How to Deal with a Control Freak

As a psychiatrist, I have observed that relationships are one of the major sources of exhaustion for many of my patients. In “Emotional Freedom” I discuss how to deal with different kinds of draining people to avoid getting fatigued, sick, or burned out.

It’s important to identify if you are dealing with a “controller.” These people obsessively try to dictate how you’re supposed to be and feel. They have an opinion about everything; disagree at your peril. They’ll control you by invalidating your emotions if those don’t fit into their rulebook. Controllers often start sentences with, “You know what you need?”…then proceed to tell you. They’ll sling shots like, “That guy is out of your league” or “I’ll have dinner with you if you promise to be happy.”

People with low self-esteem who see themselves as “victims” attract controllers. Whether spouting unsolicited advice on how you can lose weight or using anger to put you in your place, their comments can range from irritating to abusive. What’s most infuriating about these people is that they usually don’t see themselves as controlling--only right.

Controllers are often perfectionists. They may feel, “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.” Personally, I can relate to this, though I’m getting better at delegating. Controllers are also controlling with themselves. They may fanatically count carbs, become clean freaks or workaholics. Conventional psychiatry classifies extreme cases as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder--people are rigidly preoccupied with details, rules, lists, and dominating others at the expense of flexibility and openness.

Quiz: Am I In A Relationship With A Controller?

    • Does this person keep claiming to know what’s best for you?

      Do you typically have to do things his way?

    • Is he so domineering you feel suffocated?

    • Do you feel like you’re held prisoner to this person’s rigid sense of order?

    • Is this relationship no fun because it lacks spontaneity?

If you answer “yes” to 1-2 questions, it’s likely you’re dealing with a controller. Responding “yes” to 3 or more questions suggests that a controller is violating our emotional freedom.

Use the following methods from “Emotional Freedom” to deal with controllers.

Emotional Action Step - Pick Your Battles and Assert Your Needs

1. The secret to success is never try to control a controller

Speak up, but don’t tell them what to do. Be healthily assertive rather than controlling. Stay confident and refuse to play the victim. Most important, always take a consistent, targeted approach. Controllers are always looking for a power struggle, so try not to sweat the small stuff. Focus on high-priority issues that you really care about rather than bickering about putting the cap on the toothpaste.

2. Try the caring, direct approach

Use this with good friends or others who’re responsive to feedback. For instance, if someone dominates conversations, sensitively say, “I appreciate your comments but I’d like to express my opinions too.” The person may be unaware that he or she is monopolizing the discussion, and will gladly change.

3. Set limits

If someone keeps telling you how to deal with something, politely say, “I value your advice, but I really want to work through this myself.” You may need to remind the controller several times, always in a kind, neutral tone. Repetition is key. Don’t expect instant miracles. Since controllers rarely give up easily, be patient. Respectfully reiterating your stance over days or weeks will slowly recondition negative communication patterns and redefine the terms of the relationship. If you reach an impasse, agree to disagree. Then make the subject off limits.

4. Size up the situation

If your boss is a controlling perfectionist--and you choose to stay--don’t keep ruminating about what a rotten person he or she is or expect that person to change, and then operate within that reality check. For instance, if your boss instructs you how to complete a project, but you add a few good ideas of your own, realize this may or may not fly. If you non-defensively offer your reasoning about the additions, you’ll be more readily heard. However if your boss responds, “I didn’t say to do this. Please remove it,” you must defer because of the built-in status difference in the relationship. Putting your foot down--trying to control the controller---will only make work more stressful or get you fired.

People who feel out of control tend to become controllers. Deep down, they’re afraid of falling apart, so they micromanage to bind anxiety. They might have had chaotic childhoods, alcoholic parents, or experienced early abandonment, making it hard to trust or relinquish control to others, or to a higher power. Some controllers have a machismo drive to be top dog in both business and personal matters--a mask for their feeling of inadequacy and lack of inner power. To assert territorial prowess, they may get right up in your face when they talk. Even if you take a few steps away, they’ll inch forward again into your space.

When you mindfully deal with controllers, you can free yourself from their manipulations. Knowing how they operate will let you choose how to interact with them.

Comments

maniktwin 19th October 2010 9:29 am

This concerns me, I see where my spouse and I take turns doing this to eachother. When I read about treading on another's emotional freedom, I felt an urgency to take action to change this behavior. It is clear I need to focus on my side of the pathology, and things hopefully will begin healing.

Thank you, Dr. Orloff. You are helping many today, I'm sure!

Tzaddi 19th October 2010 9:41 am

This is an important topic. I finally released a friend several months ago because every early morning call from her left me feeling drained, upset, even angry. And I have taught Assertiveness Training classes--to businessmen! I know her personality type is "discharger," but I simply couldn't be her door mat any more. She's a rhino, did not respond to the approaches you suggest. I found a list of "responses to unsolicited advice" I online and taped it on my desk (similar to the verbal responses you mentioned) for her calls but they could not penetrate her armor. I believe that sometimes it's for the highest good of everyone to simply shake the dust off your feet and move on.

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Dr. Judith Orloff

Judith Orloff, MD is author of The Empath's Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People, upon which her articles are based. Dr. Orloff is a psychiatrist, an empath, and is on the UCLA Psychiatric Clinical Faculty.

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