Do you tell your husband what to wear, eat and say? Do you micromanage your kids’ homework, play dates or a friend’s every move? If you dominate the lives of those around you, it’s time to learn how to let go, says Christine Fieldhouse
Give your inner control freak the boot. Or for those at the receiving end, learn how to untangle yourself from their clutches.
It’s 6.30am and Helen is laying out clothes for husband Xander to wear that day. When he gets up, she’ll suggest which aftershave to use, and which files he needs for work. She knows which executives he’s meeting today and what presentations he will be delivering. Around midday she’ll send him a text, suggesting what he might have for lunch and after work, Helen will decide what they do, and where they go. She will even choose which table they sit at in the restaurant and she has been known to order Xander’s meals without consulting him first. Xander, who’s fairly laid back, goes along with her choices.
It would be natural to assume that Xander is young and not very worldly-wise, and he’s being “mothered” by Helen. But at 52, he is old enough to make his own decisions. He’s also a perfectly competent marketing executive, and has headed award-winning campaigns. He’s on track to be at the top of his career in two years’, so why is 40-year-old Helen taking control of his life?
We all know a control freak like Helen. It may be the helicopter mum who hovers above her child’s every move, or perhaps it is the boss who stands over us, dictating what she wants us to write in our reports, and telling us exactly what to say to clients. It could be our mother who, even though we’re grown up and have our own family, tries to tell us what to wear and which friends are suitable to hang out with.
Control freaks can come across as caring. The mother who watches her child’s every move will claim she’s making sure he doesn’t come to any harm, and the wife who chooses her husband’s evening meal will say she just wants him to be healthy. The friends who tell us to ditch an errant boyfriend say they have our best interests at heart and the boss who micromanages us says she just wants us to perform to our potential. So how do we recognise a control freak, either in other people or within ourselves?
Profile of a control freak
British life coach Becki Houlston says control freaks have some very obvious traits. They tend to be very organised people with a lot of nervous energy. They appear to be interested in other people’s lives but they’re actually just finding out exactly what their friends and families are doing so they can get control and exert their influence.
“Control freaks try to change the things they cannot change, such as another person’s behaviour,” says Becki, who specialises in communication coaching. “They try and
dominate someone’s thoughts, feelings, time and environment. They run their own lives this way, and they try to run everything in other people’s lives the same way too.
“It’s never about just one thing. Control freaks want to dominate all areas of our lives, from our wardrobe and finances to our relationships and time. To them, their opinions are the only ones that matter. They don’t even know another opinion exists.
“Control freaks have to over-control to feel safe. If things are out of their control, they don’t feel secure and they blame themselves. Usually this pattern started in childhood, when something went badly wrong in their lives and which they have blamed themselves for ever since.” Becki says a control freak parent will try to stop a teenager developing her own sense of identity, while controlling bosses will manage a team with the premise it’s their way or the highway. Friends who insist on moving tables for no apparent reason in restaurants do so to remain in control. If people don’t pander to their controlling, they push even more.
But what if we recognise some controlling traits in our own personalities, is there any hope? Can we turn back from dominating those close to us, especially if this has been a pattern of behaviour for a long time?
“The first – and biggest – stage is recognition about whether you are a control freak and the depth of the problem. So ask your friends if they think you have controlling tendencies,” explains Becki.
“Control freaks are almost always perfectionists because they are always searching for what’s wrong so they can perfect it. Other telltale signs are losing friends for no apparent reason, or a high staff turnover at work. People also become more stressed around control freaks.
“Control freaks are often tired – trying to control other people is very hard work! They avoid situations they can’t control – many don’t drive because they can’t control the traffic. They’re also not in touch with their gut instinct – they can’t make decisions based on their intuition.
“They also make really important decisions for other people, such as when to end a relationship, or when to change jobs, or where to live. They often dominate people who are afraid of conflict because they know they will just go along with what the control freak wants for an easy life with no arguments.”
Once we’ve recognised some of our personality traits, there is a way back, says Becki. “Try to remember you can only change yourself, you can’t change others. Start by asking yourself what your emotion was just before you made a decision to control someone and work on that.
“If all your friends had sat down, and then you decided that you wanted everyone to move tables in the restaurant, ask yourself what you felt immediately before that. It may be you were feeling anxious or afraid because you were in an unfamiliar social setting, or you may have been nervous or excited about meeting up with old friends. Just being aware of these feelings will stop you in your tracks next time you’re about to exert control over someone.
“Work on building up your self-confidence. Once you start to feel better about yourself, you’ll feel less insecure and less need to control others – you’ll be too busy with your own life to worry too much what others are doing.”
If you are the victim
But what if we’re on the receiving end of controlling behaviour?
“If it’s a new relationship, start as you mean to go on,” says Becki. “Make sure you show your new partner that you can’t be pushed around and that you have your own opinions.
“In an established relationship, gently lay down some new boundaries and show people what’s important to you.
“Next time you’re out with the friend who always moves restaurant tables, tell her it’s getting annoying and suggest she chooses a table as soon as you all get to the restaurant.
“Picking the right time to discuss the issue is also advisable. The best time is when things aren’t emotive. That’s when you can sit down and talk about the impact of their behaviour on you. Then, you’ll all be more receptive to constructive criticism.”
Becki points out it’s also about how we say things, as well as what we say.
“Always remember to say how you feel rather than accusing the other person of something,” she says. “If your partner always decides how you spend your weekends, don’t accuse him and say, ‘You make me feel worthless every time you tell me what we’re doing on Saturday afternoons.’
“Instead, state how the decision makes you feel. An example is: ‘When you decide how we’re going to spend our weekends, I feel unimportant.’
“That is far more effective. Also avoid using anger – that will just make the situation far more volatile.
“Gratitude is another great way of disarming the control freak. They will melt if you thank them for being in your life and genuinely caring about you.”