Here’s the underlying reason you insist on being in the driver’s seat.
It’s normal for relationships to come and go. Friendships can grow apart, flings can lose their luster, and romantic bonds can weaken. It happens.
It’s less normal, however, if all of your relationships end with explosive or resentful breaks. It can be painful to have people you love and care about turn against you, and it might lead you to wonder why it keeps happening.
This negative break up pattern may be a string of bad luck, but it may also result from a need to control certain aspects of the relationship. If you’re not giving your loved ones the respect, space, or autonomy that they deserve, they may start to feel trapped and eventually pull away.
“Maintaining positive relationships starts with ourselves,” says Christi Garner, LMFT, certified trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapist. “Having ‘control’ gives us the illusion that nothing bad can happen… People who have a lot of fear can overcompensate by trying to strong-arm everything and everyone to fall in line with their expectations.”
Being controlling is often thought of as a personality trait, but it might be better to think of it as a coping mechanism for anxiety. “Control is a primal reaction to fear. We fear something that we see as a threat,” says Steven M. Sultanoff, PhD, clinical psychologist and professional speaker. “It is a fundamental survival instinct.”
How Do You Know If You’re Controlling Others?
When you’re being controlled, you know it. You feel your autonomy being stifled and your self-esteem being chipped away. When you’re the one who’s *doing* the controlling, it might not seem as obvious to you. You might even feel like you’re the victim.
If you’re controlling others to cope with symptoms of anxiety, you might notice some of these clues:
1. You feel exhausted from the relationship.
You feel exhausted from the relationship.
It takes a lot of time and mental energy to track someone else’s every move. “If we have an internal need for control over others or our jobs or our kids, we might find ourselves tired, exhausted, burned out, [and] feeling that no matter what we do, it is not enough,” says Garner.
2. You feel intensely upset and disappointed by others—often.
You feel intensely upset and disappointed by others—often.
You might feel hurt or take it personally that someone made a decision you didn’t agree with. But here’s the thing: If you notice this happening often, you might be placing unrealistic or unfair expectations on others.
3. You make all the decisions.
Picking out the restaurant? Your call. Managing budgets? Your call. Planning vacations? Your call. This might mean you’re just a natural “planner,” but there’s a dangerous line. If you’re refusing the other person’s input, you might not be “stepping back to let your partner be fully who they are in the relationship and have their own needs fulfilled,” says Garner.
4. You often “guilt-trip” others or use the silent treatment.
When someone has a need for control, “it has to always be their way or they become upset, and I mean upset in a way that’s disproportionate to the actual situation,” says Maria C. Inoa, LCSW, owner of Full Potential Counseling in Jacksonville, FL. Imagine if you wanted to eat at a particular restaurant but the rest of the group didn’t. If you’re being driven by a need for control, you might “decide to just go home or give everyone the silent treatment,” says Inoa. These are manipulation tactics that slowly train others to tiptoe around you.
5. You often think about how things “should” be or “ought to” be.
“People who rigidly hold onto their should, musts, ought tos, and have tos are often trying to control,” says Dr. Sultanoff. If you constantly think your partner should wake up when you do, or your friend should work out when you do, and hold it against them when they don’t comply, that’s controlling.
6. You get frustrated with how other people are doing things “wrong.”
You might actually feel like you are trying to help others, when in fact, you’re pressuring them to do things your way. “Usually people who have controlling behaviors in adulthood were controlled in the past,” says Sweta Venkataramanan, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist in New York City. For example, “if they were controlled by their parents, they feel that it’s the ‘right’ way to handle things.” If you think you’re trying to help, and people are consistently rejecting your help or telling you to stop, you might be overstepping or forcing your own worldview upon them.
7. You have a hard time going with the flow.
Those who are always controlling are “in a constant state of distress” and are always “distracted as they scan their environment to be sure their ‘control’ is working,” says Dr. Sultanoff. You might even develop health problems caused by stress.
8. You feel anxious about what your loved ones are doing when they’re out of your sight or with others.
You might even try to isolate them to keep them away from other people you deem “not good enough” or a “bad influence.” “Positive relationships require trust, investment, acceptance, and compromise,” says Megan Gunnell, LMSW, psychotherapist. You can see this in a work environment, too, in bosses who micromanage employees and are “constantly checking in” or even “snooping or spying,” says Gunnell, which “creates a breakdown in the trust of the work relationship.”
Regardless of your intentions, controlling others can have severe effects and cause permanent damage to the person being controlled—the person you care about.
How Do You Break the Need to Control Others?
If you recognize you’re being controlling—and maybe your loved ones have even said so to your face—it’s not always easy to just “stop controlling others.” The need to control can be a compulsive, desperate desire to make things feel okay.
“Some people develop a greater need for control in response to the ups and downs of life,” says Inoa. “Feeling out of control can make people want to feel in control at all times and fight to maintain that feeling no matter the cost.”
But the key is that you *can* address the underlying fears and anxieties and find other ways to cope with life’s stressors. “A controlling person can change their ways if they choose to,” says Inoa. “As with most things, it just takes baby steps.”
These tips may help overcome your need to control others, and help you find and keep positive relationships:
- In times of stress, ask yourself, “What is the worst thing that could happen?” Usually, it’s not that bad, when you really think about it. “Most of what is being controlled can be let go with little or no consequence,” says Dr. Sultanoff.
- Keep a log every time you feel “out of control.” Jot down what took place before, during, and after the conflict or stressful situation, and then reflect on what role you played in the event, suggests Inoa. See if there’s something you could do differently next time.
- Pinpoint your triggers. “When you slow down, you start to notice the small annoyances and frustrations that drive your habitual behaviors,” says Garner. Then find alternative ways to cope, whether it’s learning more positive communication strategies or learning positive ways to de-stress.
- Find a support system. “Find a friend you feel you have an equal relationship with and make them your ally,” says Dr. Venkataramanan. “You can also find a support group.” These can be great ways to get honest and immediate feedback on your communication.
- Give therapy a try. “Therapists can help clients gain insight and perspectives on their behavior, thoughts, and feelings, and how those translate into forming positive relationships,” says Gunnell. “Cognitive behavioral therapy can be very helpful in changing distorted thoughts to evidence-based thinking patterns.”
If you worry your need for control is ruining your relationships, you don’t have to recover alone: Generalized anxiety disorder affects about 6.8 million American adults each year, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, and many people are available to help.