Dealing With Control Freaks

Why Are Some People Controlling?

We all like to feel in control. When we believe we have the power to shape our own future, we feel motivated to work toward our goals. When we believe that doing everything “right” will prevent bad things from happening to us, or to the people we love, we feel safe. 

But, as I’ve told countless therapy and coaching clients, there are many things in life we cannot control, and one of those things is other people. Other people are absolute wild cards, and accepting that is a prerequisite to having a healthy relationship

Every time we relate to another person, we begin a negotiation, making tradeoffs between their needs, rights, and preferences, and our own. Many of us can dance this dance beautifully, with only the occasional misstep. But some of us cannot. Some people haven’t come around to the idea that they aren’t in control of what others will do. When you’re trying to dance with them, things can get uncomfortable. Fast. 

That’s why I created this episode of the podcast for you. It will help you understand where controlling behavior comes from, why it feels so irritating, and how you can deal with a controlling person in a compassionate, assertive way.  

I hope you’ll tune in on this page, Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. 

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Dealing With Control Freaks

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Dealing With Control Freaks: Episode Highlights

When you’re having a relationship with a controlling person, every interaction can feel loaded with meaning — and not in a good way. 

Here’s an example: Imagine you have a friend who insists on choosing the restaurant every time you get dinner. It doesn’t matter if you suggest Thai or tacos or pizza — there’s always some reason your choice won’t work.

At first you’re fine with it, but as time goes on, you notice this dynamic creeping into other areas of your friendship, too. When you criticize a movie, they try to change your mind. When you tell them you’re too tired to meet up after work, they bargain with you until you give in.

With each new incident, your internal emotional reaction grows a little stronger. You might feel embarrassed about not standing up for yourself. You might feel angry about being in a position where you feel like you have to stand up for yourself. You might wonder if you’re being too sensitive, considering how little is at stake each time you don’t “get your way.” 

If you’ve had an experience like this, with a romantic partner, a friend, a difficult parent, or a coworker, first some validation: There’s nothing abnormal or overblown about how you’re feeling. You’re picking up on the reality that these power struggles are about more than whether you’re eating at the sushi place or the burrito place. They’re about the tension between one person who needs to be in control, and another person who needs to feel like their needs, rights, and preferences matter in the relationship

Controlling behavior creates conflict, whether it’s addressed openly or left to simmer under the surface. But understanding what’s driving the need for control can help you turn conflict into connection, and respond to the control freak in your life in a way that’s compassionate, productive, and fair to you. 

Signs of Control Issues

Controlling behavior exists on a spectrum, from the mildly irksome to the downright abusive. 

Here are some signs that control issues might be at play in a relationship: 

  • Not tolerating minor differences of opinion.  
  • Defying reasonable requests for no reason. 
  • Sabotaging someone else’s plans.
  • Criticism. 
  • Unsolicited advice. 
  • Punishing someone (through passive aggression, the silent treatment, etc.)
  • Not taking “no” for an answer. 
  • Using guilt as a tool, or playing the victim. 
  • Having rigid ideas about the “right way” to do things. 
  • Keeping score, or alluding to you “owing them” after they do you a favor. 

Before we go any further, let’s note that extremely controlling behavior is a core feature of abusive relationships. This could look like excessive jealousy, threats, accusations, attempts to isolate the other person from their family or friends, harming them physically or emotionally, threatening them, ruining their belongings, controlling their finances, or interfering with their attempts to leave. If you’re experiencing a relationship like this, it’s important that you protect yourself. Visit thehotline.org for a list of free resources that can help.

With that out of the way, let’s build some understanding for the annoying-but-harmless control freaks among us…(or within). 

Why Do People Try to Control Others?

Control is almost always about anxiety, and that person’s efforts to manage their anxiety through control — over themselves, over their environment, and over others. When someone is being controlling toward you, chances are they’re feeling anxious, and they have a story playing in their mind about all the terrible things that might happen if they don’t take charge of the situation. 

For example, one person in a relationship might be afraid of being abandoned by their partner, either because of past trauma, an anxious attachment style, or, often, both. They may be hypervigilant about where their partner is going and who they’re with, or they might demand a lot of reassurance from their partner, thinking it will make them feel more secure (it won’t). All of this can feel pretty controlling, and it can ultimately lead to the “abandonment” the anxious person fears, if they can’t learn to trust their significant other and soothe their own anxieties.

Other people have codependent tendencies and spend a lot of time trying to fix, manage, or “help” their partner, out of a fear that, if they don’t, their partner (and the relationship) will fall apart. This can get pretty controlling, and can lead to a lot of conflict and frustration for both partners.  

Other people simply have generalized anxiety disorder, and their constant worrying about all the things that could go wrong keeps them fixated on the future, making plans and contingencies to those plans so they can assure themselves that everything will be ok. To the people in their lives, it can feel like there’s no space for their plans or preferences in the relationship. 

Certain personality types can be a little more controlling than others. People with a strong “J” orientation on the Meyers-Briggs inventory, for example, can have a strong need for order and structure that other people experience as a need for control. 

Culture and family of origin can also influence how flexible and tolerant of difference we are. If someone grew up in a strict family where there was one right way to do everything, they might have a hard time accepting that other people don’t do things exactly the way they would.  

Finally, there are some “malignant controllers” who draw their sense of self from dominating others. Narcissistic people fall into this category. If you suspect you’re on the other end of this kind of controlling behavior, keep in mind, this isn’t the kind of problem that can be solved with a heart-to-heart conversation. Narcissistic wounds run deep, and even with extensive therapy, narcissists rarely make significant changes. 

How to Deal With Controlling People

The first step in dealing with controlling people is getting curious about their inner experience. It might look like they’re just being irritating for the sake of being irritating, but there’s always a “why,” and once you understand it, you can change your story about what’s happening and respond in a compassionate, assertive manner. 

Here’s how to approach a controlling person in your life:

  1. Begin with empathy. Remember, the person is probably being controlling because they feel worried and scared. 
  1. Try to have an emotionally honest conversation with the person about what you’re noticing and feeling. You might say, “I wonder if you’re feeling stressed out or worried about something. Could we talk about it?” Hopefully, they’ll gain some awareness about how they’re coming across to you, and — maybe — what’s driving their behavior. 
  1. As you approach this conversation, remember that controlling people are almost never conscious of “being controlling.” They think they’re being proactive, responsible, and helpful by making sure things happen the way they need to happen. They’ll likely be 100% oblivious about how you’re feeling until you tell them. 
  1. If they aren’t able to have the conversation with you without shutting you down or growing defensive, your remaining options are to withdraw from the relationship, or to set and maintain boundaries. Having healthy boundaries means setting limits around what you’ll tolerate in your relationships, but it doesn’t mean dictating how other people will treat you — only how you’ll respond. Learn more about healthy boundaries here

These are courageous conversations that are difficult to have. Many of us would prefer to avoid conflict and “overlook” selfish or unfair treatment from others, especially if we tend to be people pleasers. But ignoring the problem only makes it worse. Your resentment will grow, and the controlling person may escalate their behavior if they get the message you’re ok with it. Eventually, the feelings you’ve been stuffing will likely spill over into a nastier version of the conflict you’re avoiding now.  

If the conversation goes well, you’ll gain understanding for the controlling person, and you’ll get the chance to create a relationship together that feels a little more balanced.

Dealing With Control Freaks: Episode Show Notes

[02:11] All About Control Freaks

  • Understanding the psychology of a control freak can help you deal with them.

[09:23] Controlling People and Their Behavior

  • Control can be imposing one's will on others by asking them to do certain things. It can also mean preventing other people from doing what they would like to do.

[15:58] The Anxiety Behind Controlling Behavior

  • Anxiety leads to controlling behavior. 
  • Past trauma often leads to hypervigilance, which feels controlling to others.
  • Somebody who has a very anxious attachment style will have a lot of fear of abandonment, and will need people to do things to help them feel safe. This can get controlling.

[22:06] Control, Anxiety, and Personality Types

  • Anxiety and controlling tendencies can be related to personality types.
  • Personality styles, anxiety, trauma, culture, and family of origin can make people less tolerant of differences, which can feel controlling. 
  • People who have ADHD can lack a filter and can appear controlling others, when in fact they’re impulsive. 

[27:20] Controlling and Codependence 

  • A codependent relationship dynamic is where one partner can’t be okay unless their partner is okay or functioning how they think they should be. This often looks controlling.
  • Try to think beyond what’s happening in the moment. Be curious about the inner experience of the person engaging in controlling behavior — there’s always a “why”.

[33:23] Narcissism in Controlling Behavior

  • People who are true malignant narcissists have controlling tendencies. They will not change through vulnerable conversations. 
  • Controlling behaviors that can easily turn into abusive relationship dynamics. 
  • Not all narcissists are abusive in the sense of harming you physically. But they will punish you in very real and sometimes dramatic ways for failure to comply.

[37:06] How to Deal With Controlling People

  • If you are being yourself, different from how the controller wants you to be, it’s creating a “problem” in the relationship.
  • If you have a history of a parent who had controlling tendencies or was intrusive, you may perceive people in your life as being controlling.

[42:27] Empathy

  • Take an emotional risk and try to have an emotionally honest conversation with the controlling person, if it’s a relationship you value.

[45:40] Not Having the Conversation

  • It takes a lot of courage to have the conversation. 
  • If you’re not talking about how you feel and what’s going on, they won’t have the opportunity to address it or improve it.
  • You can have empathy for their feelings and understand them, while maintaining limits over the extent to which they can control you.

[49:02] Setting Healthy Boundaries

  • Setting healthy boundaries means deciding in advance how you are going to respond in different situations and then communicating that to somebody else.
  • Boundaries could mean removing yourself from the situation.
  • Your boundaries prevent people from controlling you.
  • To have healthy boundaries means having a lot of confidence in yourself and knowing that it is okay for you to have those boundaries.

Music in this episode is by Ski Patrol with their song “Agent Orange.”

You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: [https://skipatrol.bandcamp.com/.] Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.

Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you're listening to The Love, Happiness and Success Podcast.

If you are a regular listener of this show, you will know that I often try to find a musical introduction for each podcast that ties in with the theme of our topic for that day. Today is not one of those days, we are currently listening to Ski Patrol with their song Agent Orange, which has absolutely nothing to do with anything we're going to be talking about today. But welcome to my world and welcome to The Love, Happiness and Success Podcast. I am your host, Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby. And I guess when you think about it, this song, which I am playing because I just happen to enjoy it, is sort of on topic with our theme today. Because today we're talking about how to deal with control freaks.

People who want to have things their way, who are empowered to make sweeping decisions that impact the lives of others. Making you listen to the music they like, just because they can. Okay, I'll stop. And if this is your first time listening to the show, and you're trying to figure out what you have just stumbled into, allow me to orient you as to what's going on. I'm Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, I'm the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. I'm a psychologist, I'm a marriage and family therapist. I'm a board-certified coach, and I am here every week with love, happiness, and success advice for you.

I love doing this. I use it as an opportunity to dig deep and talk about things that are hopefully helpful and important to you. And thank you so much for your questions that have been coming in. We get questions on Instagram at @drlisamariebobby, you can get in touch with me at growingself.com. If you would like to chime in on the conversation or ask your own question, leave comments at the bottom of blog or podcast articles that interest you and you can also just email us hello@growingself.com, they come to me.

All About Control Freaks

Alright, so let's talk about this topic today. Dealing with control freaks is something that we can all relate to for sure we all have them in our lives. We may be one ourselves not mentioning names, but you know it's a thing. And it can really impact relationships. The good news is that understanding the psychology of a control freak can help you disarm them and manage them. If you have controlling tendencies yourself, I hope that just listening to this conversation will help you gain self-awareness, and the ability to understand what's happening, how things may be impacting other people, and how to dial it in, with a goal of having healthy happy relationships which are so fundamentally important and a frequent topic of this podcast. 

To begin this conversation, I'd like for you to scroll back through your mind's eye, and I'm going to say this phrase, control freak. Okay, who just popped into your head? Who was it? I know, it’s somebody, right? Maybe your control freak is a friend. The friend who has to be in charge of planning every detail of the trip. And no, we cannot visit the Colosseum on that day. Because that is the day we're going to be at the piazza and I've already decided where we're getting lunch, et cetera, right? Maybe it's your mom, who would really like it if you could date this nice young man who attends her church instead of your boyfriend of two years. “And look, he just happens to be coming over today to do some yard work, because he's such a nice young man. So won't you just meet him? I mean, he's going to be here. Anyway, I made lunch. Let's all just sit down. You’re hungry, right?”

I'm being a little silly, but this is actually tough stuff. When you are trying to have a relationship with somebody who you are experiencing as being intrusive, maybe disrespectful, it might even make you feel a little bit violated when you're with them. Like you're not that important, not compared to whatever they're feeling or wanting — that is more important. You know even if that's not their intention, that's how it can feel and worse, when control is happening. And you try to assert yourself and say “Actually, no I don't want to XYZ.” “I don't want to listen to this song, Dr. Lisa.”

Whatever. If you assert yourself, it can start a fight. It can lead to a conflict, and the conflict is probably going to feel a lot bigger than the particular issue at hand. Because it is bigger, it's not about where we're going for lunch, it's not about whether or not you're hungry, it's not about the song on the radio, it's about the control — that power dynamic underneath — and your desire to feel respected and understood, versus their desire to have their way. It gets big quickly.

Now, I would like to confess that I am a recovering control freak, maybe, but maybe I'm not in recovery, I don't know. But I'm at a point in my career where I need to work with other people. I need to play nicely with others, I am a part of a team. Now I am managing a group private practice, we have all kinds of people running around, we have 50 something counselors on our team and wonderful, wonderful people behind the scenes, like keeping the wheels on the bus, right. 

This requires teamwork and it is still a new experience for me because for the longest time, I was doing this all on my own. I was a solo private practitioner. Chief therapist, did insurance submissions with pen and ink, bottle washer, light bulb changer, all the things. I ordered the tissues, when we ran out of tissues. It was a growth curve for me. I think being on my own for a long time and operating independently was a good thing. I can do it, I'm an independent person, but I started bumping into stuff when now I am collaborating as a teammate of others. And having to accept that other things won't always be done exactly the way that I would have done them myself. And I think that that is actually a common thing for people in leadership positions. 

Parents, certainly, of children who are getting older and were once you did actually have to do everything yourself. When you just start a business, it is all you. When you're a parent of a brand new little baby, you do have to do all of the things, they cannot put a spoon in their own mouth without your assistance. As things grow and evolve, there is a journey of trust that needs to happen with other people. With your employees, with your kids, with your partner, in order to make space for them, and their feelings, and their needs and rights, and even preferences so that we are collaborating and having positive interactions with other people. As opposed to a unilateral kind of dictatorship situation that maybe, in your perspective, is the most efficient way of doing things not saying you're wrong. 

It damages relationships if you can't make space for other people too. Control dynamics, I am aware of them in my own life, but also there's something that comes up a lot in relationships. I have achieved a lot of understanding about where control issues come from. My hope is that is through this episode, you too will understand what is going on when power and control dynamics are at play. That understanding is key because once you understand controlling behavior, either in yourself or others, it becomes much less frustrating, first of all, and also a lot easier to respond to in a way that is both compassionate and productive, but also appropriately assertive too, right? So let's just jump in here.

Controlling People and Their Behavior

When we're talking about controlling behavior, what do I mean, what does controlling behavior look like? So, as I mentioned, some relationships include a level of appropriate control like a parent-child relationship — with a young child, obviously — boss-employee, organizational hierarchies, like there is a time and a place for one person to be sort of generally making decisions on behalf of another. But that is not what we are talking about. Because in relationships where that dynamic is part of it, if you're in the military, for example, your drill sergeant is not being controlling because they're telling you what to do, they're doing their job and the expectation is that you will do yours.

Controlling behaviors, by definition, are something that exist outside the norm of that authority hierarchy. So just move everything that is kind of there needs to be some level of control to a different column in your mind. And so then what's left over is what is related to inappropriate control. When there is not a mutually-agreed upon hierarchy or a basis for one person having say over what the other does, that is starting to be inappropriate, no matter what the circumstance. And inappropriate control can look like a lot of different things, it can look like not tolerating minor differences of opinion or micromanaging. It can also be a need to defy reasonable requests from others for no reason. 

Control can be imposing one's will on others by asking them to do certain things. But it can also show up by preventing other people from doing what they would like to do, that is also a form of control. Controlling behaviors can also have a very fun sidekick in the sidecar controlling behaviors are driving the motorcycle, and in the sidecar are punishing behaviors. And so if somebody has controlling tendencies, and you displease them, then they can be kind of punishing in response to that. Silent treatment, passive-aggressive behaviors, I will refer you back to the podcast episode on passive-aggressive behaviors that I did a little while ago. 

You can also see keeping score happening and power control dynamics or trying to instill a sense of obligation or indebtedness. “I helped you. Now you owe me and I will remember forever.” There can be some emotional manipulation, perhaps using guilt as a tool or playing the victim. Lots of things that people can do to maintain that control over others — psyops are involved.

Then, when it gets really serious like if there is a problem that like very problematic levels of control happening in a relationship, that can be violating physical boundaries. In abusive relationships, like actually abusive relationships, domestic violence kind of situations, which is beyond the scope of our podcast today, by the way, we are not talking about that. But in abusive relationships, there are always power and control dynamics where there can be physical aggression, blocking people from leaving, going through boundaries, limiting contact with other people, limiting access to resources or money, really like a lot of control. That is actually a core feature of a patently abusive relationship is not just that somebody's getting physically harmed, although that might happen. 

It's not just that somebody's getting punched in the face. It is that face punching is also happening in the context of many, many other efforts to maintain power and control over the individual who is being controlled and physical punishment can be part of that. But it is not the whole thing. This is a great opportunity if any of what I just shared makes you think of yourself or someone you love, please go to thehotline.org, it's a website. thehotline.org has tons of free resources, advice, and also access to domestic violence counselors to support you or a loved one through that incredibly difficult situation. So controlling behaviors can definitely come up there. 

There's also a wide, wide range of controlling behaviors that can show up in relationships that are not even close to actual like relationship abuse, but they're still very annoying and they're also very common. We need to know how to deal with these when they're coming up in our lives. As I mentioned, to handle this well, it's really important to understand what makes someone controlling in the first place. It's not enough to just look at the behaviors and point your finger and say “You're being controlling.” It requires some insight into what is going on that is making that person behave that way. And so whenever it comes to controlling behaviors, any kind of control, is almost always about anxiety and someone's efforts to manage their anxiety through control — control of themselves or control of the environment or control of others. 

The Anxiety Behind Controlling Behavior

A lot of people are walking around with a high degree of anxiety. People can have anxiety in relationships, they can have anxiety about safety, right, that turns into hyper-vigilance about what somebody else is doing or not doing. And the core feature of anxiety is really not feeling safe. Feeling like something bad may happen unless they take action to prevent it, a.k.a. control the situation. So, there are many things, as we all know, that can lead to anxiety. There are such things as genetically inherited predispositions towards mood disorders. Somebody cannot have had any life experiences that were adverse, and yet still be walking around a lot of the time in a state of heightened anxiety where they really do not feel good.

They have a lot of tension. They startle easily, they have trouble falling asleep, they can have heart palpitations, be trembly, but also a ton of future-oriented thinking where they are going far into the future to imagine possible dangerous things, possible problems that could happen. And because we are so good at envisioning things with our powerful and creative brains, especially very smart, intelligent, creative people can visualize all kinds of stuff somewhere out there in the future and scare the heck out of themselves. And it turns into this feedback loop because, unfortunately, the part of your brain that feels feelings cannot tell the difference between things you are thinking about and things that are actually happening. 

If you are thinking about potential problems and scary things somewhere in the future, your emotional brain will react to that in exactly the same way if it were really happening. And so you will experience all those anxious feelings and it's hard. And I've done other podcast episodes on the subject of anxiety in its own right and have some advice about how to get out of that, that feedback loop because when you're experiencing anxiety, emotionally, and physiologically, it makes your brain cognitively be more hyper-vigilant for danger. So it can be really difficult to get out of that loop.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy can be very effective and sometimes medications need to be involved and that is okay, too. Check out past podcasts about anxiety management, if you'd like to learn more about that. But irregardless of whether or not a mood disorder is at the root of anxiety in terms of the cause, there can be a lot of other reasons why people feel sort of fundamentally anxious in the world and why it can translate into controlling behaviors.

Past trauma can often lead to hypervigilance. Trauma could be relational trauma, or when somebody's lived through a really scary thing. There's big T traumas, there's little T traumas, but it all leaves a mark, you know, and one of the key features of trauma is hyper vigilance, and a need to control things and to seek safety. So people who have been traumatized don't feel safe. So they're always like trying to make sure that they're safe, and much of it can can turn into controlling their environment controlling themselves or controlling other people. For example, if somebody has a lot of attachment trauma, like real deal attachment trauma — would refer you back to my recent podcast episode about attachment styles and relationships to learn more about that. 

Somebody who has like a very, very anxious attachment style, will have a lot of fear of abandonment in relationships will have a high degree for people to do things in order to help them feel safe in relationships, and they won't feel safe anyway, but they try — God bless them. What that often looks like is a lot of controlling behaviors, trying to control their romantic partner. And in sometimes doing testing, pushing people away, “Are you going to leave me? How about now? What if I do this?” That can be problematic, obviously. But in these kinds of relational control situations, people may have a story, even a subconscious story, about if their partner really loved them, then they would do XYZ, and if they did XYZ, then I would feel safe, and I would feel loved, and I would feel better. 

“I really need them to do this thing.” And that's where a lot of the controlling behaviors can come from with that. Again, some of this is fairly garden variety and somebody who has an anxious attachment style, this will always come up at the very far extremes. Somebody with a very problematically anxious attachment style. This is what creates abusive relationships. So when domestic violence is actually happening, it's because of these attachments, insecurities, and then it turns into trying to control or punish a partner in order to maintain your, quote, safety, ironically, in the relationship. Again, beyond the scope of this episode, but just wanted to throw that little fun fact out there.

Control, Anxiety, and Personality Types

Anyway, it is also true that sometimes this anxiety and controlling tendencies can be related to personality types, believe it or not. In my psychologist training, did a lot of have education and experience around formal psychological testing, which is often related to, you know, identifying psychopathology and sort of broad personality traits. And I'm actually, though, over the years I have, I have become a big fan of some of the more like pop psychology commercially available personality assessment tools that are out there.

Not so much the Myer-Briggs, I think it can be so general, it's not as useful. But the Enneagram I don’t know if you've heard of the Enneagram, but that is a really fun one because I think it does actually pick up on broad personality traits. So introversion, extraversion, conscientiousness, neuroticism, those kinds of traits and pulls it into, I think it's probably nine different main personality types. Each one having sort of a spectrum of here's what this personality type looks like when it's really healthy and functioning well. And here's what this personality type looks like, on the other end of the spectrum for somebody who isn't actually doing that well, which can be really useful. But psychometrics aside, I think there are fundamentally some personality types that in absence of psychopathology, do just sort of have a higher need for things like order, security, and tend to have more controlling tendencies. 

A type one personality of Enneagrams, that sort of has very well-defined ways that things should be, and a function of personality, this can also be a function of family culture. If you grew up in a family that had very strong opinions about the correct way to do certain things, then you are now walking through the world, whether you know it or not, with this little mental yardstick that you're holding and holding up that yardstick to what other people are doing and that is incorrect. And that can feel to them, like criticism or efforts to control them. “That's not how you load a dishwasher” can feel very controlling to other people. But when you have just grown up in a culture where that was instilled in you, you can be doing that to other people and not even realizing that you're doing it because in your mind, you're just trying to be helpful.

That is one other reason why controlling behaviors can sort of happen in the absence of anxiety, although even then still, like, something bad could happen if the dishwasher gets loaded that way, so I need to intercede, right? And really, it's non-conscious, right? But it's this, something's wrong.

Enneagram type sixes are very sort of security-minded, can also get kind of controlling about the way things are done but it's sort of has a different reason why. But that can be interesting to explore if you're interested in checking out the Enneagram. I think it's like 12 bucks to take the full test if you're curious. Again, personality styles, anxiety, trauma, culture, family of origin can make people less tolerant of differences sometimes. And it's also very subtle, I mean, it comes up commonly in relationships, where we all have non-conscious expectations, and then kind of internal programming around the right way to do things or how things should behave. 

Sometimes when other people are not behaving correctly, according to our definition, it can be upsetting, and we can seek to rectify the situation by helping other people do things the right way, can't we? Alright. Also, interestingly, people who have ADHD can lack a filter. As you may know, if you or someone you love has ADHD. But what this can look like, is this impulsiveness that can extend to other people. If somebody with ADHD, who is not actively managing it will often have a thought in their head that immediately translates into we should do this and will often say that out loud or want somebody to do whatever they're thinking about right in that moment that is they're not trying to be controlling at all. They're not intentionally doing anything at all. They had a thought now it's coming out of their mouth, but again, it can be experienced as controlling to other people because it can come across as being very intrusive. 

Controlling and Codependence 

If not somebody really wants us to all do this one thing that wasn't the plan previously. Okay. And then very lastly, and this is actually oftentimes related to trauma is the idea of codependent relationships. I have also discussed codependent relationships on past podcasts but briefly a codependent relationship dynamic is where one partner can't really be okay, unless their partner is okay or functioning in the way that they think their partner should be functioning. And so this can often manifest in very controlling behaviors. Classic codependence comes up in relationships where maybe somebody is struggling with a substance abuse problem. You have the partner with the problem and then you have the codependent partner who is trying to manage the partner with a problem, which generally involves getting the partner with a problem to show up places on time or go to meetings, or did you go to the appointment, or did you call your sponsor have you drunk today — trying to maintain safety. A lot of anxiety happening there. 

You can also see codependent relationship dynamics happening when either one person comes into that relationship with very strong opinions about what should be happening and if their partner isn't doing it, they're like, “Oh, I need to make them do it.” Or sometimes if the codependent aka controlling partner has had a parent or family member where they maybe the parent had a substance problem, or where the person was in a parentalfide kind of role in their family of origin. They feel like they need to help and fix and take care of people and manage people's emotions. And so you'll often see them kind of interceding and trying to control if not the behaviors and sometimes even the emotions of their partner is a function of that codependent relationship dynamic. 

Anyway, lots of really interesting stuff under the surface. Whenever controlling behaviors are present, I would invite you to think beyond what's happening in the moment and get curious about the inner experience of the person who is engaging in said controlling behavior because there's always a “why”. There's always a why and when you can understand what that is, even if the controlling behavior itself isn't all that different, because of your understanding, and the empathy I think that often comes with understanding the compassion that you can feel for someone by understanding where that anxiety is coming from, or where that drive to help or fix or protect comes from, or even just the fact that they were trained this way by their family. I think it can just add so much compassion to these moments where it changes.

It changes your story. I think about what is happening, you know, it changes a story from “I am being persecuted and victimized by this person who is trying to control me” to a sort of softer “Oh, they feel anxious right now,” or “Yeah, you know, it makes sense why they would behave that way, based on what happened to them?” Or “Yeah, I guess they were raised that way.” Or even like my story that I shared at the very beginning, I was very much alone, like all alone, for — I don't know, the first 10 years of my experience in private practice. And so I think having that be my reality, it sort of trained my brain to figure out, “Oh, what am I going to do? How am I going to solve this problem? What needs to happen next? What —” And it was very functional in that space of being an independent operator, because I really — I needed to be I didn't have anybody else, right? 

Then, you know, to be in a different life circumstance, I had to reprogram myself and be like, “Okay, I don't have to do that anymore. I can trust other people to do things. I don't have to do everything.” If I don't know everything that is going on all the time, chances are, it's going to be okay. Because I'm surrounded by smart people who I can trust to do things well and to make good decisions. But like, I have to talk myself through that. But if you didn't know that about me, in the beginning, you might be like, “Why is she asking me if I've done this thing? Of course, I've done this thing, it's like, “How dare she suggest that I would forget to do that thing.” 

I think when you understand where it comes from, there can be more empathy. I try not to ask anymore, I can't always restrain myself, but I try. Now, those are kind of garden variety controlling situations. And I think that those are, believe it or not fairly easy to manage, in relationships. These are not just solvable problems, they are often growth moments for relationships. There's a lot that can be done to improve this and to really not just have the behaviors be different, but really turn the relationship into a vehicle for insight, and mutual understanding and growth for all involved. And we're going to talk about that in a second. 

Narcissism in Controlling Behavior

Though, before we do, I do just want to mention that there is such a thing as those malignant controllers. People who it would be inadvisable to try to do growth work with and those would be an attachment issue that is showing up in the abusive relational dynamics that we were talking about earlier in this conversation. You need help, if you're in that situation, check out thehotline.org. Educate yourself about it being able to understand what's happening is often the first step and being able to protect yourself or your kids. Do not try to change them, do not try to heal them, get to safety and then figure out the other stuff. So there's that. 

It is also true, that people who are true malignant narcissists can often have very controlling tendencies and are also not going to change through relational components. The wounds run very deep here. There is a difference between true malignant narcissists and what I think of as baby narcissists and you can check out a past podcast episode around I think I called it “So You're in Love with a Narcissist?” or something like that. Anyway, to learn more about how to tell the difference between a real narcissist and a baby narcissist. 

When somebody has real deal narcissistic tendencies, there's often a lot of controlling behaviors, that can easily turn into abusive relationship dynamics because they need you to behave a certain way in order to maintain their own stable sense of self. And if you do not do that reflect back the self-image that they need you to reflect back to them. If you are not appropriately compliant or pleasing, there can be hell to pay and sometimes you know it. And I think there are also commonly narcissistic features and really abusive relationships where truly bad stuff is happening. Not all narcissists are abusive in the sense of hiding the keys to the car and locking you in the bathroom, and harming you physically. But they will punish you in very real and sometimes dramatic ways for failure to comply. 

Again, if that is happening in your relationship, don't tangle with it. Get professional help, to figure out what's going on and to create a plan for safety. Because having heart-to-heart talks is not going to change this dynamic. And I think one of the reasons why people often stay in abusive relationships longer than they should, is because of that myth that “They can change. I can heal them with my love. We can have these super serious heart-to-heart talks, and they'll understand.” Don't tell yourself that story, please, please get help. And please keep yourself safe. Assuming there is nothing like that happening in your life.

How to Deal with Controlling People

Now we can turn our attention to how to deal with controlling people in your life who are annoying, but harmless, generally speaking, annoying but harmless controlling people. First of all, it's really normal and natural to have an angry reaction to somebody who's trying to assert inappropriate control over you. You might feel insulted or condescended to, like they're implying that you're incompetent and that doesn't feel good. Sometimes you can second guess yourself if you feel like somebody's being controlling but “Are they? Am I overreacting?” And it can show up especially in like inconsequential situations, like somebody's trying to get you to agree about who serves the best pizza in town and this is what we should have for dinner because blah, blah, blah. But when it feels like bigger to you, it's not about the topic. It's not about the pizza. It's not about the facts. It's about these subtle power and control dynamics, that if you are being yourself, meaning different than how the controller wants you to be, it's creating a problem in the relationship. 

Just pay attention to those kinds of subtle undercurrents in your interactions and understand that this is primal stuff. These things go deep, it's related to those attachment kind of drives that we've talked about in previous conversations. Humans have a fundamental need to be collaborative to be part of a stable group and if every interaction feels like a new fight, it feels unstable, it feels unsafe and it feels like you have to comply in order to maintain a peaceful relationship and that is not good for you. I have talked more about this in people pleasing episodes and your power and not — no, that was people-pleasing and passive aggressive people can definitely come up here. And it is also true and something to be aware of that if you have a life history of perhaps a parent who had really controlling tendencies or intrusive, was sort of more focused on their goals than yours. It is also true that you can experience people in your life as being controlling, when they're not trying to be controlling, that is not their intention there, they would actually be just fine. 

If you had a difference of opinion, or what did you do something the other way, everything is not a huge giant power struggle. But because you had so many of those early life experiences consistently, you might feel like you're being controlled, when you're just being in a relationship with another person, who also has opinions that are sometimes different than yours. If you notice that pattern, like if you — well, I mean, it can go both ways. If you can think back in your relationship history and have a long string of relationships with friends, or romantic partners, who were all controlling in some way or another bosses who were inappropriately controlling, that is a sign that you may be primed and have a tendency to perceive threat in that situation and that will be something to work on. Totally okay. 

It is important to work on it because if you experience people as having like lots of power and control stuff going on, it can lead to like people pleasing behaviors in you, where you feel unsafe to assert yourself in, in like, healthy relational ways. You're not talking about how you're feeling, you're not checking things out. You're not asserting yourself, or pushing back until you have a lot of feelings about it and then it is actually a big thing. So just just be aware of that. I've seen that happen frequently, so just stick a flag there. And if you sort it out that it is not your stuff it is actually specific to this person who is being inappropriately controlling or intrusive with you, there are a number of different of different ways of handling it. But the best way is to begin with empathy. 

Empathy

Core assumption here is that whoever is being weird and controlling is doing so from a place of usually anxiety puts you in the mental and emotional mindset to have a productive, helpful conversation with them. And then once you're in that space, it's time to take an emotional risk, and try to have an emotionally honest conversation with a person who's feeling inappropriate. It's important to remember that people who are behaving in controlling ways are almost never conscious that they are being controlling their experience is that they are being proactive, they are being thoughtful, they are being responsible, they're being helpful, they are doing the right thing, they are helping you understand something that you don't know, and that you would benefit from knowing right. The intentions are almost always good. They're keeping you safe. They're keeping themselves safe. And so that's their narrative. 

Just to understand that they themselves aren't aware that you're feeling the way that you're feeling unless you tell them and they will probably be surprised when you do say “I'm not feeling good right now.” Because that like “Well, I'm trying to help, right.” So understand that you don't probably have the full picture of where they're coming from and they probably don't have a full picture of their own motivations. I mean, it takes a lot of intentional personal growth work to dredge all this stuff up and figure out like, “Yes, I do feel anxious in these situations, because of XYZ. This makes perfect sense.” Like, it takes a long time to get to that place and understand, “Oh, when I'm feeling this way, I need to not do that thing and do this thing instead.” That is that is a hard won victory. People have to earn that snd it takes time and it takes work to do that.

Working with a good therapist can help you get there. But by beginning to have that conversation and not accusing people of doing certain things that say “I wonder if this situation is stressing you out or if you're worrying about something right now. Tell me more about how you're feeling.” That can be one way to crack into it and to have a really good conversation with somebody that you love. I mean, assuming that this is a relationship where it's important enough to invest that kind of effort in. You're not going to do that with everybody but for people that you care about, it's worth asking. Hopefully, the person that you care about will be able to have an honest conversation with you, that will help them gain awareness of how they're coming across, and maybe even gain awareness of how they're feeling. And it can be a really positive growth moment that can be beneficial for both of you. 

Not Having The Conversation

Just remember that even though having these kinds of conversations can feel hard, it takes a lot of courage to do that. The alternative is to not have that conversation. And when we don't have those conversations, we then must assume that this person is going to keep being controlling and inappropriate. Sometimes it can feel like we're protecting a relationship, when we avoid having those hard conversations. It is actually harming your relationship to not have those conversations. Because if you're not talking about how you feel, and what's going on, the person that you're having the problem with will not know and will not have the opportunity to address it or improve it. 

If you're not talking about it, your only option is then to withdraw from the relationship, because it's not going to change. More on people pleasing and passive aggressive people in previous episodes. If any of this sounded interesting to you, I hope you check out those past topics. Now, assuming that you were brave and courageous, and emotionally safe, and communicated your feelings honestly, and with empathy, and well, and someone shuts you down, and is like, “Nope, I am not having this conversation with you, you are wrong, incorrect.” No, then you tried and what you're left with. Again, you want to maintain the relationship and you don't have to. I mean, if somebody is unwilling to acknowledge your perspective and have real conversations with you about the relationship, you can withdraw, it's fine. 

Door number two, if it is a relationship that you want to maintain, while also releasing the hope that the person will behave differently, your other choice is to set and hold boundaries. You can still have empathy for their feelings and understand why a person is behaving the way they are, but has limits over the extent to which they can actually control you. Appeasing people and just going on with things can be tempting, particularly if you're on the passive side. But again, it doesn't work. It damages the relationship because it damages your emotional safety in the relationship. And so short-term, you avoid a fight. Long-term, it is not good for the relationship. And it also I hate to use the word — oh, what is the word — enabling it can enable controlling behavior, if you're kind of going along with things and not saying anything about it.

Setting Healthy Boundaries

It's like an absent type of enabling, you're not providing a controlling person with enough feedback to know if it's a problem or not. But it is your responsibility to set healthy boundaries for yourself whether or not somebody else is willing to go along with that. Remember, you are setting and maintaining boundaries, not expecting that the other person is going to change just because you have decided on a boundary. Otherwise, you'd be controlling them wouldn't you be? Healthy boundaries means deciding in advance how you are going to respond in different situations and then communicating that to somebody else. So to say, “I don't like it when you XYZ. I've tried to tell you how I feel about this, but it seems like we can't have that conversation. So the next time I come over to your house, and you have a blind date, a guy that you like there waiting to meet me, when I find out that that's happened, I'm going to leave. And so I'm just going to tell you about this ahead of time, so you can be prepared, and just know how I'm going to handle the situation.”

There we go. You're communicating what those boundaries are and it could be removing yourself from the situation, it could be, you know, “I am not having this conversation with you. And so we can either talk about something different, or we can end this get-together, and I'm just going to go home.” Your boundaries, prevent people's being able to aggress against you, essentially, or control you. And so, to have healthy boundaries means having a lot of confidence in yourself, and knowing that it is okay for you to have those boundaries and to hold them whether or not somebody else complies and also whether or not somebody else likes it. Part of having healthy boundaries is getting comfy with other people being upset because of your boundaries. And this isn't a bad thing, it's a good thing. 

You can check out past podcast episodes on this topic, if you're interested in learning more about that. And very lastly, so I think that with a lot of this, we have been talking about controlling behavior, I think as it extends to sort of friends, family members, parents, siblings, probably to a degree, a partner. But I would also say that if it is difficult to have meaningful and productive conversations, about controlling behaviors with your partner, and if there is like codependent stuff going on, or like a lot of relationship, anxiety and demands going on. Or a inability to make space for a co-created reality, like getting married and moving in and having a home together, it is now your shared home. And one person does not get to decide how we do all the things and the correct way to slice a tomato or whatever like that. We have to make space for each other. 

If that is really difficult to do in your primary relationship, that is a very good indication that you might need mediation. To get in front of a good marriage counselor, couples therapist, who specializes in couples and family therapy, remembering that 95 plus percent of therapists who provide couples counseling, do not have specialized training and experience in couples counseling. Scary but true. You want to look for a licensed marriage and family therapist who has specialized education, training, licensure. A lot of knowledge in these dynamics in particular, and be talking about it there. Because in a primary relationship, this stuff has to be resolved. If it isn't, it turns into emotional disconnect. It turns into resentment, it turns into grudges, it turns into avoidance, and all kinds of weird and unpleasant emotional things can happen in that space when controlling behaviors are occurring. 

You can't resolve them productively together. So get do get help. Okay, well, I hope this conversation about how to deal with control freaks was helpful and informative and gave you insight into the mind and heart of the control freak that you love or potentially into your own kind of way of being and how it may be experienced by others. You know, and no judgment we all have work to do and it's all good stuff. And I'm so glad that we can do it together here on The Love, Happiness and Success Podcast. Thank you so much for joining me today. Here is more Ski Patrol and Agent Orange to show us out and I'll see you next time another episode.

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