Crossposted to Lesswrong here
When I mention my dad’s abuse, I usually mention salient things – physical pain, insults, and controlling behavior. These are “clearly bad” – if I tell that he you often told me I was lazy and would fail horribly at life once I left home, you know it’s bad, because it’s concrete, easy to imagine and obviously unkind. But this wasn’t the worst of the abuse; the most terrible parts were extraordinarily hard to understand or describe.
In his world, I felt insane – I couldn’t tell what was real, who was at fault, or why my heart hurt so much. My sense of clarity around my own intentions crumbled; everything I thought or did might have seemed good on the surface, but that goodness became just a disguise for my true, darker intentions – all helpfully revealed to me by my dad. And none of it was salient or concrete or easily understandable; I remember my mom once telling me, “I can’t describe what this is like to other people. The individual things seem so silly, I can’t put the important thing into words.”
I’m going to try to put it into words, and the words I use for “the important thing” are frame control.
This isn’t just about my dad, and he wasn’t even particularly good at it when children weren’t his targets; frame control pops up elsewhere. It’s a feature of cults, leaders, of some charismatic people, of abusers in relationships, of some parents, of some ideological movements. It’s hit communities around me, hurt friends of mine. I don’t know how to fight it, but I at least want to name it. And naming it is really hard, because at first glance frame control looks like completely normal behavior. Every individual instance is “not that bad”; and when the knife that wounds you is invisible, you might doubt that you’re bleeding at all. Frame control is inherently illegible; it’s not something that checks a few clear boxes, it’s only really visible through the experience of the receiver.
In this post I’m going to advocate for some perspectives that I think can also be really dangerous. I’m going to avoid too many disclaimers or safety warnings throughout for the sake of directness, though I have some thoughts on danger at the end.
Your frame is basically the set of assumptions you hold about the world around you, in every way there is – your values, your identity, your beliefs about meaning and social norms and economics and whatever, although most of it tends to be implicit or subconscious; probably only a small portion of your frame is directly expressible! Your frame might encompass anything from “Jesus is my savior” to “It’s bad to touch the sidewalk with your hands” to “I am valuable because I’m funny”
Imagine your frame exists as a box around you; when someone engages with you, they try to get you out of your box and into their box in various ways. This can be via stuff like:
- Debate: Trying to demonstrate, through reason and facts, how their box is better (“No, sex isn’t about power, it’s about sex, here’s a study!”)
- Recommendation: Showing that the box they’re in has been really good for them (“Viewing my body tension as actually about childhood trauma really cleared things up”)
- Pressure: Holding social alliance with them as conditional on them joining you in your box (“I only really respect people who believe all lives matter”)
- Rescue: Offering up their box as the solution for an issue you have (“Want to escape your suffering? Become aware of no-self”)
- Aggression: Trying to push you into their box (“You’re a piece of shit for denying climate change, you’re the reason we’re all going to die”)
These are all attempts to control your frame, but none of these is what I mean by frame control. These techniques can be manipulative or abusive, but they’re also broadcast clearly; in a similar way to how a man catcalling on a busy street alerts both the target and everyone else to their presence. It’s annoying, but clearly legible. It’s easy for you and everyone around you to say to each other, “Ah, that person wants something from you” and move on with your day.
No; frame control is the “man doesn’t announce his presence, he just stalks you silently” of the communication world. It’s when you end up in the other person’s box without knowing that it happened. It’s not violence you can feel, or coaxing you can reason with; it’s a slow build of their frame around you until you don’t remember what your box ever looked like. Frame control is a quiet subversion of your agency; instead of offering up their frame for you to consider, they pull you in without consent, into a world you probably would never have endorsed from the outside.
Frame control often results in doubt, denial, or suppression of your own feelings, as the frame controller has you in their frame and exerts a huge amount of energy to keep you there. Your own experience is warped to align with that of the frame controller, even (especially?) when this comes at cost to you.
For a very simple, obvious example (not all of them are so obvious!), my dad would sometimes command obedience in things that were very painful to obey (e.g., permanently ending all contact with my best friend). This made me angry, but his frame treated my anger as a sign that I was sinful and corrupt, and I thus experienced my anger as a failure on my part. I would get angry, and then feel guilty for being angry, and spend a huge amount of effort suppressing the anger and trying to convince myself I felt grateful for how much effort my dad was putting into his parenting.
How is frame control done in such a surreptitious way? Surely you would notice if someone was telling you it’s your fault for feeling bad, right?
Sometimes, frame controllers will make high-risk moves that serve to alienate 98% of people and draw in the other 2%. “My organization is going to save the world” – a maybe crazy claim, but if you’re one of the people who really believes it’s possible to save the world, you might instead process the claim as instead incredibly brave, because you know 98% of people will think it’s stupid. And maybe it is brave! My point is not that the moves are bad or good, only that high-variance, high-risk moves will fail most of the time, but be very effective when they don’t fail. This can make frame control strategies that fail on you seem to be very obvious and easy to avoid, but the frame control strategies that work will feel extremely exciting.
Also, frame control is often more likely to happen to vulnerable people. If you’re younger, or alienated from family, or don’t have a great social group, or if you’re very weird or neuroatypical and don’t easily feel seen, or if you end up in a system where your core needs are controlled by your compliance (romantic relationships and employment and MLMs can fit this), this makes you much more susceptible.
Before I’m more direct about identifying frame control, I want to clarify a few things.
One is that good frame controllers put a lot of effort into avoiding the appearance of control. They will explicitly say things that appear to validate your emotions and increase your degree of freedom. They might appear empathetic, self-reflective, open to negative feedback, genuinely caring. Skilled frame controllers track the quiet social understanding of how you have to act in order to be perceived as good, and they are very careful to fill this (Some are a bit less skilled; for example, see Geoff Anders dutifully including option C in this otherwise aggressive tweet). This causes the victims to justify all sorts of harmful behavior to themselves – “Well, my dad says he loves me and wants what’s best for me, so his discipline must be good for me”, “Well that person says they’re open to being wrong, and have pointed out when they were wrong before, so it’s unlikely they’re wrong about x”.
Frame controllers, typically after they get a good foothold, also can determine the standard by which you measure what is good. Instead of just replicating good behavior, they also tell you what good behavior is, e.g. “correcting your sins is good” or “not giving what you want is good for you.”
Second point is a doozy, and it’s that you can’t look at intent when diagnosing frame control. As in, “what do they mean to do” should be held separate from “what are the effects of what they’re doing” – which I know is counter to almost every good lesson about engaging with people charitably.
Frame control is an effect; very often, people who frame control will not be aware that this is what they’re doing, and have extensive reasoning to rationalize their behavior that they themselves believe. If you are close to a frame controller and squinting at them to figure out “are they hiding intent to control me,” you often will find the answer is “no.”
This often functions as a trap to keep people in a controlled frame. For example, I once hung out for a while with a cult (which nobody, including me, viewed as a cult at the time), where their cult leader was doing a lot of really bad frame control stuff. The narrative inside the group (which is not universal across cults!) was that the cult leader was both deeply flawed and perceptive, and the things he did that hurt people were either for their own good, or an unintentional byproduct of him genuinely trying to do good. “He means well” was a crucial element of keeping people in this cult; focusing on his good intent functioned to dismiss and downplay the damage that was being done to its members.
And so, when evaluating frame control, you have to throw out intent. The question is not “does this person mean to control my frame,” the question is “is this person controlling my frame?”. This is especially true for diagnosing frame control that you’re inside of, because the first defense a frame controller uses is the empathy you hold for them.
This all might sound pretty dark, like I’m painting a reality where you might go around squinting at empathetic, open, caring people who have zero ill intent whatsoever and trying to figure out how they are ‘actually bad.’ And this is kind of true, but if only because “I am an empathetic, open, caring person with zero ill intent” is exactly the kind of defense actual frame-controllers inhabit. The vast majority of good people with good intent aren’t doing any significant kind of frame control; my point is just that “good person with good intent” should not be considered a sufficient defense if there seems to be other elements of frame control present.
Much of frame control occurs in the land of things not said. We’re constantly, unconsciously making strategic moves in conversation that shift ourselves into more favorable positions. For example:
You have a bad fight with your romantic partner, and things are tense. Shortly after the fight, you’re hanging out in a group of friends. Your partner suggests the group should set up a fund where everyone can contribute to group trips, and the excess in the fund can cover emergencies. You announce that this sounds like a great idea, that communal bonding is great.
You publicly announcing reinforcement of your partner’s idea has a secondary function of aligning yourself with your partner and communicating to your partner you’re still affectionate despite the fight you just had.
And maybe your partner says that no, this isn’t about communal bonding, this is about handling emergencies.
Your partner’s words were just clarifying their own meaning, but the secondary function is un-aligning themselves with you, pointing out your understanding failure, and implying the fight is still ongoing. On the surface the conversation is normal, but other communication is also happening, likely without conscious knowledge of the participants. The above example is from a personal experience, and when it happened I had zero conscious knowledge of the secondary functions.
Conversation, action, and context are overflowing with secondary functions. Words have effects that aren’t just about the words, and so we get things like greeting rituals (hello how are you im fine how are you) designed to indicate alliance, “I’m busy again” means “I don’t want to date you,” telling the unattractive person they’re beautiful just the way they are indicates you are magnanimous and virtuous and value people for their inner spirit or whatever. We often ‘hear’ these by gut instincts; feeling uncomfortable, feeling affectionate, calm, agitated. We instinctively know the kinds of things to say to communicate the right unspoken functions. We get weird feelings around some people even if we can’t put a finger on it.
Those examples are more obvious, but the vast majority are trivial. For example, if I tell my friend “I can’t talk right now I’m about to run to a doctor’s appointment”, it’s full of mundane implications. My priority right now is the doctor’s appointment, not you. I am taking time to tell you this. I want you to know about my life. I take care of my health.
Frame control heavily relies on apparently trivial secondary functions. Frame controllers will say very normal sounding things with trivial secondary functions that also happen to give them more power.
For example, I was once visiting a tightly knit group where my presence was somewhat a threat to the leader; I was an outsider, and some people in the group respected me. At one point, while in a discussion about gender dynamics, the leader casually mentioned that “if Aella were a man, people would find her disgusting.” This was plausibly a normal thing to say in context; he was known for saying hard truths, for having insights about gender, and to be fair I was sitting there sweaty, topless, and on acid, *and* I hadn’t showered in a week (this was at burning man). But it also had the function of reframing respect for me as actually coming from attraction; with this sentence, it caused everybody listening to reevaluate their opinions about me, to doubt their own experience of liking what I had to say. It was also brilliant because it wasn’t a direct accusation to or about me; he didn’t say “Aella isn’t worth listening to”; it was framed as about the people perceiving me. This then increased my barrier towards challenging him, because I would have had to explicitly point out implications that would give him another foothold to resist.
Or, Aubrey De Grey’s Facebook post. (Aubrey De Grey is a high profile man who was recently accused of harassment). He wrote a defense of his behavior in which he argues that the accusers are not at all malicious, but rather were deliberately ‘set up” by a third party who fed them misinformation.
This has the effect of establishing Aubrey as more authoritative than the accusers (he can see the real guilty party and his accusers cannot); it frames his accusers as innocent and mistaken victims (thus subverting their accusations as valid) and positions Aubrey as firmly determined to bring the true guilty parties to justice (why would you oppose him if you want to pursue the guilty?).
The examples I’m giving are obvious, salient ones, because they stood out and I remembered them. But most of the time it’s a quieter accumulation of a thousand tiny implications, each one so small that to point one out would sound insane. It might be something like asking the frame controller if they want to go to the store with you, and they respond “no thanks, because I went last time.” – a completely innocuous comment, but in the right context it might be an implication that last time they went with you was doing you a favor and making a sacrifice. A lot of it is also not explicitly verbal – it can be how they say it, their body language, where they’re placing their attention.
Of course, everybody does things that I could recount here and assign a frame control frame to it; we constantly manipulate each other, asking implicitly to be viewed as competent, or kind, or insightful. And maybe it’s good to pay closer attention to this too! But the difference between this everyday thing and the frame control that traumatizes people is generally that of intensity, frequency, and practical control. If it occurs regularly, and in a direction that consistently reduces trust in your own mind, if it hands the frame controller power over your reality and devotion, and if this is backed up with credible threats to your needs (social acceptance, income, etc.), then I’m much more likely to give it a ‘frame control’ label. I provide examples of what’s not frame control, later.
If you try to point out the secondary effects, frame controllers typically have a more advanced version of the “it’s just a joke” defense. Why are you taking such a normal thing in such an uncharitable light? What issues do you have that are causing you to be so resistant (a’la the NXIVM flip)? If this happens in a culture of intense self-improvement, where people are used to finding actual insights by investigating their own resistance to things, this can be a very effective tactic, because it’s a question that points to a legitimately useful direction – there is always something interesting going on in your own experience. Parallels are drawn to sympathetic situations; for example, perhaps once you finally established a necessary boundary for your own good in a relationship with someone you cared about, and this person got agitated, accused you of making them feel bad and limiting their self expression. This is unfortunate, but you believe with your whole being that this person really should investigate their own resistance to your boundaries. And thus “investigate your resistance” is a powerful and well-known rule that people widely agree with, and this is why it’s so effective as a frame control defense.
The problem is if your goal is to end your suffering, and the actual best way to end your suffering is to change your circumstances, then “investigate your own resistance” is a distraction; it’s a frame where your circumstances are not considered as a changeable option.
A related strategy is pushing the painful update button. I’m sure you’ve had experiences where you learned and grew, and it was really painful to do so. You had to face some hard truths, let go of how you saw yourself, and maybe even do a bit of surrendering your ego. This is legitimately good! But a key aspect of frame control is reframing harm as good – and so the pain from beneficial updates becomes an easy candidate. You might be promised insights about yourself (usually handed to you by the frame controller), and pain from those insights gets reinterpreted as evidence that the insights are valuable. No pain no gain. This also tends to be more common in meditation communities where they might encourage things like very hard work or lack of sleep or no food; “what, did you think growth was going to feel good?” the norm is whispered from every corner. “The pain you feel from this community and its leader is what growth means.”
And to be clear, a lot of this is true. Frame control breaks your reality down to fit another one, and while I view this as poisonous, the act of breaking down your frame can have huge benefits – similarly to how forcing a child to sit through school might break their creativity but give them the ability to reliably perform boring tasks. When I first started doing LSD, I recognized a lot of parallels between the drug and my upbringing. “Oh, this is the same thing” I told my sister, who was tripping with me that first time. “Dad broke us in the same way, he just did it violently.” Being mentally broken by an abuser was super educational; it annihilated my sense of fight, it taught me surrender, how to handle huge amounts of pain without resistance, how to let go of everything I loved. And in LSD, though a vastly different tone and infinitely more healthy, I somehow encountered the same basic story.
This is part of the reason why escaping frame control situations can be so disorienting. Frame control situations can give you legitimate, valuable insight. It can open up deep, tender parts of your soul. You might genuinely love the frame controller. It can be some of the most meaningful experiences you’ve ever had. The basic story is a good one. It’s just that the goal of frame control is someone else’s power over you; the story is infused with poison. They grant you profound awe in exchange for serving them. And the combination of valuable insight at the level of your soul mixed in with poison and subjugation to someone else’s will can be a deeply traumatizing experience. People who escape frame control situations often have a really hard time making sense of the world or themselves or what is good or bad or how to feel; their own sense of judgment has been undermined so thoroughly they don’t trust themselves to hold their own frame anymore.
Zoe Curzi (who worked at Leverage) says “a key confusing feature of leaving is that you weren’t acknowledging the badness, and now you have to. And for a while, the badness is all-consuming, because it’s the main thing you weren’t allowed to acknowledge while maintaining your relationship to the community or person controlling you. But something about this is ALSO fucky for sense-making, because it doesn’t acknowledge the powerful soul insights. But if you acknowledge only those, you’ll never leave. So the extremes create a yo-yo in recovery that often makes sense-making and integration an extremely long process, possibly never finished, very incoherent along the way.”
In a lot of ways this is similar to an abusive upbringing. As a child, you bond tightly with the parent who teaches you, cares for you, molds your reality. You rely on them, and many wonderful things you value came from your relationship with them. So how do you come to terms with a world without them?
I’m talking a bit philosophically about frame control, but in an attempt to get more concrete, here’s a non-exhaustive list of some frame control symptoms. Keep in mind these are not the same thing as frame control itself, they’re just red flags. Some of these overlap strongly with traditional cult signifiers. Also not all frame control has all of these.
- They do not demonstrate vulnerability in conversation, or if they do it somehow processes as still invulnerable. They don’t laugh nervously, don’t give tiny signals that they are malleable and interested in conforming to your opinion or worldview. I once had a long talk with a very smart man who was widely perceived as deeply compassionate and kind, but long after the talk I realized at no point in the conversation he had indicated being impacted by my ideas, despite there being multiple opportunities for him to make at the very least small acknowledgements that I was onto something good. It took me a long time to realize this because he’d started out the conversation by framing me as special, telling me it was unusual to find someone else who had the ideas I did, that I must have taken a different path. “He is someone who respects me” was the frame he set up, and so I was blinded to the stark lack of reinforcement or vulnerability he actually displayed. This guy still has a lot of social power and I don’t feel comfortable yet publicly naming him.
- They have status and power. A key component that makes frame control dangerous is when it’s linked to concrete consequences; maybe people really respect them, maybe they control resources, maybe they are the person throwing big events, maybe they gave you a new name, maybe they have the power to exclude you from your social group. Less powerful people can also do frame control, but it tends to be tighter (e.g., only in a romantic relationship).
- Finger-trap beliefs; my term for beliefs where pulling against the belief only strengthens the belief. One example is how Christians say that Satan will make you doubt the existence of God. If you find yourself doubting the existence of God, this gets processed as evidence for Satan. Similarly, frame-controllers will instill beliefs designed to clamp down if you ever doubt the frame controller; “Other people will try to tell you we’re misguided because they’re too afraid of our power” results in “if I entertain the notion that the leader is misguided, does this mean I’m too afraid of their power?”. Frame controllers will often reframe ideas that challenge them as red flags that point to deeper flaws in the questioner. Often these defenses are established well in advance of the challenging idea, so that your memetic immune system gets disabled long before it has a chance to get activated.
- Reframing harm as beneficial. I discussed this earlier but to reiterate: in normal life we have self-protection instincts that tell us to run away from things that hurt. We also have norms where we’re taught not to do this – spending your childhood sitting in school might suck, but it’s “for your own good” so we accept it (which is bad, imo). Frame controllers use our prior understanding that ‘sometimes things I don’t like are good for me,’ and they make sure to map this onto everything about the frame controller you don’t like. Your pain, through one narrative or another, is evidence of goodness.
- Sometimes, when your pain is processed as evidence of goodness, you often stop processing it as pain entirely; if you’ve ever looked back on a period of your life with shock that you could have handled that, likely this is because you viewed the harm as beneficial and thus did not process it as pain at all. This is often actively reinforced by frame controllers, who inhabit a worldview where it’s just not an option that a thing might be causing you pain.
- They are the teacher, and you the student. They might make perfunctory gestures towards learning from you, but the general attitude, upheld by them and also the culture around you, is that knowledge passes from them to you. Unlike in traditional teaching, this usually extends to all things; they are uncomfortable with you holding subcategories of expertise, and will tolerate it only insofar as they can take credit for your power in some way or maintain a narrative where they have the ability to ultimately judge the value or role of what you’re presenting. They might take steps to keep you in the position of student, such as deliberately giving you tasks you’re bad at, or placing you in situations that make you deeply uncomfortable (with good-for-you explanations included, of course). Insofar as they grant you actual authority, it will only be after they’re convinced of your absolute, unfailing loyalty.
- A belief in their own importance. They often feel they have unique access to some knowledge that you can only get through them, whether it be religious or mystical or a complete theory of psychology.
- A refusal to affirm ways in which your frame falls outside of theirs. In health(ier) relationships, people tend to “approach each other’s frames”; as in, set aside their own worldview for a moment, inhabit the other person’s, and talk to them “from that frame.” Frame controllers don’t do this; they do not come to you, they do not acknowledge or validate your frame. There might be some performative aspects of this; for example, saying “I know this is so hard” while the rest of their speech subtly doesn’t seem to indicate they actually understand that it’s hard.
- When conflicts or disagreements happen, they operate from an assumption that you simply haven’t seen the light yet. They might be very magnanimous about this, or listen to you for a long time, or say things like “that’s a great point,” but their attitude seems to imply that there’s not actually a possible reality where you are correct. They are gently, caringly waiting for you to realize the thing that they knew all along. They are so helpful. They are so patient as they help you to see the one truth. And if they have the one truth, how many other things are they right about, that you simply can’t see yet because you haven’t tried hard enough?
- There’s a narrative of openness and flexibility that deflects from areas of inflexibility. “I’m so kind and patient,” their actions imply, as they graciously sacrifice hours of their attention helping you work through why you don’t want to do a task they want you to do.
- They orient around their turf; they prefer to decide location and method of debates, they want you to come to their house; maybe they sit while you stand, maybe they don’t give interviews with anybody slightly hostile, maybe they want you to come on their show and frame it as evidence of wrongdoing if you decline..
- They consistently reroute pressure away from them. I once sat in on a dojo where I watched one of the students point out an error the teacher had made. The teacher then responded by asking the student a question that investigated what was behind the pointing out, what was really about them that caused this? The resulting discussion then was entirely about the student, and as far as I can tell everybody else forgot about the mention of the error. My dad used to refer to this tactic explicitly – “make sure they’re always on the defensive, don’t give them room to have energy for offense.”
- Similar to the above, they ask questions with forced answers – a common tactic in police interviews, when explicit. “Did you leave your dish in the sink?” “You know that I don’t like that, right?” “You left your dish in the sink, knowing I don’t like it, right?” “So you admit you are intentionally upsetting me”. Sometimes it’s less explicit – for example, years ago I was at a large group dinner with acquaintances and a woman I didn’t like. She was talking about something I wasn’t interested in, mostly to a few other people at the table, and I drifted to looking at my phone. The woman then said loudly, “Oh, looks like I’m boring Aella”. This put me into a position where I had to choose between either being honest and drastically escalating the social tension, or to politely disagree and thus lend social validation to what she was doing.
- They make “buried claims” – assertions that pressure you to jump through hoops to challenge the core. For example, “Everybody knows you’re sensitive” asks you to challenge everybody knowing before you can challenge being sensitive. If you angrily ask them to stop opening your door without knocking, they might say “Annoyance is understandable, it comes from a desire for privacy instilled into you by an isolated society.” If you want to tell them your annoyance is important, now you have to argue for an isolated society, or that no it’s not caused by society.
- They constantly redirect to salient measures. This is a very classic example with abusive parents, when they point out how they’re feeding and clothing you as an appeal to being a good parent. I remember once, shortly after I went no-contact with my dad, he surprise visited me at the library where I worked. Upon seeing him, I fled into the staff area and hid under a table and curled into the fetal position and sobbed; when a coworker found me, all I could say was “Don’t worry, it’s okay, he didn’t hit me. He didn’t hit me”. I was worried my coworker would think I’d been “abused”, I was embarrassed at my “dramatic overreaction”, and I didn’t want to be misleading – at the time I didn’t process my childhood as abusive, because my dad had constantly redirected me to salient measures.
- A refusal to collaborate with other perspectives. Most interactions have a normal push-pull of power, usually designed to distribute it evenly throughout the group; an obvious, simple example is responding to a compliment with a self-effacing joke. In this regard, frame controllers are antisocial rather than cooperative; they don’t participate with the group in evenly distributing power, they subvert other perspectives in service of their own power.
So if frame control looks so similar to just being a normal person, what are some signs that someone isn’t doing frame control? Keeping in mind that these are pointers, not absolute, and not doing these doesn’t mean someone is doing frame control.
- They give you power over them, like indications that they want your approval or unconditional support in areas you are superior to them. They signal to you that they are vulnerable to you.
- You feel really, deeply loved by them. Frame controllers often say they love you, or have demonstrations of love like loyalty, but often lack a subtle profound attention and selfless care. For example, both my mom and dad made terrible parenting mistakes, and both said they loved me, but I could feel the selfless care from my mom and it was notably absent from my dad.
- They repeatedly validate your reality, wholeheartedly, without subtle implications otherwise, and even when they don’t agree. They defer to you as an authority on yourself.
- Acceptance: in a sense, they view you as perfect the way you are, they assume your hidden intentions ultimately come from a place of deep goodness.While you might be attempting to fix things about yourself, they carry an attitude that you are fundamentally okay.
- You don’t have to justify your preferences. While they might inquire about them, they respect what you want even if they don’t understand why, even if it seems irrational, even if you have no idea why. Your wants are treated as fundamentally valid regardless of what generated them.
Frame control is damaging when it’s invisible; if you are fully aware of it, it might affect you similarly to how most normal, salient attempts to move frames do, like debating or persuasion. For this reason I don’t think all frame control is inherently harmful; it’s possible, for example, to be close friends with a heavy frame controller while being fully aware of all of the frame control moves they might be doing. I think this is really hard to achieve, though; being very close with someone almost by default means vulnerability to each other’s frames. When you want to “get their world”, empathize with them, see things the way they do, and especially if you respect them – this is how the frame control slips through.
And this is why my general philosophy for people who frame control is “burn it with fire.” I don’t have this for any other human flaw – people with terrible communication skills, traumatized people who lash out, anxious, needy people who will try to soak the life out of you, furious dox-prone people on the internet – I believe there’s an empathic route forward. Not so with frame control.
Frame control uses the pathways of love, desire to do good, empathy – of any sort of human connection. Pushing the painful update button is effective because people genuinely want to grow. Finger trap beliefs snap shut because e.g. you were shown just how much the outside world persecutes this person and you are genuinely moved to be the one who shows them true kindness. You look for their human intent, you imagine what it’s like to be them, you empathically step into their world, and then it clamps down around you.
In this, I am a conflict theorist; this is not a mistake, this is war. And a part of me knows this isn’t “true” – as in, I could have been born into a brain that ended up doing strong frame control. I know they are real people with feelings and needs. But that “true” perspective will let them destroy you; when I run into strong frame control, I snap to an extremely antagonistic frame. No, you are not allowed into my life, my home, my friends, and I will try to remove you from the power you might use to hurt anybody else. Maybe I’m being overly dramatic about this because I’m more vulnerable to frame control than most, but another part of me simply doesn’t care. “They will use your fear of being overly dramatic to undermine your reality.”
Breaking out of frame control is really high cost. In cults this is often clear – you lose your community or financial support or whatever – but the cost can also be internal. With frame control, you have to decide between two worlds – “They are normal and I am bad”, and “They are fucked up and I am sane.” And if they are fucked up, you have to be able to believe you need to separate from them, to cut them off from you fully. This is really hard to do.
“For a normally empathetic person, the idea that someone could be so confused as to be so harmful that I have literally no idea how they could be healthfully allowed close to me or people I love is….very, very tragic.” – Zoe
Part of the motivation for inhabiting a world where anybody you love can be “saved” is that this means you yourself might be saveable. I have a wonderful friend who often invites questionable people to parties, and I suspect it’s because he views himself as questionable, and demonstrating inclusion of other questionable people is a way of demonstrating to himself that he also will be included. We want unconditional love and acceptance to be possible, because we want it for ourselves, and so solidly ejecting someone else is a destruction of that possibility. It means someone can be so bad that they’re ejected out into the dark, and you have to stand there staring at the decompression chamber as you press the button to open the doors into space. It’s brutal and it hurts and it’s terrifying; who are you, that you could do that to someone? Who are you, that you know your ship is surrounded by space?
A lot of things I’m pushing in this post are pretty dangerous. I’m handing you a label of frame control and giving it permission to cut off empathy, to stop investigating your own motivations, to squint super hard at possible subtle motivations in others, to stop looking at intent and only look at effect. This is basically the opposite of all good advice, and even worse it seems like it might give a license to use frame control as a weapon – not just on others, but also ourselves. Technically, everybody “frame controls” all the time; we can probably find numerous examples where every one of us – including me – does the things I outline as bad. And people who frame control may also accuse others of frame control as a weapon for sowing self doubt (and dismiss accusations of frame control at themselves as simply weapons for sowing seeds of self doubt).
I don’t know how to address this problem. This is partially because it’s a moving target – as soon as frame control is named and described, then it can get Goodharted – frame controllers will use this as an instruction manual to become less visible. It’s also because frame control exists as a subversion of normal behavior; as the salient stuff is labeled bad, they stop doing the salient stuff, all the bad gets squeezed down into the cracks below our feet, and now you can’t tell which parts of the floor are poisoned just by looking at it. And if we manage to point at a spot and label the poison, it becomes salient, and the whole process starts again.
If someone tries to use this blog post to argue for someone doing frame control that you don’t see, it’s okay to still be skeptical. If they try to use it to argue that someone isn’t doing frame control, but you still feel a weird unsettledness you can’t name, it’s okay to still feel unsettled. Don’t let this post tell you how you should feel. Take this article lightly, take it as a pointer, take it as art. Ultimately, checking in with how you actually feel is the answer. I don’t mean to imply this is easy; it’s often really hard to know how you feel, and maybe it changes often and frame controllers put in a lot of effort to obfuscate this. But in the end, careful attention to your own sensations are your saving grace.
(Remembering that inclusion of names doesn’t mean endorsement) I’d like to thank Zoe Curzi, Lawrence Kesteloot, Malcolm Ocean, Daniel Filan, Alexander Zavoluk, Melody Trainor, Hrothgar, Elizabeth Van Nostrand, Kathryn Devaney, Catherine Olsson, and a few other anonymous contributors for leaving feedback and suggestions on this post as I developed it.
6 thoughts on “Frame Control”
THIS! THIS RIGHT HERE! So true as always and SPOT ON! Exactly how I grew up as well. I can feel these words with every inch of my being. I’m nearly 40 years old now, and I still question reality and my own sanity every single minute. It’s the most beautiful thing. It’s the scariest thing in the world. Life is a mind-fuck – I understand this post completely.
Isn’t “frame control” similar to the locus of control shift from the outside to inside in children with schizophrenogenic parents to whom said children ought to attach instinctively? César Tort has written about it, citing Colin Ross.
I went to high school with Geoff Anders. Seeing his name in this blog was surreal.
To me the basic ingredients for the kind of hard-to-describe abusive situations you describe are authority mixed with manipulative behaviour.
The ingredient you talked about less explicitly is authority. Authority in a individualistic society is an interesting concept. At the end of the day, if someone has power over me and uses it in a way I don’t like – that sucks, there is no way around that. Also, it is hard for most of us to use authority over others wisely, small flaws get magnified, power corrupts. Small acts of cruelty or deception casually repeated by someone with a lot of power over me can inflict a lot of pain, perhaps more than an observer might expect. There is a reason why the relationship to our parents is such a sensitive topic for many even when they really “tried their best”.
And we don’t have much tolerance for people using power over others in deceptively self-serving ways nowadays. I think this is a dimension in which there has been a tremendous ongoing shift for the last 100 years in the West. One of the ways authority might be defined as is the ability to make others see and act according to our framing. I think 70 years ago most people would have seen it as the duty of a good parent to impose (if necessary through draconian measures) their frame on their child. I think it is very good that we have mostly moved past that, at least in terms of ideals. But that leaves the question of the role authority should play in our society and the rules and responsibilities it should come with as a fraught topic full of unresolved inconsistencies.
Third remark, if I meet a frame-controller I can most of the time maintain some kind of relationship with them if necessary – but one based on an iron-clad setting of boundaries by me, including as to how much I engage with them emotionally and “let their frame in”. This only works if you are quite confident in being able to maintain your boundaries though (and is dependent not only on the kind of relationship you have with them and on the degree to which the other person is frame-controlling – obviously they come in all shapes and sizes).
This was one of the most painful articles I’ve ever read. Thank you so much for for writing it. I think the reason it hits me Is that now I realize that not only was there a lot of toxic family frame controlled that I was subjected to but that in many ways my response was to do frame control as well. For what it’s worth I do think it is possible for the people who have that toxic behavior to fix themselves but I know that in my own personal life I wasn’t even willing to acknowledge that I was controlling and manipulative until I nearly destroyed every relationship in my life. Sometimes kicking them out of the airlock is the only way they will realize that they need to be better people or no one will let them into any ships.
Thank you so much again and best of luck on your journey towards healing.
This explains a dynamic I had been observing from a distance and hadn’t understood.