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S2 EP161 – Explaining and Other Subtle Forms of Control

Episode Summary

What happens when you try to explain yourself to someone who is attacking and blaming you? Do you believe that explaining and defending will convince the other person to see things your way? Has this ever worked out well? Speaking with child-like sweetness is another common form of subtle control, as is blaming statements and turning things around on the other person. Discover some of your subtle forms of control and how else to communicate. 


Hi everyone. Dr. Margaret Paul here with the Inner Bonding podcast. Today I want to address some of the more subtle forms of control that many people use in their relationships, without realizing that they are form of control. These forms of control are a bit harder to see than the more overt forms, such as anger, blame, threats, or violence. But when you are not aware of your more subtle forms of control, and you don’t realize that your intent is to control rather than to learn, you might be mystified regarding why your partner or others don’t react well to you.

One of these common and often subtle forms of control is explaining. What’s wrong with explaining? you might ask. Well, whether or not it’s working well for you depends on your intent.

Esther, a client of mine, said on a session, “My husband never lets me explain anything to him. It’s so frustrating! He makes these statements that are blaming and attacking and then he won’t listen to me when I’m trying to explain.”

“Why do you want to explain?” I asked her.

“I NEED to explain because he is not seeing things accurately. He is making assumptions that are not accurate,” she replied.

“So you want to explain to get him to see things differently than he does?” I asked.

“Yes,” she answered.

“Isn’t this, then, a form of control? Aren’t you trying to get him to change how he sees things, or how he feels about you?” I asked her.

“Well, yeah,” she answered, “but he doesn’t have all the information he needs.”

“So,” I said, “he is blaming you as his form of control, and you are explaining as your form of control – is that right?”

“Um….I don’t know,” she said. “I never thought of explaining as a form of control.”

“Aren’t you trying to change his mind – change how he sees things?” I asked.

“Yes, I guess so. But is that wrong?” she asked.

“Explaining is neither right or wrong,” I said. “But is it working for you?”

“No!” she answered. “He won’t listen to me.”

“Do you think it is possible that he won’t listen to you because he doesn’t want to be controlled by you? That he doesn’t want you trying to talk him out of how he sees things?”

“Yes,” she said. That is actually what he says. But I’m just trying to give him the facts, the truth.”

“The problem is,” I said, “that he does not want the facts. He is not asking you for the facts. When he is attacking and blaming, he just wants to control you. He is not interested in learning. And neither are you. You are just trying to get him to see the ‘facts” as you see them.’

“Oh, I see this now,” she said. “But what should I do when he is attacking and blaming and not seeing me or seeing things accurately?”

“How does it feel in your heart when he attacks and blames? Take a moment to tune inside and see what your heart feels when he is so unloving to you.”

“Oh, I feel awful,” she said. “I feel so angry and hurt.”

“Look under the anger and hurt feelings. What other feelings are you covering over with your anger and hurt? Tune into your heart. What do you feel in your heart?”

“……I feel sad. And helpless. I hate feeling helpless. And my heart hurts.”

“Yes,” I said. “That is heartache. You feel heartache. And this is a very painful feeling, so you are covering it up with your anger and then explaining. Right now, put your hands over your heart, breathing into your heart. Open to your guidance, inviting in compassion for your heartache and helplessness over him. Be very gentle, tender, and kind with yourself. Take a minute to do this…..Now what are you feeling?”

“I feel lighter,” she said.
“Great,” I said. “So here is what I suggest you practice. Instead of explaining and defending next time your husband attacks you and blames you, put your hand on your heart and say, ‘Your attacking energy is hurting my heart, so I’m going to go into the other room. I’d be happy to talk about it when you are ready to be open and caring.’ Then disengage and take a few minutes to bring compassion into your heart. Don’t discuss the issue until both of you are open to learning. Are you willing to try this?”

“Yes, I am. I can feel the sense of relief inside. Now that I see what you mean, I can see that explaining is never going to get me anywhere. But is there ever a time to explain?” she asked.

“Yes, I said. “When both of you are open, then you can explain things from your point of view, as well as try to understand things from his point of view. Both of you will learn new things and will likely be able to easily resolve the issue. But there is no point in explaining until both of you are open to learning about yourselves and each other.”

When you were growing up, how often did you hear some variation of these questions or statements?

“What’s the matter with you?”
“How could you do that?”
“Explain yourself, young lady (or young man).”
“Why are you dressed like that?”
“Why are you late again?”
“What did you do to your hair!”

I heard these all the time. And what I learned to do was to desperately explain, along with another subtle form of control – defending – in fruitless attempts to get my mom or dad to stop judging me and SEE me. Or I would apologize and become the “good girl,” so they would approve of me, which is just another subtle form of control.

Of course, defending and explaining didn’t work. But that didn’t stop me from trying because I just didn’t know what else to do – other than completely give myself up, which is what I eventually learned to do.

When I got married, I continued in the same pattern – first trying to explain and defend and then giving myself up – all subtle forms of control. The result was, of course, no better than it was with my parents. Again, I had no idea what else to do.

It took many years, but I finally accepted that defending and explaining only leads to more and more conflict, since the other person feels controlled and goes into resistance. For a long time I didn’t want to see that defending and explaining were forms of control. After all, I just wanted them to see my point of view. What’s controlling about that? I convinced myself that if only they understood me, then they would change.

Now I know that using defending and explaining as viable forms of control is a complete myth. Not only does it not work to convince anyone to see things my way, but it often exacerbates the conflict.

So what I do now when someone gets angry and judgmental is I stop the conversation. I lovingly disengage. I say something like, “We are not going to get anywhere this way. Let’s talk later.” Or I say, “I don’t like being judged. Let’s try to talk about this later.” I say this with kindness, not anger or blame. I do all I can to keep my heart open so that when the other person is also open, we can have a good open learning conversation.

An interesting thing happens when I disengage rather than argue, explain, or defend. The other person has nothing to push against, nothing to resist, since I’ve let go of trying to control how they see things, or how they see me. By dropping my end of the rope, there is no tug of war, no power struggle. Often the other person will say, “Oh, sorry, I didn’t realize I was judging,” with an open energy, and then we can continue the conversation.

Most people do one of three things when someone is trying to control them:

  • They give in
  • They resist
  • They try to control back

If you are trying to control someone with your explaining or defending, they are likely to resist or try to control back with their own anger, blame, explaining, or defending. Then each of you is trying to get the other to give in. But even if one of you does give in, the energy between you is strained rather than loving. You might win the war but lose the love.

When each person opens his or her heart to learning and caring and kindness, then whatever the issue is can get resolved. Resolution occurs only when you drop your intent to control and move into an intent to learn and love.

Explaining, defending, and giving yourself up are just a few of the more subtle ways of trying to control. Another subtle way is controlling with sweetness.

My client, Angela, was the kind of person who always had a hard time asking anyone for help. She was so afraid of being rejected, so afraid that the other person wouldn’t care about her, that she tried to do everything herself. However, Angela hit the wall after having a baby. She was so overwhelmed with caring for the baby that she just had to ask for help. However, when she would ask her husband, Brad, to do things like unstack the dishwasher or watch the baby so she could get some sleep, he would often refuse, which was exactly what she feared.

In our session together, I heard the voice that Angela used when asking for help. It was a sweet little girl’s voice, a pleading voice, an apologetic voice that said, “If I ask really nicely and sweetly and softly, then maybe you won’t reject me.” It was a pulling, needy voice meant to control Brad rather than take care of herself.

Angela had been unaware that her intent was to control Brad with her little girl sweetness. Since most of us dislike being controlled, and this was certainly true of Brad, his response was predictable – he went into automatic resistance. His natural caring and kindness just went out the window when he felt pulled on by Angela’s sweet little girl voice with her intent to control his response.

“Angela,” I said to her, “you need to approach Brad from your loving adult with an intent to take care of yourself rather than as a child trying to control him. You need to say in your adult voice, ‘I need you to take the baby now.’ Try it and see what happens.”

The next week Angela reported that Brad had been very caring and helpful! Brad himself told me that he was not feeling pulled on by Angela and was feeling very drawn to her as a result. Even though Angela was asking much more of Brad than she ever had, Brad was feeling loving rather than resistant. It was not her asking him for help that had been the problem – it was her intent to control his response that created the problem.

I’ve discovered that this child-like sweetness is a fairly common form of subtle control. The hope is to get caring, understanding, and compassion. The hope is to avoid the loneliness of feeling uncared for, unsupported, unseen, or misunderstood. We hope that that by being soft, sweet, light, or cute we can get the result we want. When we don’t get it, it reinforces our belief that no one really cares, and we just have to do everything ourselves. Most people who use sweetness as a form of control are generally completely unaware that their intent is to control. They just think they are being nice and can’t understand why others respond negatively to their requests.

Child-like sweetness can sound like whining, which is another subtle form of control.

My client, Melanie, discovered this when her partner, Joyce, kept telling her angrily to “Quit whining!” It first, Melanie had no idea what Joyce was talking about. In Melanie’s experience, she was just being nice and sweet when she was asking Joyce for something, and she couldn’t understand why Joyce, whom Melanie knew to be a loving and caring person, was so resistant to helping her. Yet as Melanie tuned into her voice, she heard the pleading behind the sweetness. She heard the scared little girl wanting to control the outcome with Joyce. As she consciously started to approach Joyce as a loving adult taking care of her own inner child, she found Joyce more than happy to be of help to her.

The challenge here, as always, is to be aware of our intent. Any time we are trying in any way to get a particular response rather than just take care of ourselves, we are controlling. It’s much easier to spot controlling behavior when someone is angry, blaming, or threatening. It’s much harder to spot when the controlling behavior is soft, sweet, light, and cute. Yet people on the other end of this subtle manipulation find themselves in automatic resistance, without really knowing why. It is often confusing to them to find themselves refusing to help when they know themselves to be helpful and caring people. When the person on the other end of the “sweetness” manipulation finally tunes into it, it’s a big relief to discover that he or she is still a caring person. Then, instead of resisting, this person can say, “I’m feeling pulled at and it doesn’t feel good. I need you to ask me as an adult, not as a child.”

Often, making a statement of feelings, or a question can also be a subtle form of control. There are certain phrases many people say when in their wounded self. Noticing when you say these words can alert you to your intent to control. By learning to listen to and hear ourselves, we can watch for these phrases to help us discern the fact that we are likely in the intent to control. These seven statements come from the wounded self who believes we are a victim and that others are responsible for our feelings and wellbeing.

  1. “I don’t feel safe.”

The wounded self believes that others are responsible for our emotional safety or lack of safety (we are not talking here about physical safety). The statement, “I don’t feel safe” is generally a blame, unless you follow it with, “…and I wonder what I’m doing that’s making my inner child feel so unsafe?” Usually, the unspoken rest of the sentence, “I don’t feel safe,” is “…because you are judging me,” or “because you are angry and blaming me.” When there is no loving adult to help your inner child not take judgment, anger, and blame personally, the wounded self will always feel unsafe in the face of others’ unloving behavior.

  1. “I feel judged.”

Whether or not another is judging us, our feeling judged comes from having no loving adult inside to take care of us. No one can make us feel judged. If we feel judged, it is because we are taking in another’s judgment. Often, when in a wounded state, we project our own judgment onto others and believe they are judging us even when they are not.

  1. “I don’t feel seen.”

When we have a loving adult who sees us, we are not overly concerned with being seen by others. However, when in a wounded state, we have handed our inner child to another, making the other person responsible for seeing us. When you hear yourself say, “I don’t feel seen,” you might want to do an Inner Bonding process and see how you are not seeing yourself and then using this statement as a form of control to get the other person to see you.

  1. “I don’t feel loved.”

Again, this is often a blame, with the rest of the sentence being, “and it’s your fault because you are not loving me.” When we feel unloved, it’s often because we are not taking loving care of ourselves in the face of another’s unloving behavior, or we are not listening to what our inner child needs from us. Not feeling loved is often the result of the wounded self being in charge, rather than the result of others’ behavior. Hearing yourself say this is a red flag that your intent is to control.

  1. “I feel alone.”

The wounded self believes that feeling alone is the result of not having others around to love us and care about us. I differentiate feeling alone from feeling lonely. Feeling lonely is a fact of life. When we have no one with whom to share love, or our partner is not open to sharing love with us, we may feel lonely. Feeling alone, however, is the result of inner abandonment. When we feel alone, we are in a disconnected, wounded state. We have disconnected from our inner child and from our higher guidance, so our inner child feels alone inside and alone in the universe. We will feel lonely as well as alone when we are in our wounded self because we cannot connect with others when we are disconnected from ourselves, even when others are open to sharing love with us. Making this statement to another person is a subtle form of control to get them to take responsibility for the alone feeling coming from your own self-abandonment.

  1. “I’m angry.”

The rest of the sentence may be, “…because of what you did. You made me angry.” When we are angry with another, it is often because we have abandoned ourselves. Our inner child is angry with our wounded self, and we are projecting it onto another. Regardless of what another has said or done (again, we are not talking about physical harm or any form of abuse), we will not be angry when we are taking loving care of ourselves. Making the statement that we are angry, without actually getting angry, can be a subtle form of control.

And finally this question, which I hear often when working with couples:

  1. “What about the other person’s part of this conflict?”

The wounded self generally wants to focus on the other person rather than on oneself. I often say to my clients, “The other person’s part of the conflict is their business. Either they will learn from it, or they will not. Either they will deal with it, or they will not. However, you have an opportunity to learn about your end of the conflict and what would be loving to you in the face of this conflict.” As long as you are focusing on another, you are not being a loving adult – not in an intent to learn about loving yourself. If you keep your eyes on your own plate, you will not be a victim, and focusing on whether or not the other person is doing their inner work is a subtle form of control.

Whenever we feel like a victim, it is because we are in our wounded self, blaming someone else for our feelings. When this is the case, it is a wonderful opportunity to go through the Six Steps of Inner Bonding to discover what we are doing to cause our distress and what would be the loving action on our own behalf.

Our wounded self can come up with endless subtle ways of trying to avoid responsibility for ourselves and control others.

Turning things around on the other person is another way.

I was working with Sonja and Fredrick in one of my 5-Day Intensives. Sonja had previously shared how lonely she felt in their 12-year marriage. She loved Fredrick and wanted to share love and intimacy with him, but something was in the way of their closeness. In working with her, it became apparent that Sonja had developed a tough exterior that would make it hard for anyone to get close to her. Her anger always seemed just below the surface. She was angry that Fredrick often seemed distant. She couldn’t feel him.

Due to my many years of working with couples, I know that it is never one person creating the problem. It is always a system between both partners.

Now I was sitting with both of them, and Fredrick was going on and on with story after story about the past, about Sonja, and about how much inner work he had done on himself. Like Sonja, I could not feel him – he was stuck in his head.

Finally, I interrupted his monologue, and gently said, “Fredrick, I need to stop you. I can’t follow you. I can’t connect with you. You are in your head telling stories and I just can’t connect with what you are saying.”

Wham! His attack came fast and furious.

“You are the one having the problem here, not me,” he yelled. Why are you putting this on me? I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing here – sharing myself. You just think you know it all. You think you know more about me than I know about myself. I hate it when you think you know what I’m feeling. Why don’t you deal with yourself instead of criticizing me?”

Fredrick was using a classic subtle tactic of control and avoidance by turning things around, hoping to get himself off the hook.

“Sonja,” I asked, “does Fredrick do this with you?”

“Yes, all the time!” she answered. “No matter what I say to him, he seems to find a way to turn it around on me. And lots of times he might even be right about what I’m doing, but it always ends up being about what I’m doing wrong rather than what he’s doing.”

“Fredrick,” I said, “I would be happy to look at anything you feel that I’m doing that is not working for you, but we can only do one thing at a time. Right now, I’d like to focus on the good reasons you have for storytelling, staying in your head, and turning things around. Then, if you want me to explore your feeling that I think I know everything, we can do that. But would you be willing to let that go for now and focus on what you are doing?”

Fredrick looked panicked.

“Fredrick,” I said gently, “What are you afraid of right now?”

Fredrick started to cry. “I’m so afraid that everything is my fault. I’m so afraid of being wrong, of being rejected, and of not being good enough.”

I breathed a sigh of relief. Fredrick was opening up, coming to grips with the fears behind his controlling behavior. Sonja also breathed a sigh of relief and gently put her arms around him.

“Honey,” she said to him. “I’m so sorry that I’ve been so angry. I’m sorry I’m always making you wrong. When you let me in, I can see how hard that is for you.”

The door was open for Sonja and Fredrick to explore their ways of controlling and learn how to take more loving care of themselves.

I encourage you to become aware of your more subtle forms of control and avoidance, which means being aware of your intention. When you are aware that your intent is to control and avoid, then you have the opportunity to consciously shift your intention to learning about yourself and the other person, and this makes all the difference regarding being able to create loving relationships.

I invite you to heal your relationships with my 30-Day online video relationship course: Wildly, Deeply, Joyously in Love.

And you can learn so much about loving yourself and creating loving relationships from my recent books:

And we have much to offer you at our website at

I’m sending you my love and my blessings.

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