What are Control Patterns?
Control Patterns (CP’s) are habits we use, often unconsciously, to protect ourselves from painful feelings. They are mechanisms that we start using at times of feeling emotional pain when we didn’t have a compassionate supportive listener there to help us to express and heal that pain, in order to repress the feelings. If we do not have support to listen to our painful feelings or if our expression of painful feelings is met with anger, inconsistency, punishment, withdrawal of love, then we develop CP’s in order to keep the feelings at bay to keep us safe and loved by our care givers. We develop beliefs about our feelings too, e.g “If I cry I will be teased or punished” and these beliefs become increasingly strong and stay with us into adulthood.
Frequently as babies and children, our parents repressed our feelings by distracting us. Because of their beliefs and not understanding the natural innate healing process of crying, parents often try to stop babies and children from crying. This might be by rocking, shushing, patting, breast-feeding or jiggling. All of these then create beliefs that it is not safe to express feelings and so we develop similar control patterns to numb us from our feelings. The majority of us learn very early on in our lives through our conditioning, that we need to dissociate and disconnect from our feelings and our sensations in our bodies.
Our culture does not encourage the expression of feelings, and most people are therefore uncomfortable with crying. So the majority of us hold within a lifetime of unexpressed pain and need our CP’s to help us to do so if we are unable to use the natural mechanisms of crying and raging to restore our body’s physiological and psychological balance. This means that parents all have CP’s to repress our feelings and therefore our children develop control patterns to repress theirs too.
There are many different CP’s that people use and almost anything can become a CP. They vary depending on the age of the child or adult. For adults it’s often shopping, scrolling social media, drinking or drugs, biting nails, keeping busy, reading or eating. Some examples for older children include using screens and other technology, being busy, drinking or smoking, twirling hair. For younger children it might be asking to be played with all the time, eating sugary treats, certain toys or having a “security” blanket or teddy. For babies it may be thumb sucking, using a dummy, breast-feeding, being rocked or dissociating. All humans will have CP’s, no matter how closely attuned we are to our children.
Distinguishing between CP’s and genuine needs.
Many of the behaviours that become CP’s can also be things that we genuinely need or like to do to meet needs other than simply repressing feelings. E.g. many of us enjoy watching a movie or reading books, we all need to eat and Aware Parenting particularly supports and encourages breast feeding. But to distinguish if something is being used as a CP or is simply something you or your child are enjoying or is meeting another need, we can bring our attention to the quality of feeling that is underneath. Is there a sense of urgency? Is their behaviour suggesting that they really, really want it now or must have it now? Are they asking for something repeatedly or excessively? Are they asking for something as soon as they are become upset or hurt? It’s the difference between the feeling of desperately needing something rather than just wanting something. We might notice ourselves or our children being detached or a bit “zoned out”. Perhaps they are being really inflexible about wanting something. Is it something that your child requests when they are obviously upset and that you can see they are doing in order to “comfort” themselves? All these signs apply to us and our control patterns too.
How to respond when our children have Control Patterns.
I used to feel angry about CP’s, that they are bad things, that my children and myself using these mechanisms meant that I was somehow failing as a parent. I felt guilty about them, frustrated and annoyed with my children when I saw them demonstrating their CP’s. But gradually I have learnt to be able to bring more gentleness to my responses.
It’s helpful to remind ourselves that all humans have some CP’s and, even if we listen to our children’s feelings a lot and frequently use attachment play with them, it is still likely that they will have some CP’s. Therefore, the first step is to start to notice when we or our children are engaging in a CP. We don’t need to stop doing it, or judge ourselves or our children or our parenting. We simply start by bringing our awareness to when our children are doing things to repress feelings. We start to become clearer about what our children do (or what we do to our children) when they are upset.
When we judge it makes us feel more disconnected, and it’s almost impossible to support our children when we are feeling disconnected. On the other hand, when we are compassionate with ourselves and our children, it is so much easier to connect to and support them to release the painful feelings that are underneath these behaviours. And if we connect and listen to feelings, our children will release and heal and won’t need to use the CP as much.
Loving limits are then so helpful. Loving Limits, a term coined by Marion Rose, is a way to say no to the behaviour and yes to the feelings underneath the behaviour. We use a loving tone, eye contact, softness and presence while we stop our children from doing whatever it is to repress. We make sure that there is no judgement, harshness, criticism and, if we find ourselves moving towards that, then we can let go of the limit and let them know that we are not able to listen any more right now.
We can move in with playful connection too to support the release of feelings. We might invite them to chase us, give them a million kisses, or anything else that is silly and gets them laughing. We might make silly jokes with older children. Anything that supports connection and laughter will shift whatever feelings they were trying to repress.
Supporting ourselves with our control patterns.
Some feelings are often really difficult for us to be with and we have to learn how to be present again with the feelings that we have spent many years avoiding. After a life time of repressing our feelings, this needs to be a slow gentle process. Increasingly we can also learn to love and appreciate our CP’s as we understand more clearly how they kept us safe and protected us from being punished or hurt. We slowly learn to stop judging ourselves for doing these things.
Connection and compassionate enquiry is the perfect response for us too when we are reaching for our CP’s. So we see CP’s as another sign that there are feelings underneath that would benefit from our loving attention. When we are reaching for our CP’s, we can try to pause and check in with ourselves to see what is underneath. We can then try to make a mindful choice about what to do. When we notice that there are feelings there, we can acknowledge them and can offer them some love. Often that small process is enough to shift the feelings that are there for us.
We can set loving limits with ourselves if we start speaking harshly to ourselves so that we stay compassionate as we explore what is going on for us. We lovingly accept that there are feelings there that we are currently trying to protect ourselves from. Then we can gently let go, we can reflect, express and release those feelings whenever we are ready to, either with our Listening Partner or in a session with an Aware Parenting Instructor or do some journaling.
We can start to unpack our beliefs about feelings and create new beliefs about being safe and about healing so that increasingly we are able to be with feelings.
So next time you notice yourself reaching for your control pattern or zoning out to suppress pain when you have feelings, can you pause and check in and see how you are feeling in the moment? What are you experiencing in your body? Can you identify where the sensations are? Can you give some awareness and love to the feelings that are coming up and allow them to move through you?
So, to support ourselves and our children when CP’s are being used to repress feelings;
- We pause and notice and become aware.
- We bring our attention and curiosity to what is there.
- We move in with connection and compassion.
- We give ourselves love and compassion if we start to go into judgement, guilt or shame.
- We listen to feelings if they come.
- We might set a loving limit to the behaviour, saying “No” to the behaviour and welcoming the feelings that then arise.
- We might move in with playful silliness.
Learning to be with our feelings instead of suppressing them in ways we have used all our lives is an on-going process. While we are learning, we need a lot of self-compassion and forgiveness for when we just need to disconnect, switch off and zone out. And, the more clarity and processing we find for our CP’s, the easier it becomes to support our children with theirs.
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