How to Deal With a Control Freak

How to Deal With a Control Freak

Do you know someone who has to dictate and tell everyone how to do things all the time? How can you deal with them and not let them drive you crazy? Here are some steps that really work.

Part 1 of 5: Understanding the Need for Control

1. Seek to understand what drives the control freak or bossy mentality. People afflicted with this tendency have a need to control outcomes and often, other people. They are terrified of failure, particularly their own, and of being unable to fathom the consequences when things go wrong. There is a core of fearfulness or anxiety about their own limitations (often unexplored), a worry about not being respected and a distrust in the ability of others to do what they ask of them. The control freak cannot trust that anyone will do a better job than they will. And in an age when we are constantly told what to do without being fully told why (think of all the rules, regrets and warnings we live by daily), the control freak likes to step into the gap and appear as the sole authority figure around, whether or not they have a proper grasp on the facts (and sadly, they often do not).

  • Core elements of a controlling or bossy person include a lack of trust in others, a need to criticize, a sense of superiority (arrogance) and a liking for power.
  • Controlling or bossy people may suffer from a personality disorder that stems from childhood/early adulthood experiences that they have not been able to resolve with any clarity. In this case, the exact disorder would need to be identified by a professional but be aware that getting someone who likes to be in control to accept that he or she needs such assessment will be difficult. Ultimately, this person has to realize their controlling tendencies and want to do something about them.


2. Notice how a controlling person affects others (including yourself). Bossy or controlling people sound like a perennially uncompromising parent. They use terms such as “Do it now!”, “I am the boss, do what I say”, “Get on with it!”, etc., without saying please or using any other form of manners. If you always feel childlike around this person, it’s a fair bet that this person is seeking to control you and/or the situation. This person may ignore your skills, experiences and rights, preferring to impress their abilities over yours. The controlling type tends to think that they are entitled to boss others around and to be in charge.

  • Even in situations where this person does have authority over you (such as a teacher, enforcement officer or boss), controlling tendencies are revealed through the manner of their use of power. If they are disrespectful, arrogant in tone, pushy and dictatorial, this is a good sign that the person is controlling rather than requesting, negotiating and respecting. People in positions of authority make good leaders or managers only if they respect others under their guidance. This includes directing by example or suggestion, trusting you and delegating responsibility to you.
  • Be aware that even “nice” people can be bossy or controlling. This is the personality type that “nags”, insisting that “if you don’t do X, the sky will fall down”, but said to you sweetly, with the expectation that you’ll be grateful for the nagging reminders. If you find yourself at the receiving end of decisions being made without your input “for your own good” and you’re expected to be pleased, then you may be at the receiving end of a benign dictator.
  • Many a controlling person lacks empathy and is often rather unaware (or uncaring) about the impact of their bossy words and actions on others. This may be a result of insecurity (manifesting as superiority and power) and unhappiness. It could also signal outright arrogance.


Part 2 of 5: Responding to the Control Freak in a Constructive Way

1. Assert yourself. This will not be easy if you’re not used to doing it but it’s a skill you can practice and your bossy person is as good a practice target as any. It is important that the controlling person is aware that you won’t tolerate being bossed about; the longer you let it slide, the more it becomes the established pattern and it’s assumed you’re accepting of it.

  • Approach the controlling person in private to explain your concerns. Do not make a public affair out of this.
  • Keep the conversation focused on how the controlling behavior is affecting you; do not insult the person by calling them bossy, etc. For example, if you felt your boss was always telling you what to do without acknowledging your skills, you might say something like: “I have worked in this capacity for five years and I am good at this job. However, when you tell me to give you the results so that you can rework everything, I feel as if my qualifications are being overlooked and that my input is not valued. Basically, I don’t feel that I am trusted to come up with what I am well trained to do and that I am not respected. I would like to be spoken to and treated with respect.”


2. Behave calmly and patiently with a controlling person, at all times. Getting angry just doesn’t work. It can also be helpful to give the person a wide berth when it’s clear that they are tired, stressed out or unwell.

  • If a personal relationship becomes abusive as a result of the person’s controlling behavior––get out and leave. Tell this person you need a break from them for now and move on in your life. People who resort to using violence or abusive tactics will not get better until they seek long term therapy.
  • If it is someone in your family, just try to stay out of their way. Sometimes it may seem there is just no pleasing the control freak. This person will criticize you on everything and it is very hard not to take it personally. It can make you furious and may hurt your feelings. The worst thing you can do is fight with such a person because it just wastes your time. They will not, and cannot, change without help. Remind yourself that this controlling behavior is their coping mechanism and is not a devaluation of you––it their deep-seated problem, not yours.
  • If you’re a teen, try to be agreeable and keep very busy all the time. You can stay away and get out of the house by doing sports or studying and getting really good grades. Tell them you would love to hang out or talk but you are busy with studying, playing, volunteering, etc. Make up good excuses. Then go out and find really nice people who make you feel good about yourself. Set high but realistic goals and achieve them just for you.


Part 3 of 5: Checking Your Own Tendencies

1. Consider your own role in the bossiness. Sometimes you may be at the receiving end of bossing or nagging due to things you’ve done. This isn’t to excuse any manipulatively controlling behavior. Rather, it’s about keeping things in perspective and acknowledging that there may be times when you have exasperated someone! Be honest in your self-assessment if you really want to get to the heart of the bossing.

  • Have you done anything (or omitted to do something) that may have provoked the controlling attitude? For example, if you fail to meet deadlines regularly or you never clean up your room, you shouldn’t be surprised if someone responsible either for your upbringing or your pay-check gets a little bossy with you.
  • Bossy people can often ramp up their bossiness in face of what they perceive as unhelpfulness. In particular, bossy people find passive-aggressive behavior similar to a red rag to a bull––it simply causes them to become even more controlling because they’re frustrated at the underhanded response. It is better to be open with your discontent and to assert yourself than to seek the undermine the bossy person.


2. Notice your own bossy tendencies. Nobody is a saint when it comes to being bossy––each of us has a tendency to boss others around at different times in life. It may be when you know something in great detail, it may be because you’re in a position of authority or you may just feel a little pushier than usual due to anxiety or pressure, but there will be times in your life when you get bossy. Use your memory of this experience to help you understand the constantly bossy person a little better and perhaps see the reason behind their behavior.

  • Try to be more sensitive to other people when you feel the bossy trigger––notice their reactions. In doing so, you learn a lot about handling the emotions controlling people feel a lot of the time.


3. Learn how to honestly assess your own strengths and failures, possibly by discussing the matter (privately) with a third, uninvolved party. Be sure to choose someone who can be trusted with the information, who understands how to deal with similar situations, and knows you well enough to give you accurate feedback. No one is all-good or all-bad, everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. When you know the truth about yourself (good or bad), you won’t be fooled by the control freak’s emotional whims and tactics.


Part 4 of 5: Coping Mechanisms

1. Monitor the anxiety levels of the controlling person. A control freak has no coping skills when stressed and that is when they run over people. They believe that no one can do as good of a job at something as they will. They will get bogged down because they have taken too much on for themselves and then they strike out. Try to be alert to the mood change and be on your toes.

  • Actively noticing that this person seems to be spiraling out of control and offering to help take something off their plate may be enough to quell bossiness. For example, you might notice that when your boyfriend is stressed, he gets very snappy and controlling. On a day when he seems stressed to the max about an upcoming work presentation, try giving him a morale boost by acknowledging how tired or stressed he seems and reassure him that it’ll all work out fine. Don’t overplay it and be aware that he may still snap (don’t take it personally, see it as the anxiety talking), but do be aware that this small reassurance can help to relieve some of the anxiety pressure.


2. Look for the positives. This may seem impossible but it can be a very useful way for you to regain control, especially where you have no choice but to keep dealing with this person daily. You might think, “My boss is really controlling and demanding but on the plus side, she is charming with clients and brings in a lot of business. She is also very capable at X, just so long as we manage to keep her away from Y.” Look for ways to manage around the negative aspects, as well as finding ways that you can get done what you need to do. It may require creativity but you’ll find that a bossy person who understands you have got their measure and keep trumpeting their positive attributes will cease to see you as a threat in their anxiety-driven mind. Realize that your value is not derived from this person; always see yourself as an equal, even if their behavior suggests otherwise.

  • Notice when the controlling person shows displays of trust. If the bossy person shows you trust, respect or gives away a little responsibility, pounce on it and praise it. By noticing the good and acknowledging it openly, your controlling nemesis may just feel good enough inside to want to do it again. For example, say something like: “Thanks for trusting me with that task.”


3. Understand that often your voice will not be heard. If you are an ideas person, a creative person or a solver, working with a controlling person can grind you down at times. It may seem that you suggest ideas, solutions or warn of possible consequences, only to be openly ignored or even put down. Then lo and behold, your idea or solution is presented as “their” achievement, weeks or months later. Somehow, what you said did filter in; you just weren’t acknowledged. This is typical of a control freak’s approach––dismiss you because they didn’t come up with the ideas or solutions. When their own ownership of it can be established, then suddenly, it matters. Ways to cope include:

  • Recognize this for what it is. Sometimes it is better to float the idea or solution than to not have it happen at all. In this case, grin and bear it for the good of your group, organization or company. Be supportive of the outcome and don’t take it personally.
  • Call the person out on it. This can be risky and will depend on the context, the group dynamics and the person involved. If it is very important for you to clarify that you thought of it first, try to use hard facts, such as “Oh, that was the idea we discussed back in May 2012 and I still have the prototype drawings on file. My understanding was that our team would be involved in its development and I am pretty sure we noted that. I’m a little disappointed that the first we hear of it is when it’s already in the testing phase. But, that said, since it’s already here, we’re free to help test it.”
  • Keep very good records. If you really do need to prove that you came up with the idea first, keep sound records that could be used in your defense if it ever comes to that.
  • Stop suggesting new ideas in the workplace if your input continues to be ignored or taken away from you. Just keep agreeing, so as to keep the peace, and try to keep the control freak from getting worried about your end. You may need to reassure them constantly that they are the “boss” and that you value your job. If possible, start looking for a new job.


Part 5 of 5: Deciding to Disentangle Yourself

1. Realize that your life is important. There are always other jobs and other people to have healthy relationships with. If the situation is intolerable, don’t torture yourself; instead, find a way out. No one should be given have the power to “control” your life. It is your life. Don’t forget it.

  • For teens who have to wait until they are old enough to get away, seek volunteer work, sports activities, a job or other things that get you out of the home environment. Ask your parents to pay for college if they have the money, then apply to colleges that are out of state. If they argue about it, explain that the college you want to go to is the only one offering “X” (find something realistic and reasonable).


2. Choose to forgive. Control freaks are riddled with fears and insecurities that leave them always unsatisfied and unhappy. They demand perfection from themselves, something both difficult and often impossible to achieve. Their inability to understand that failure is part of the cycle of life harms their ability to grow into fully competent human beings and stunts them emotionally; that’s a fairly sad state to get stuck in. Whatever your own situation, you can leave and find happiness for yourself, but unless they make a choice to change their thinking habits, they may never find peace in their lives. And you are not responsible for their transformation.


3. Start to build back your confidence. It has most likely taken a hit. Be kind to yourself. If you are under the thumb of a control freak, they might have convinced you that you are worthless; they do this as a way to stop you from moving on and leaving them. Don’t believe this devaluing talk for one minute. Control freaks like to make people feel insecure about themselves. Don’t fall for their tricks. Start to distance yourself slowly. Believe in your worth; it is within you.


4. Decide what to do next. In this case, design a plan to either stay and continue the work/romantic relationship or leave but set a time limit so you will feel you have some control over the matter. If you are living with a control freak, try and resolve things strategically and carefully. Do not fuel arguments, share what you feel effectively and calmly. You do not have to be under control, remember you have a right to do as you please. Ultimately, sometimes leaving is all that you can do, especially when trying to assert yourself and cope does not result in things being better for you.

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