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 article 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’ve also recorded an episode of the Love, Happiness, and Success podcast on this topic, which you can find on this page, Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.
Schedule a Free Consultation Today.
Dealing With Control Freaks
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.
- 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:
- Begin with empathy. Remember, the person is probably being controlling because they feel worried and scared.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Listen & Subscribe to the Podcast
Dealing With Control Freaks
The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
Free, Expert Advice — For You.
Subscribe To The Love, Happiness, and Success Podcast
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
Let’s Talk: Start With a Free Consultation
If you’re ready to grow, we’re here to help. Connect with us, and let us know your hopes and goals. We’ll follow up with recommendations, and will help you schedule a first, free consultation.