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, controlling people don’t see the behavior in themselves and how it impacts others.)
Control freaks come in two varieties: the power controlling person and the fearful controlling person.
The power controlling person 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 fearful controlling person 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.
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.
- 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 people controlling?
Controlling behavior often starts with an underlying psychological issue or cause. It is rarely related to the recipient of the behavior.
So, why are people controlling? In many cases, the behavior of controlling people can be connected to at least one of the following:
- Low self-esteem
- Lack of self-control
- Controlling behavior
- A traumatic event
Identifying the cause is not easy, especially in a work environment. The reasons for controlling behavior may start outside of the workplace.
Low Self-Esteem and a Lack of Self-Control
Insecurities and anxieties often lead to controlling behavior. Some people may need to control others as compensation for their lack of self-esteem.
For example, someone may exhibit controlling behavior in a relationship out of fear of being abandoned. Insecurities at home may also carry over to the workplace.
Controlling behavior due to low self-esteem or anxiety gives individuals more power in their lives. This is also true with a lack of self-control. Controlling people may need to control others as they cannot control themselves.
Past Victims May Try to Control Others
Many bullies and controlling individuals are victims of bullying or controlling behavior. Some victims may need to make up for the lack of control in their lives by controlling others.
For example, people in abusive relationships may act out in the workplace. Children that are the victims of abuse at home may act out in school and bully others.
Managers may also classify themselves as victims of upper management. When a manager feels micromanaged, it is common for the manager to micromanage his staff.
With each of these examples, the controlling behavior allows the individual to stop being a victim. However, this creates a cycle of control and bullying.
Personality Disorders and Controlling Behavior
Along with anxiety and victimhood, a wide range of personality disorders may lead to controlling behavior. Controlling people may show signs of narcissism, perfectionism, or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
A narcissist or perfectionist may feel the need to control the actions of others to ensure that everything meets their standards. For example, a manager may micromanage staff because he feels that no one else can adequately complete tasks on their own.
People with OCD and other personality disorders may use controlling behavior without realizing it. The behavior is simply the result of their need to obtain specific results.
Controlling Behavior Often Depends on the Setting
Why are people controlling at work, but not at home? Sometimes the behavior depends on the setting and the other people involved.
Someone that is the victim of controlling behavior at home may feel the need to exhibit the same behavior at work. This gives them a sense of control that they lack at home.
Controlling people may also pick and choose their targets. As with bullies, controlling individuals tend to choose victims that are easy to control or intimidate, such as subordinates or new employees.
No matter the reasons for the behavior, controlling people typically try to justify their actions and may not fully understand the reasons themselves.
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, controlling people 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.
How to Deal with Controlling People
If you are dealing with controlling people 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 a 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 controlling people 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.
- Controlling people 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 controlling person, 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 controlling person, then it’s time to move on. Don’t allow a controlling person to dominate your life and steal your joy.
Smile and maintain your calm.
When someone is demanding that you do something that they want you to do, just smile, and do what you want to do.
Stay calm and never try to argue with a controlling person They will always want to have the last word.
It’s energy draining, and you don’t need your inner calm disturbed. It’s hard to stay calm at first, but once you’ve mastered it, the controlling behaviors just roll off you like water off a duck’s back.
Do not try to control the controller.
It won’t get you anywhere if you try and control the controller. They are in their own world where they are the boss of everything.
They can never do any wrong in their eyes. They have probably never failed at anything because they only do things that they know that cannot fail at. Otherwise, their control is threatened.
You can’t win with a controller because they are hypocritical. It’s ok for them to do something, but if you do it, you are bad or wrong. Always! You are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
It’s not worth trying to do the “right” thing, as they will always find something wrong. So just do what makes you happy and go back to step one: smile and remain calm.
Hold a mirror to their nasty comments.
Controlling people can be verbally abusive in various forms. They may call you names and tell you what they think all your shortcomings are.
You have to understand that this is their truth. They really think these things about you. They may not be true to you, but they are to them. So you need to believe in yourself, love yourself, and stay strong.
I started holding a virtual mirror up to nasty comments when I was receiving them. If you believe that the control freak is talking about themselves rather than you, the results are brilliant.
Soon after I started using this tool, I could see that everything that was said about me was actually true of the controller. It’s very liberating.
Keep as much distance between you and the controller as possible.
It may be hard if they are a family member, but busy yourself with your own life and loves and come into contact with them as little as can be managed.
This will result in a wave of calm and peace in your life.
If you choose to be near this person, then you can’t really play the victim, as nobody is forcing you to do it.
Your controlling person could be a longstanding friend, but it doesn’t mean you have to be loyal and keep the friendship going. If it isn’t serving you, then make less frequent arrangements with this person, and let the friendship dwindle out.
Or go full on and terminate it straight away, but in a kind way. You can refuse to make a date to see them and tell them that you are busy with a personal project. Then go and find a personal project that will serve you more than spending time with somebody who is draining you.
Be kind and praise the controller.
Always be kind. These people need more love than others. They aren’t happy inside, so they have to control everything they can to maintain their version of happiness.
I don’t mean you have to please them by doing what they say. I mean give them compliments so they feel better about themselves and maybe loosen their need to control a little.
Kindness works wonders. If you fight them, then they’ll try to control you even more.
If you are always kind, they lose their ability to make you lose your control so that they can exert theirs.
Take responsibility for your own life.
Do a job you love, surround yourself with people who inspire you and don’t drain you.
Related: How to Stand Up For Yourself
The quicker you do this, the quicker you will see how sad, and probably lonely, the controlling person is.
They will be surrounded by similar people, and you will be surrounded by great ones who show you how insignificant these controlling people are.
Look for the positives.
There are always positives to find in any situation. I’ve always been an optimist, but for the last few years, I have been super-positive.
For example, at the very least, a controlling person is showing you how you never want to be. They are doing you a favor.
Take the bull by the horns and find your power to live fully, even if it has been hidden for a while.
Another great positive is that a controlling person does not have the power to get inside your head and make you feel controlled. You are doing that all by yourself. So it’s a simple choice: choose to feel controlled or not.
If someone is financially controlling you, go and get a job and make your own money. Problem solved. Anything is possible.
Don’t try to please them.
As I mentioned before, praise the controller, but don’t try and please them. You will never win.
Always choose to please yourself. Don’t deliberately try to annoy them, but don’t be submissive.
Don’t let them make you feel bad.
You control how you feel. Nobody else. You are enough as you are. Authentic, real, beautiful you.
Believe in yourself, and adamantly refuse to take any notice of what they are saying about you.
I’ve been called all sorts of names but was strong enough not to let any of them get to me or, more importantly, believe that these names defined me.
Choose to forgive.
To forgive those who do wrong against us is an amazing, empowering thing to do.
The person who is trying to control you may not have much love in their life. More than likely, they have been controlled themselves and are just following learned behavior.
It is what it is. They do not know any better. Be the change you wish to see in the world. Just be kind, be strong, and be you. You can’t go far wrong.
When someone is nasty to you, it probably stems from jealousy. When people are jealous of you, then you are usually doing something right. Keep going. Don’t let anyone drag you down.
If you see yourself as a controlling person, 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.
Did you find any value from this post on controlling people?
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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