these experiences that ends up perpetuating them. 

The Problem with Control Patterns and Indirect Expressions

We may not always be able to see our control patterns, but many of the people we interact with can. And if you’ve ever spent time with someone who starts giving you advice when you didn’t ask for it or tells you that “it will all be okay” without having ever been through your experience, you understand the first problem with control patterns: they reduce intimacy and connection. 

Our control patterns send out signals of incongruence. We say we’re fine, when our fidgety behavior or stoic smile screams otherwise. We’re not who we say we are and this can be felt by both participants in an interaction even if it goes unspoken. 

In addition, when we’re not sharing directly and honestly, we don’t receive accurate feedback. It’s then no mystery why are communication with others ends up so muddy and we think we’re misunderstood.

But taking a good look at our control patterns doesn’t just lead to better communication and connection, it also helps us to grow beyond these expressions that most surely served us in childhood but are no longer serving us as adults. In essence, on the other side of control is a freedom and release into life. 

The Roots of Our Control Patterns

There is a lot of great biological, psychological and developmental work around the creation of control patterns. Much of it focuses on early traumatic experiences in both an individual’s life and our species’ evolutionary past. 

Simply put, the underlying mechanism seems to be a shortcut the brain uses to avoid the experience of buried pain, particularly the fear and anxiety of simply being present to the pain without a plan of what to do next. 

The problem is what therapeutic practice has known for years, unaddressed and unexperienced pain from the past creates the control patterns that shut us down, dwindle our relationships, and keep us from growing. 

33 Control Patterns and Indirect Expressions

Take a look at the list below and see if you recognize the indirect expressions and control patterns you use? Which ones do you use most frequently? Remember, control patterns are habits we have developed to hide buried pain and keep us from experiencing growth and the on-going newness of life. 

1. Ask a question and then answer it yourself 

2. Explain and rationalize by giving general assessments

3. Apologize (say “I’m sorry” ) compulsively 

4. Pretend to be more pleased than you really are 

5. Make jokes about or make light of your own (or others’) painful feelings

6. Suggest a better way (indirectly) as in  “why don’t you…..” 

7. Reframe misfortune as “for a good reason” or “for the best” 

8. Finishe peoples’ sentences 

9. Have and maintain the thought “I’m right” (if you and I disagree) 

10. If someone is upset, try to talk them out of it 

11. Act cute or say cute things to entertain 

12. Use theatrical facial and hand expressions that draw attention 

13. Silently criticize whoever is on stage (that’s nothing new, I knew that, ….) 

14. Give orders/tell others what to do without checking how that feels to them 

15. Offer knowledge and helpful suggestions when the other’s behavior is frustrating to you

16. Ask helpful questions that direct the other person’s attention in a particular way 

17. Keep quiet, watch, wait 

18. Agree with others when you really do not agree 

19. Speak (and give eye contact) mainly to the teacher/leader in a group 

20. Smile, joke, or make sarcastic comments

21. Offer reasons/justification for one’s actions—even when this is not asked for 

22. Pick a fight if the other starts to give negative feedback—perhaps by challenging the other’s timing or delivery. 

23. Give more information than is asked for 

24. Think “it's not a big deal if it gets really bad, I’ll deal with it” (denies anger or frustration) 

25. Think “I'm not really affected by this” 

26. Think “I don't care” 

27. Behave as if you don't have needs/wants and constantly focus on the needs/wants of others

28. Indirect asking: I’ll do this for you if you’ll do that for me 

29. Indirect asking: I did this for you so it’s your turn to do that for me 

30. Silently expect to be given what you gives; giving to get 

31. Compare self to others 

32. Act quickly without giving yourself time to connect with what you really want 

33. Judge and criticize yourself 

34. Follow the rules without checking in with yourself 

Most people can identify or have seen in others the control patterns listed above. But a few generally pop out as the more primary control patterns we are using now. 

Which ones most popped for you? 

What would you say or do if you didn’t use this pattern?

How to Work with Control Patterns

Beginning to notice your use of control patterns to avoid your experience is the first step. Next time, you notice yourself in the midst of one, try sharing it with the person your with. 

But getting to the roots of your control patterns takes a little more time and focus. Discovering the roots can be scary and our first instinct is often to flee into distraction. That’s why, in order to learn how to work with control patterns on your own, it’s often helpful to start by getting support from an honesty counselor, honesty group, therapist, or interested friend. 

The key is to work with someone who is good at helping you stick with your own experience rather than giving advice (a control pattern!) or attempting to help you feel better (another control pattern!). 

1. Remember a specific time. Recall a time when you used a control pattern, didn’t say what you felt, or felt uneasy about an interaction. If you’re working with a friend, tell them what happened using present-tense language. Try to stick to the facts as best you can.

2. Notice your self-talk and the sensations in your body. As you share what happened, notice the physical sensations in your body like tension, perspiration, warmth or coolness. Notice what you are telling yourself about your story and any fleeting thoughts. Share these with your friend.

3. Stay with the sensations. Indirect expressions and control patterns emerge at moments of discomfort, so we often want to rush through this kind of work. Resist moving on too quickly. Cry when you need to cry, shake when you need to shake. Stay with the sensations in the body until they change. Don’t make them change, let them change on their own. This requires no extra effort, just noticing and experiencing.

4. Pay attention to any memories that arise. We employ defensive tactics to avoid feeling our buried pain. An uncomfortable moment in the present may be triggering pain from the past. It’s not enough to know this intellectually. We need to feel through both the present situation and the past situation. 

If a memory arises from the past, stay with it and recall the situation in the present tense. Most likely you will have used a similar control pattern in the memory. Don’t worry if the memory is vague, stick with the feelings around it. If it becomes clearer, and their is a key person in the memory (like a parent, teacher, or friend), try saying what you would have liked to say if you hadn’t used a control pattern (i.e. I’m mad at you for…, I want you to…, I appreciate you for…).

If the sensations in your body feel too intense, pull back a bit and pay attention to your breath. Try to dip back in. In my experience, people can handle most if not all the sensations that arise in their own body because they are coming from themselves. The body is not prone to create sensations it cannot experience, even if the mind says otherwise.

5. Give yourself caring attention. 

If you’ve experienced whatever comes up deeply, you’ll feel the feelings change. Where you may have been angry, you might now feel laughter or warmth in your body. Where you might have felt tension, you might now feel release and relaxation. 

Recognize your courage for going as far as you went and that you have the power to stay with the sensations that come up in your body and allow them to change. This is, in my opinion, the key component to real confidence: the knowing that you can experience the sensations that arises in the body in all situations. 

The work above rarely goes as neatly as it’s described, but with practice you can get pretty good at feeling through the underlying causes of your daily upsets.

For most of us, this means, getting over stuff instead of spending days feeling upset and stuck. 

In my experience working in Honesty Labs, people rush through the work because it’s often uncomfortable and because they intellectually get it. But the mind’s defensive posture is the reason for the pattern in the first place. The mind wants the work to be over before you have actually felt through the sensations that are buried. Stay with the process longer than you’d like to, until you feel the sensations and bodily experience change on their own. 

Why would I want to do this?

There is so much to learn from doing this kind of work on a regular basis. Since we get upset, angry, and are judgmental all the time, there is a lot of great material to dig into. 

The great benefit of this practice is that in understanding our control patterns and processing our past and present hurt feelings, we eventually get over the past and experience life anew. In doing so, we communicate more clearly and less indirectly with others, build intimacy with our friends and family, and learn how to live with more freedom and ease. 

John Rosania