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 Control Freaks?
Although often charming, efficient, and highly organized, control freaks 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.
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
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 people don’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.
Do you know a control freak or live with one? How has it impacted your life and how are you dealing with it?
For further reading . . .