The Hidden Side of Controlling People

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You’re driving down the highway, going with the flow of traffic, minding your own business.

When you look in your rear-view mirror, you see a car ten car lengths behind you, darting between lanes, cutting it close between other vehicles, and quickly coming up on you.

The next thing you know, he is right behind you, nose to your bumper, trying to get around you. But there’s a car next to you, and there’s no way to pass. So the driver pulls even closer (just in case you didn’t know she was in a hurry) and lays on the horn. “Get the hell out of my way,” is the loud and clear message. “I own the road, I’m in control here.”

Another familiar scenario is the one where that same honking person is sitting next to you while you are driving. “Go around that car!”  “Take this exit, it’s faster.” “Why are you parking here? There’s a space right by the door.”

This isn’t a story simply about obnoxious speeders or backseat drivers.

It’s about control.

The need to be in control and feel in control.

It’s the hidden story of those people who appear very successful and put-together on the outside, but underneath that glossy exterior lurk some self-destructive, unhealthy, and relationship-killing behaviors.

Who Are The Controlling People?

Although often charming, efficient, and highly organized, controlling personalities can be a real pain in the butt to be around.

We’ve all encountered them, and maybe (yikes) we are one ourselves — or at least have a few controlling behaviors.

Either way, it’s good to know the signs and symptoms so you can learn to deal with a controlling person or begin to acknowledge and change the behaviors in yourself. (More often that not, control freaks don’t see the behavior in themselves and how it impacts others.)

Control freaks come in two varieties: the Power Freak and the Fear Freak.

The Power Freak is driven by a desire to be in charge, prove themselves, and get their own way. They want to control their environment or the people around them — or both. This is the man or woman in the car, either driving up behind you or riding beside you giving instructions.

As long as things are going their way, they can be charming and pleasant. But step in front of one or cross them —  and watch out. They tend to bully, intimidate, manipulate, or argue their way through situations to get their desired outcome.  If they sense you backing down, this empowers them further.

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The Fear Freak is motivated by anxiety. They fear losing control and are often hyper-vigilant to keep their lives in order. When situations are ambiguous or unpredictable, they break out in a cold sweat and will do anything possible to make their lives emotionally comfortable and orderly.

We don’t usually think of these anxious types as control freaks, but control is exactly what they are seeking. These are the people you may know who over-plan every situation or who constantly appease others to keep the peace. They can’t tolerate the uncomfortable feelings of chaos, disorder, or ambiguity — so they try to manipulate circumstances so they feel safe.

Ironically, sometimes Power Freaks and Fear Freaks have a symbiotic but dysfunctional attraction. The Power Freak sets the rules and the Fear Freak tows the line to maintain emotional stability and order.

The Signs and Symptoms of Controlling People

If you think you may know a control freak — or if you feel a little uneasy thinking you might be one, here are some additional signs and symptoms to watch out for.

Control freaks . . .

  • become angry or anxious when someone or something makes them late, when things don’t start on time, or go according to plan;
  • have difficulty admitting mistakes, being wrong or misinformed about a situation, or acknowledging that they have changed their minds;
  • resist depending on other people or accepting help from them;
  • take charge and give orders without being asked when a situation is disorderly or confused;
  • must be right (even when they aren’t) in every situation and have the final word;
  • must have things done their way because they “know best;”
  • over-plan and control the simplest activities or occasions;
  • often use emotional manipulation (guilt, pouting) to get their way;
  • have many personal routines or rituals that must be followed;
  • frequently offer unsolicited advice and criticisms and get insulted when others don’t take the advice;
  • spend a lot of time organizing and managing their personal environment and insisting those around them do the same;
  • drive aggressively (or too carefully), and tell others how to drive, where to park, what direction to take, etc.;
  • want to be in charge of the remote when watching television;
  • have perfectionist tendencies and tend to be their own worst critic.
  • tend to micromanage people at work.

Why are control freaks so controlling?

Like so many unhealthy behaviors, controlling behavior is the result of fear and anxiety. The controlling person doesn’t trust others and feels he/she is holding everything together. If they drop the ball, the world might fall apart and that is frightening indeed.

Some event or situation in the past likely triggered the control freak’s loss of trust in other people or the world in general. Therefore, the only way to keep the world spinning is to control everything. And that can be exhausting.

Also, control freaks are very uncomfortable with the feeling of helplessness over others. This may have been the result of not getting certain physical or emotional needs met as a child.

To further add to the problem, control freaks often get rewarded for their buttoned-up, high level functioning in the way of promotions and success, but eventually the behavior catches up with them in some not-so-positive ways.

According to Helen Kirwan-Taylor in her 2007 article in The Guardian, control freaks suffer in a variety of ways from their own negative behaviors and needs.

“A study by the University of Bradford Management Centre found that control freaks were more prone to insomnia, palpitations, high blood pressure and chronic fatigue. By their nature, control freaks are not optimists. Seldom are they the life and soul of the party. And it’s not until the company is run to the ground, the employees leave or the wife walks out, that the control freak realizes it’s time to change.”

Ironically, their controlling behavior leads them to the ultimate loss of control when a job or marriage ends, people pull away from them, or they get sick.

How to Deal with a Control Freak

If you are dealing with a control freak in your life, you don’t (and shouldn’t) have to sit back and take it. There are actions you can take to keep a control freak’s freaky behavior under control.

  • Verbalize to the person firmly but kindly that you recognize the controlling behavior and won’t put up with it. Don’t give them reason to push you around.
  • When the controlling person is your spouse, friend, or business associate, and you must spend time with them, emphasize that you are committed to working as a team, but not in a situation where one person rules over the other.
  • Assert yourself when necessary in a calm and levelheaded way. Often bullies will back down when confronted with a strong, mature, and communicative person.
  • However, some controlling people may feel threatened when you try to assert yourself, and they may raise their voice, get more verbally aggressive, or act out in some unpleasant way. Stand your ground and don’t back down just to “keep the peace.”
  • When control freaks don’t get their way, they sometimes revert to passive aggressive behaviors (like pouting, guilt-trips, or other manipulations) in order to “trick” you into conforming to their demands. Recognize passive aggressive behavior as another form of control, and point it out when you see it.
  • Control freaks can throw you off balance with confusing behaviors and words to make you feel at fault. Recognize this for what it is — an attempt to obfuscate in order to control and keep you in place.
  • If the controller’s behaviors worry or frighten you (ie: driving dangerously, working too many hours, etc.) attempt to negotiate a behavior change, at least while you are with the person.
  • Seek counseling. Unfortunately, many controlling peopledon’t address the behavior until something bad happens — they are fired, a spouse leaves, a friend drops them. If you are married to a control freak, try marriage counseling before the behavior drives you apart.
  • Remove yourself from the person. If you feel you have lost your dignity, identity, security, peace of mind, or happiness as the result of living with or working for a control freak, then it’s time to move on. Don’t allow a control freak to dominate your life and steal your joy.

If you see yourself as a control freak, then you are more than halfway toward making positive change and improving all of your relationships — and your health. Awareness of the problem is a gigantic leap in the right direction.

Controlling behavior is learned behavior, reinforced over years of practice. It will take time to unlearn the automatic responses and negative habits that you’ve carried for years. This will take some dedicated work with a counselor and regular practice to retrain yourself in new ways of behaving and thinking.

 
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Do you know a control freak or live with one? How has it impacted your life and how are you dealing with it?

Comments

  1. In my life when I’ve been most controlling is when I feel most out of control. Doesn’t prefer me when I am in control.

    It’s moving from my head to my heart. The realm of thoughts to an emotionally turbulent sea. As I leave the safe shores of my imagination behind for the unknown depths of my being, I find fear, anxiety, but not control.

    It is not always my first response, but I am learning to trust these moments. Trust that I am okay as I am and the world as it is. When everything seems to be out of control, I tell myself that it is exactly how it should be.

    Why settle for control when you can find peace?

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Control is an illusion anyway Josh. You might as well let go and swim into the open sea and enjoy the swim!

  2. I can see those behaviors in many people around me over the years. When I do, I just mentally send them love because – well, they need it. They are the most sad and confused people around.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      You are so right Julie. That is exactly what they need — and what you need to do for yourself.

  3. This is crap because not wanting to be around people that always question your decisions is not controlling. Trying to question and having some opinion about what a person does IS controlling.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Ben, if we let go of everyone who questioned our decisions, we’d be living alone for the rest of our lives. :)

  4. Heidi Smith Luedtke says:

    Letting go of the desire to control things is very challenging. Control offers the illusion of safety for me (I’d say I am motivated by fear when I seek control). I try to focus on working hard, behaving as best I can, and letting go of the outcome. That way I am not anxious that I can’t control others’ responses. And they don’t feel overwhelmed by me.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Heidi, you are smart to recognize control as an illusion. All you can do is make the best decisions with the information at hand and let the chips fall where they may. If we choose to view it so, that can actually be rather thrilling.

  5. Doctor Cris says:

    I can recognize some control issues in myself and also in others around me. It was a big “Aha” moment for me when I realized that I really did not have control and I really did not want to. I wanted people to be authentic—and not what I think they should be. My life has become richer, more genuine and joyful as well as easier. I still plan—but now I know that whatever happens is for my best good and I always learn from it or reap greater rewards for the detour. I find that I now have more compassion and patience with the people in my life.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      That is wonderful Cris. Life is so much easier when you let go of control. And we do become much more likable people. :)

  6. I know a control freak (in fact he is my father) and I wish he would listen to your advice. But I also know that I can,t control his behavior or make him do anything!

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Kate,
      I’m sorry you deal with that issue with your father. No, you can’t change him. You can only manage your relationship with him. But maybe you can forward him the post! :)

  7. Barrie, I have an elderly neighbor who is the Queen of passive-aggressive behavior. If you call here on it, she becomes physically violent. Her husband is the only thing standing between her and permament committment to a mental institution! I have formed the habit of simply writing short prayers for her and leaving them on their carport door! I pray for her at least twice daily–and do not play into her mentally disturbed games. Of course, I realize you are speaking about SANE people who are control freaks–or are they truly sane, I have to ask myself!

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Wow Rose — she sounds out-of-control! It sounds like you are doing the only thing possible: steering clear and sending her positive thoughts.

  8. Hello Coach Barrie. This post is great advice and is an excellent deconstruction of the “control freak” personality. Just like you mentioned in your post, I can attest to having controlling tendencies myself. In a past life, I was managing marketing projects and the pressures of the job fueled those tendencies and they expressed themselves further outside of my office environment.

    In the past couple of years, I’ve grown to understand that letting go has so many more merits. My wife and I get along ten times more now, which is important since we started traveling full-time a year ago(and spend every waking moment together now). Your post is so timely, because I recently illustrated for my own readers, the benefit of being okay with it when your plans don’t work out.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      It is wonderful you came to that realization Marvin. Once a person sees themselves honestly, then making the changes are just the details! Awareness is key, and it sounds like you are living proof that when you release control, life gets better! Good for you. :)

  9. For every control freak, there is someone over-accomodating to keep the peace, thus reinforcing the controlling/aggressive behavior. It’s hard to figure out that we have a part in co-creating the very thing that is driving us nuts, but I see it again and again in my office.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      That is so true Marci. You can’t be controlling unless you have someone to control. Seems like the control freak and the accomodator seek each other out.

  10. Reading some of those tendencies, I fear you’ve been taking notes from my life! I realize that I can definitely be a control freak, especially when it comes to my boyfriend. He is extremely kind and a peace-keeper, and it can enable me more. For example, I frequently “back-seat drive” for him, and then the next day will complain to him when someone does the same thing to me! I recognize the inconsistency most of the time, but I just feel this insatiable desire to be right about something, anything, at that moment. I choose to ignore any logic that tells me otherwise, or the simple logic that it really doesn’t matter.

    However, I’m hoping to be able to change this as he deserves better. I think it becomes much worse when I lose control in other parts of my life, especially at work. I think the first step for me, and hopefully others in my position, is to focus on what I can control in my own life. Set goals for myself that I am in control of (workout goals, new things to learn, new hobbies, etc), and of course, make a conscience effort to give the poor guy a break when I feel that tendency to give him some of that unsolicited advice.

  11. I really enjoyed your article. I was thinking about anxiety disorders and began to wonder if these disorders fit into being a control freak and came across your information. It seems the bottom line is control freaks have fear and anxiety more so than others to deceive themselves into an organized non-chaotic world, even if it is built on illusion.

    I am a former musician who was a perfectionist. I was quite successful and still play some but not as much as I used to play because I burned myself out on having to get every last note perfect and in perfect timing for over 20 years. I can testify it is true that over a period of time that the illusion that perfectionism is attainable on this dimension is obviously false and that it eventually does more damage than good in all areas of life in the end.

    Is fear freak a DSM category or just your terminology for a sub-grouping of control freak? I ask because I want to find more information regarding the fearful aspect rather than the perfectionist side.

    I ask because I fit the fear freak more so than the control freak these days. I have been reading books by Claire Weekes and learning mindfulness in the hopes I can let go and live without the perfectionism, anxiety and fear. It’s really too bad this knowledge isn’t more widely dispersed.

    If anyone has problems in either of these areas I recommend almost anything by Claire Weekes. She teaches very down to earth and the formula she uses helps to break down the need to be in control. In fact, it is how I first began understanding how tightly I cling to the environment around me and my mental outlook as well.

  12. Controllibg people have damaged me a thousand fold.
    Only now i am picking the pieces.

  13. I need help with this. A family friend (an older retired woman) rescued me and my daughter when I suffered a depression a few years ago. I wrongly made this woman my god and thought I had to please her at all costs. I am scared to death of this woman and don’t know how to set boundaries. I had a depression relapse this past winter due to a Vitamin D Deficiency and she came to my rescue again, but this time with a warning – I won’t rescue you again. If I were healthier at the time, I would have said, please don’t rescue me now. I am in a recovery program and am realizing just how unhealthy this relationship is. My daughter even notices that I have made pleasing this person my priority. I feel like I’m in prison and don’t know how to get out. I know a conversation needs to take place, but don’t even know where to begin.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Chris,
      Thank you so much for sharing your story here. I’m so sorry about your depression and the difficulty with this relationship. The fact that you realize the relationship is unhealthy is a great first step. And that your daughter has noticed only reinforces that it’s time to take action. If you can’t have a personal conversation (face to face or by phone), then send her an email thanking her for her past support and letting her know that you are taking some space to work on yourself with a counselor or on your own. And that you need to focus on yourself and your daughter. Let her know that you’ll be in touch if you need her, but for the time being, you are going to back off for a while. If she is pushy, defensive, or ugly to you, you do not have to respond.

  14. Thank you for this article, it has clarified a lot of things for me – it has also cleared up doubts pushed at me, things I’m meant to be guilty of or exhibit when in reality, the reverse is true.

    I’d forgotten my own principle of action and results. What has really happened in the past, what results have occurred – not what nonsense is being peddled to box and limit me.

    So thank you.

  15. My husband and I are both control freaks, and both work in positions of control and management at our jobs. We both want things our one way, which obviously doesn’t work in a marriage. We fight often about, well anything that we aren’t getting our own way on. We don’t know how to stop this behavior or how to let go of the controlling behavior. We argue about where to put a plant, how to decorate the house, etc….His driving scares me so much that I’m starting to not want to go places with him, and he absolutely refuses to let me be the driver. I am always asking him to slow down, or to stop darting in and out of traffic, etc because its scarey for me. No one in my family will let their kids ride with him (he doesn’t know that though). He thinks his driving is fine, so it is irrelevant what anyone else says. We argue a lot about how to disapline our grandkids to the point that I always try to spend time with them when he’s not around so they don’t have to listen to us fight. He says, and I quote “no one tells me what to do”. Unfortunately, compromising feels to him like someone telling him what he can and can not do. We can’t talk – it’s always a fight. He has actually stuck his fingers in his ears, like kids do, and made the la la la I can’t hear you Noise. What? I do NOT know how to get along with this man. I’m sad. I’m worried about my marriage. Can you help me to know how to deal with this type of behavior. I’m at a loss. Thank you so much.

  16. Dorothea jones says:

    My husband was a jackass. More than a control freak. He was also a bully and when confronted ad being a bully, he would bavk down at first I was afraid of him, but the more I got tired of him, I gained the courage to stand up to him. But the writer of this article is right, control freaks are tiny little babies who throw a fit when things don’t go their way.

  17. I lived with someone who was a very controlling person. Nothing was valid until he said so, even if it had been said a number of times in previous conversations. When I moved out, I mentioned that date to him on several occasions, finally letting him know that I was moving out for my benefit, not his. I also told him he was no joy to live with and I was looking forward to moving out. The next morning I got a letter that said, “… let this serve as written notice that you are to vacate the premises by…” the date that I had mentioned at least 3 or 4 times previously. It became almost amusing, except that it felt like a betrayal from someone who was a friend.

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  1. Article: Control Freakonomics: The Hidden Side of Controlling People | VictorSchueller.com says:

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  2. [...] Do you struggle with a need to be right, in control, or seen in the best light [...]

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