Controlling people can show up anywhere in your life: romance, friendships, work, or your good old dad. Sometimes these people are well-meaning, but it’s driving you crazy! They’re always telling you what to do, and there are two ways of doing things: their way and the wrong way. They say they’re “just trying to be helpful,” but you often walk away feeling resentful, frustrated, drained, or even depressed. Today we’re going to turn that around! In this episode, you’ll learn the six main categories of controlling behaviors and my top tools for dealing with each one.
What is Controlling Behavior?
I see controlling behavior (like most things) on a continuum. I’m going to break them down from the most serious and controlling to the most benign.
1. Violence/Physical or Mental Abuse:
This is when someone is trying to control your freedom or autonomy through threats of physical violence or possibly something like controlling finances in a way that you’re afraid to leave or think you’ll have nothing if you go. This is generally marked by constant belittling, manipulation, and rage. This person might try to isolate you from family or friends and often uses intimidation tactics. I’m not going to speak about this end of the control spectrum today. If you’re in this type of situation, listening to this podcast isn’t for you. Contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline immediately. They can help you assess what’s happening and guide you safely toward the next steps.
There are four kinds of narcissism, and these often involve gaslighting and threats. I’m not going to be speaking about dealing with diagnosed narcissists today because you can learn how to deal with a narcissist as well as signs that someone is gaslighting you and what to do about it from my earlier episodes.
3. Extreme or Unreasonable Jealousy:
Jealousy can show up in a number of ways. At work, it might be someone who’s very focused on you doing better than them and who will quiz you on what you spoke to your boss about or details of a project you’re working on. A controlling friend might only want you to be friends with them and will criticize or speak negatively about other friends you spend time with. A jealous partner might pout or get upset anytime you spend time with someone other than them or interrogate you about your Instagram account and who you’re following. There’s generally a lot of possessiveness here and unreasonable grounds for how they’re acting. Jealousy can be included, of course, in the first two categories I mentioned, but it can also be less obvious, so it needs its own category. I’m not going deep here since I covered what to do if your partner is jealous in a previous post.
Now we’re getting into the area for today’s chat. These are people who think there are two ways of doing things: their way and the wrong way. They tend to be somewhat rigid with rules and are often very black-and-white.
5. Bossy or Micromanaging:
Now we’re really getting down to it. A more “normal” controlling person tends to be a bit bossy or directive. They have an opinion about everything! They likely tell you what to do a lot (and you get especially annoyed when you are just about to do that thing and they remind you)! They’re also thinking of every eventuality and future-tripping, so they might be planning things down the road that make them seem like a worry wart or doomsayer. This also shows up as the over-protective or helicopter parent. It can also look like straight up nagging as they remind you about how to eat or monitor how much you’re exercising.
Learn why people are critical and strategies to gain peace when you’re being criticized or judged.
6. I’ll Just Do It Myself:
The other end of the spectrum from the controlling abuser is the person who won’t accept any help and just wants to do it all themselves. This can come across very nicely, “It’s OK, I already did it,” or passive-aggressively. “I’ll just do it myself since no one around here can ever do it right.”
As I already mentioned, I’m not talking today about relationships on the end of the spectrum that deal with abuse. I’m talking about run-of-the-mill controlling people who maybe even mean well, but it’s driving you crazy. These are people who are always (often) telling you what to do. There are two ways of doing things: their way and the wrong way. They’re “just trying to be helpful,” or you find it’s impossible to have a discussion with them because they’re rigid and only believe that their way is right.
For example, in a romantic or parenting relationship, controlling behavior is often couched as being helpful. Your mom might give you suggestions and advice to make your life better, or your partner might tell you the best way to burp your child. This is often the toughest kind of controlling behavior to deal with because their response is something like, “I was just trying to help.” In reality, it’s criticism, fear, and manipulation. They’re trying to get you to match their expectations of how things “should” be because they’re trying to control outcomes to feel safe.
Sometimes controlling behavior is obvious:
- “I don’t want you hanging around that guy.”
- “You need to be home by 6:00 for dinner every night.”
- “You can’t have the credit card. I don’t trust you with it.”
- “I don’t want a wife who works.”
- “You look ridiculous in that; wear this instead.”
- “You’re doing that wrong. Can’t you do anything right?”
But other times, it’s harder to identify because it’s more understated:
- “Are you sure you want a second helping?”
- “Do you think it’s a good idea to go out this late?”
- “Make a left up here; it’s a quicker route.”
- “Here’s a better way to chop the garlic.”
- “Is that what you’re wearing to the interview?”
- “How many drinks have you had tonight?”
- “Did you get to the gym today?”
- “He should know what I like after ten years of marriage.”
- “She knew that would upset me!”
- “I was just trying to help!”
Key Traits of a Controlling Person
First and foremost, control freaks rarely know that they are one! They believe that they’re just helping you with their “feedback or suggestions” or by finishing something “so it’s done right.” They don’t see their controlling behavior as a symptom of their own anxiety. Their self-awareness is often very low, or they might understand they’re “a little” controlling but still rationalize it as the best for everyone.
Anxiety is at the root of all control issues. This anxiety makes them feel internally out of control. This drives them to find something to control to make them feel better and back in some sort of power, and that “something” is you (among other things).
Controlling people can’t understand why you see things differently than they do! They haven’t even considered that there’s another valid viewpoint on eating, child-rearing, or working on a project. If you see something in a different way, then you’re simply wrong. If they feel passionate about something and you disagree, then they’ll often get even more upset. You might be deemed stupid, ignorant, immoral, or obnoxious.
They say things like: “Polite people do X” (that’s the only option if you’re polite). “Rude people always Y.” “Loyal people X.” “It’s unprofessional to….”
The other thing to remember is that controlling people have issues with their self-esteem and are terrified of being vulnerable. This is one of the reasons they can get angry when you don’t follow their advice. When you don’t do what they’ve said is right, their self-esteem takes a hit, so they lash out. “Why do I waste my time giving you advice when you never listen?”
Five Ways to Deal with a Controlling Person
1. Focus on Yourself
If you believe that the only way to be happy in any relationship is if someone else changes, then you’re in for a long, unhappy life. You will not change this person, and that cannot be your focus. If you’re trying to get them to change, then you’re the one with the control problem.
Trying to assert control over someone who’s determined to hold on to it is pointless. Step back and check in with yourself. It’s up to you to be different. You can’t change them—you can only change yourself.
2. Identify Your Boundaries
When dealing with controlling people, you have to know your boundaries and stick to them.
Example 1: Clara at work is super controlling. Every time you meet with your supervisor, she asks you what got said. When you’re working on a project, she wants to micromanage you and your work. She often takes the lead and tries to delegate to you and then follows up constantly to find out what you’re doing and point out ways you should do it instead.
Your boundary here is speaking to her first and letting her know that you don’t do well in this kind of work environment and then laying down your boundaries. “I’m not going to ever discuss with you what happens in supervision, so please stop asking.” Next time she asks, ignore her or remind her of the boundary.
If you’re working on a project together (or if she’s actually your boss), lay out the boundaries: “I won’t be answering emails between 8:00pm and 7:00am. I’ll check in with you every Friday by email with updates on progress, not before.” If and when she tries to trample your boundary, either ignore her or remind her but stick to your guns!
Feeling overburdened and burned out at work? Find out why you’re burned out and my top 5 tips to stop it.
Example 2: Your mom is focused on that extra 20 pounds you’re carrying. She forwards you emails about diets or even gives you a gym membership for your birthday. When you’re at gatherings, she mentions how she cooked some low-carb options for you or chides you when you take a second helping.
Your boundary: Tell her that you’re not OK with her mentioning anything about your weight, food, or exercise. Be clear that she’s not to say a word to you, no matter how helpful she thinks it is, and then lay out the responses you’ll have if she continues (not coming over for meals anymore, blocking her emails, etc.).
Learn how to set healthy boundaries and how to hold them.
Remember, you can’t act like a victim or blame your partner, boss, or parent. If you don’t like something, it’s your responsibility to change what you’re doing. Your happiness is 100% on you.
3. Don’t Get into a Power Struggle
Control freaks love a good power struggle! They know they’re right and can’t wait to prove their point to you. They tend to be excellent at arguing their point(s) and can suddenly seem like high-powered lawyers. Your “opinions” (otherwise known as your feelings and boundaries) will get lost or demolished in their excellent word-smithing and clever language. You’re never going to win if you get into a control tug-of-war with them, so don’t play the game.
This is why laying out your boundaries is so important. If they continue their behavior, your job is to follow through on what you said would happen when you stated your boundary.
4. Figure Out Why You Care
This is the hardest part of all this. Why do you really care that someone else is being controlling? It doesn’t mean you need to let them, so why are you so upset? There were times when strangers tried to control me, and I could care less, but when my mother would say something, I’d go from zero to sixty in two seconds!
Being mindful and self-aware in your moments is your best tool when dealing with a controlling person. It’s only from this place that you can identify what’s happening and find the compassion to lovingly detach from what the other person is doing.
5. Practice Loving Detachment
Overall, you want to practice loving detachment with a controlling person. This means that you don’t take what they’re saying or doing personally. Loving detachment is about engagement with your boundaries. Loving detachment isn’t based on how I feel about you; it’s about how I feel about myself in relation to you!
Do your best not to be full of resentment and frustration. Instead, find the compassion with loving detachment. The other person is hurting, and that’s why they’re being so controlling. This isn’t about you; it’s about them. So, hold your boundaries, but do it with a loving heart.
Resources for How to Deal with Controlling People
The National Domestic Violence Hotline
Signs that Someone is Gaslighting You and What to Do About It
What to Do if Your Partner is Jealous
Five Things to Do When You Feel Like You’re Being Criticized
How to Set Boundaries at Work and Avoid Burnout
Boundaries: How to Identify Them and How to Hold Them
How to Make Mindfulness a Habit
Four Ways to be More Self-Aware