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What Do You Mean I'm Being Controlling?
Gaining A Better Understanding of What Control Is and
How It Affects You and Others Around You

by David J. Decker, M.A., L.P.

Many people become confused and even quite upset if a partner or someone else in their lives accuses them of "being controlling" in their relationship together. And many people are all too quick to completely dismiss the notion that they are being controlling without really thinking about what the other person is actually trying to communicate to them or trying to understand what it really means to be controlling in a relationship.

The desire to have some control over what happens around us in our lives is a natural part of being human, often motivated by a drive to attempt to create some sense of stability, predictability, and safety in our environment. There are healthy aspects of a desire to control, captured best by the idea of being in control of oneself (see Self-Control below). There are also examples of the necessity of exerting some control over others, like the importance of parents providing guidance to children as they grow, the need for a teacher to provide some structure in the classroom, and the desire for a supervisor to have some control over what his or her employees are doing in the workplace.

Like many parts of your humanness, controlling behavior is on a continuum and everyone experiences varying degrees of a desire and actual attempts to control others. But the desire to control becomes a glaring problem when it involves going to extremes to try to influence and dominate others around you. Attempting to "micromanage” your friends, your students, your employees, your children, or a partner in a intimate relationship becomes limiting and confining to the people with whom you are doing this. It also gets in the way of building a safe, trusting, nurturing, and healthy relationship with that other person. Ultimately, people have the right and the responsibility to decide who they want to be and then to pursue that vision of themselves. This is true even if someone else believes that they should be a different person and think and act in a different way. In the end, self-definition is a vital part of healthy living.

Explosive, disrespectful, and punishing families, where there is generally a lot of rigidity and/or chaos, often create very controlling individuals who then leave their original families and do exactly the same thing in their adult relationships that they saw played out when they were growing up. Trying to control everything within yourself and around you is the cardinal rule of a shame-based system, whether it is a family or any other type of organization. Shame is always a part of being controlling and can be defined as a way of looking at yourself, other people, and the world around you and a way of living your life based on control, perfectionism, blame, and reactivity that leads to cynicism, despair, and eventually stagnation. Shame is always destructive to your own life and your relationships with others.

Shame is generated by and actually contributes to enormous insecurity and self-doubt.
In reality, controlling people don’t feel very good about themselves. They wouldn’t try to
control others in the way they do if they truly felt okay. Controllers often think to themselves: “If others would just do what I want and see the world the way that I do, then everything would be fine for me and everyone else.” Unfortunately, if you were raised in a family like this, where significant control was overtly or covertly manifested and where rigid and unrealistic roles of you and others were expected, you may have taken on some of the unhealthy aspects related to control. When control becomes an intense and all-consuming desire to be in charge or force change in a person or situation and is then acted out by you in the relationship or the situation, it becomes a significant problem and often leads to manipulative, disrespectful, punishing, intimidating, and sometimes even violent behavior.

When people talk about someone being controlling, this generally refers to the category below called Over-Control of Others. In a disrespectful, explosive, or shaming family, people are often taught that they are supposed to "take charge" of what happens around them. Being in control of others and "having life the way I think it should be" is viewed as the primary way that your life can run smoothly and that you can feel comfortable in your daily living. In these types of families, control is also often viewed incorrectly as a sign that others respect, care about, and love you. So if someone is unwilling to follow your “plan” for them, this becomes personalized and you may believe that “others don’t really love me if they won’t do what I want them to do and be who I want them to be.”

The larger culture can also give you strong directives about who you are and should be and about the need to be in control. Just think about how a "real man" is supposed to respond to issues, problems, or conflicts according to society's messages. Men are supposed to take charge and even "kick butt" if necessary. Women, in the past, have had fewer opportunities to directly exert control over others. But they have also been taught that it is okay to use manipulation and passive-aggressive behaviors (such as acting like a long-suffering martyr to instill guilt in others) to get what they want. Even this, however, is changing in our present culture and, for many women, direct efforts to control others are becoming much more a part of their ongoing repertoire in their interactions with the people around them.

Shame-based and controlling individuals believe it is their "right" and their “responsibility” to define other people and control life situations around them so that they can try to feel okay about themselves. They often believe that they know other people better than those others know themselves. Controlling people feel challenged and threatened by any reality, belief system, or way of being that does not conform to their way of looking at the world. Different thoughts, feelings, wants, and needs are a sign of emotional distance and even an “affront” to the controlling person, who often feels attacked, rejected, and abandoned when any differences exist. Controlling behavior is, ultimately, designed to silence and eliminate these signs of “differentness.”

Controllers violate others’ psychic and sometimes even their physical boundaries. Control can easily lead to emotional, verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. People whom you try to control feel as if they are being “nullified” since they are not allowed to be themselves or create their own reality. In the end, speaking or acting for others will not work. Eventually, the people you are trying to control will react and rebel, either overtly or covertly, and begin to emotionally distance from you. Being controlled in a family or a relationship is not what most people want. It is not safe and it is not respectful. The only person you really have any control over is yourself.

A desire to control can be masked in the idea that your controlling attitudes and behaviors are, in fact, really a sign of love and caring for the other person:

“I only say these things to you...

...because I love you as much as I do (and so you need to change and do what I want for you),”

...because I am only trying to take care of you (since you can't take care of yourself adequately)" and

...because I just want to 'help' (or ‘fix’) you (since you are not capable of helping or ‘fixing' yourself)."

This desire to control can also be presented in the guise of an entitled and arrogant belief that:

..."I know what's best for you (so you need to do what I say)” or

..."I know what is wrong with you (and I’m the only one who can help you make it right and make you into a better person).”

But, in the end, these are simply variations on a theme designed to put the controller in charge of the other person and his or her life. Controllers often truly believe that they know best what that other person actually needs or wants. In many instances, they don’t even view their controlling attitudes or behaviors as stifling, hurtful, demeaning, or cruel.

Over-Control is always about self-doubt, insecurity, uncertainty, and a sense of powerlessness. Controlling behavior originates from a lack of self-awareness and healthy boundaries in the controlling person. People who have a strong desire to control others do not, in fact, feel very good about themselves. In reality, just the opposite is true. They often have an intense fear about “being wrong” and, in fact, feel inferior themselves beneath their “know-it-all” facade. Essentially, they tend to base their shaky self-esteem on whether others will live according to the plan that the controller has in mind for them. Controlling people mix up their reality with that of another person. They believe that their controlling actions are absolutely necessary and that they, in fact, have the right to speak and act for others and define who others should be.

Over-Control is actually a prison for both the person being controlled and the controller since both peoples' options and choices are significantly limited when someone tries to exert power and control over another person. When controlling behavior occurs, it interferes with the other person's ability to develop as a human being and to become the person he or she really wants to be. Controllers create insecurity and dependency, and dramatically affect the other person’s sense of well-being. The person being controlled often ends up ignoring and discounting their own thoughts, feelings, wants, needs, and intuition and losing a sense of who they really are.

Eventually, the person being controlled loses confidence, respect, freedom, safety, conviction, and, in the end, even their “true self.”

There are also problems created for the controller by being a controlling person. The "down side" for the controller is that he or she assumes complete responsibility for the other person's life. That can become an enormous burden. In addition, controllers are intensely fearful of separateness, “differentness,” and distance in their relationships but, in the final analysis, their controlling behavior creates a self-fulfilling prophecy and actually ends up driving important others away from them. Finally, being controlling means that you will never really look at and get to know yourself. You are continually focused outward.

Focusing on and finding fault with others is a convenient path to avoiding personal responsibility and the potential for genuine growth and healing, both of which take introspection, self-awareness, and just plain hard work. In the end, being controlling stifles your ability to become the kind of person you may truly want to be. When all is said and done, who wants to be in prison, as either the jailer or the inmate? This is not a healthy or satisfying way to live.

People who basically feel okay about themselves do not need to force their feelings, thoughts, actions, and will on others. Nor do they assume that they know more than everyone else and, because of this, have the right to impose their “wisdom” on others. In the end, other people have the right and the responsibility to direct their own lives, even if you disagree with how they are doing it. Ultimately, you cannot force someone to live the “game plan” that you happen to have for them.

This doesn’t mean that many people don’t try to control others, however. The controlling person is generally saying to himself or herself: "What will happen if I let go?" or “Things will really fall apart if I don't continue to try to maintain control of this person (or situation)." These kinds of thoughts can lead to an obsessive desire to hang onto a belief that they, in fact, do have that right and that responsibility to try to control those other people around them.

Paradoxically, the more you try to control people and things outside yourself, the more "out-of-control," frustrated, victimized, and powerless you will end up feeling in your life. It is extremely aggravating when people won’t do what the controller “knows” is best for them. This often ends up simply fueling more and stronger attempts to control others which leads to a unending cycle of misery for everyone involved. Trying to control other people and their behavior may work short-term to get what you want, but it just doesn't work in any kind of ongoing manner.

People who are angry, especially when their anger is disrespectful, punishing, and explosive, want to control what is going on around them. Control is a "given" whenever anger is present. You feel uncomfortable and want something to change. And the more intense and severe the anger expression is, the more a desire to control is present in the person expressing the anger.

If an angry person is feeling unhappy about something, they may want the other person to "fix it" in order to allow them to get into a “happier” mood or to feel better about their situation. If they are feeling insecure, they may want someone to make them feel more secure and okay about themselves. If they are feeling threatened or fearful, they may want the other person to "back off" and stop whatever they are doing that feels threatening to them. If things feel "out of control" around them, they may want someone to do something that will help them feel like things are more "in control." But, sadly, the bottom line is that no one can do these things for you to “make” you feel okay. In the final analysis, you have to take responsibility for your own life, your own happiness, and your own sense of well-being.

Disrespectful and explosive anger works short-term to control people and situations. In fact, people who act this way often get what they want in the immediate situation. But the final result is generally not what they are seeking or expecting. Eventually, the people around them and their disrespectful anger feel fearful, intimidated, hurt, punished, and controlled and start to distance from that angry person, both emotionally and, in many cases, physically as well. They may even terminate the relationship completely.

In the end, it is important to realize that control is the antithesis of empathetic and genuine communication and emotional connection. The people in your life begin to disconnect from you the very moment you begin to define them in your image. And the opposite is also true. Genuine emotional connection occurs when you “speak your internal truth” and honestly and openly talk about your reality and how you see the world and, at the same time, ask others, with a sense of authentic interest and acceptance, about who they actually are. Healthy and fulfilling connection with others recognizes, accepts, and even embraces the uniqueness and individuality of the other person

Two additional aspects of control are also addressed in the sections below. When you become overly concerned with yourself and how you appear and act (see Over-Control of Self) or allow others to completely dominate you and your day-to-day life (see Lack of Self-Control), you end up suffering emotionally (and sometimes physically) as well. The definitions that follow talk about different aspects of control and identify qualities and characteristics that are a part of each. Look through the lists and see if any of these fit for you or others in your life.

OVER-CONTROL OF OTHERS: doing as much as you possibly can to attempt to dominate and take charge of the people and situations around you. This means frequently violating others’ personal boundaries through OVERT (e.g. being verbally demanding) or COVERT (e.g. being manipulative) methods. Over- Control can be related to:

  • Having lower self-esteem
  • Expecting and even demanding that others do what you want them to do and be who you want them to be
  • Being aggressive and intrusive and and invading others' personal space and boundaries
  • Not knowing or caring much about how you are affecting or impacting others
    • ...or denying, discounting, or dismissing feedback from others about how they are being affected by you and your attempts to control them
  • Forcing unwanted advice, suggestions, and your "knowledge" and "wisdom" on others
    • ...e.g. using unremitting “logic” to convince others that what they think or feel is “wrong”
  • Interrupting and speaking for and over others
  • Attempting to be "one-up" in your relationships with others by being condescending, grandiose, arrogant, and “holier-than-thou”
  • Being "closed-minded" and unwilling or unable to see things from others' perspectives
  • Manipulating and being passive-aggressive to get what you desire
  • Withholding information, being deceptive, or being dishonest (“lies of commission” or “lies of omission”)
  • "Playing the victim" and acting helpless, hopeless, and powerless to try to get your way
  • "Playing the martyr" and using guilt and self-righteousness with others to attempt to get what you want
  • Using bribes
  • Shaming or discounting others
  • Threatening, bullying, and intimidating others
  • Using economic control
    • ...withholding money, making all the important financial decisions, deciding how money is to be spent, giving an adult partner "an allowance" that you alone have decided is appropriate
  • Trying to isolate others to maintain your power over them (e.g. from friends and family)
  • Being critical and judgmental about others' ideas, opinions, feelings, wants, and actions
  • Using male entitlement:
    • ...e.g. "I should make all the important decisions about your life because I am a man, which means I am more capable and competent than women are"
  • Using female entitlement:
    • ...e.g. "I should have the final say, get what I want, and determine what happens in our relationship because I am a woman and I deserve to be pampered and taken care of by any man who is close to me"
  • Using emotional and/or verbal abuse
  • Using physical and/or sexual abuse

LACK OF SELF-CONTROL: allowing others to violate your personal boundaries by dominating and taking charge of who you are, what you think, what you feel, and how you act. This way of being can be related to:

  • Having lower self-esteem
  • Feeling worthless, inadequate, and incompetent
  • Lacking self-knowledge (e.g. about your thoughts, feelings, wants, and needs)
  • Lacking self-confidence and self-respect
  • Having difficulty identifying and articulating your own values, beliefs, and personal goals
  • Feeling adrift and having little or no focus, purpose, or meaning in your life
  • Being easily influenced and controlled by others and what they think and want
  • Having little self-discipline (e.g. creating little structure and routine in your life)
  • Having few clear personal boundaries for yourself
    • ...e.g. regarding time, space, and commitments
  • Being passive and unwilling or unable to speak up for yourself and to set healthy limits with others
  • Acting helpless, hopeless, and powerless
  • "Stuffing" anger, resentment, and other feelings until they come out in self-destructive ways
  • Being "people-pleasing" and “co-dependent” in your relationships with others
  • Allowing others to define who you are and direct what you do
  • Being driven and motivated primarily by guilt, shame, and others' expectations of you

OVER-CONTROL OF SELF: keeping "too tight a rein" on who you are, how you express yourself, and how you experience your life. This way of being can be related to:

  • Having lower self-esteem
  • Feeling tense and anxious much of the time
  • Having overly rigid and inflexible personal boundaries
  • Being "tight," constrained, and "very careful" in how you present yourself and interact
    with others
  • Avoiding spontaneity and playfulness
  • Being continually fearful about making mistakes, being judged and criticized, or
    appearing "stupid" or "silly" to others
  • Being obsessive and compulsive in various aspects of your life
    • ...e.g. regarding neatness, cleanliness
  • Acting overly serious and somber
  • Being unwilling to take risks and over-concerned with the idea of failing at what you do
  • Being perfectionistic
  • Being untrusting, guarded, and unwilling to self-disclose and to be vulnerable with others
  • Being "closed-minded" and unable or unwilling to see things from others' perspectives

SELF-CONTROL: making reasonable efforts to maintain control of yourself in your own life and to try to reasonably influence others, which involves sharing power equally, negotiation, and "give and take." This way of being can be related to:

  • Having higher self-esteem
  • Knowing yourself and experiencing self-confidence and self-respect
  • Having personal goals and dreams and actively pursuing them
  • Knowing and living your beliefs and values
  • Knowing and using your “personal power” vs. trying to exert “power over” others
  • Being willing to take personal and work-related risks
  • Maintaining a healthy discipline in your life
  • Providing yourself with structure and routine in your daily living
  • Having and maintaining clear and healthy boundaries for yourself
    • ...e.g. about your body, your time, your space
  • Having a clear sense of how your words and actions affect those around you
  • Acknowledging and respecting other peoples’ personal boundaries
    • ...including being willing to listen and take into account others’ perspectives
  • Feeling empathy, compassion, and caring for other people
  • Being accepting of differences between you and others
  • Allowing yourself to experience all your emotions
  • Expressing your feelings openly, respectfully, and appropriately
  • Being direct, honest, and assertive with your thoughts, ideas, and opinions
  • Offering guidance and wisdom to others without the expectation that they will necessarily be who you want them to be or "have a good attitude" about what you say or want
  • Accepting that others truly do have a clear right to chart the course of their lives
  • Understanding what intimacy is and actively promoting caring and emotional connection in your relationships
  • Being able to trust others whom you choose to have in your life and be vulnerable with them when appropriate

© 2006 David J. Decker, MA, LP - adapted in part from material by Michael Obsatz Phd
Phone: 612-725-8402 or 651-646-4325 -




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