Self-help

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

Friday - - Contents -

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.”

self-help

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