Say you’ve been looking forward to throwing an epic birthday party for a loved one. If you spend the time leading up to it dissecting your every move and the moves of others and stressing yourself out to the point of snapping if a single detail is out of place, it won’t be hard to destroy the joy of the occasion.
If this sounds like you, you might have heard the term “control freak” thrown your way once or twice. A control freak is defined as “someone who is determined to make things happen in exactly the way they want and who tries to make other people do what they want.”
While control can certainly be a symptom of something serious (more on that later), most people who dabble in meticulous planning or scheduling could be seeking solace amid chaos. And that’s totally understandable.
But if you find that you can’t relax and rigidity is interfering with your everyday happiness (and your relationships), it may be time to take some steps toward freeing your inner control freak.
“As adults, we may try to [cope with our own issues] by telling others what they should do when not asked and manipulating circumstances to try to influence what someone else thinks, feels, or experiences,” she says.
This means it’s possible to relax your impulse to control. The key is to reduce your stress so your needs have more room to flex in other directions. Alyssa Mass, a California-based psychotherapist, has some tips for letting go and regaining control in the moment:
- Ground yourself. Literally and figuratively. Stand with your feet firmly planted on the floor. Notice how it feels. Look around the room and name seven colors. Notice how that feels.
- Create relaxed structure. Allow yourself to find small elements of control within your day — cooking, baking, and cleaning are popular, but your ways of doing this can also be more passive.
- Note what you do have control over. Try something as small as picking which show to watch on Netflix or which direction to go while on a walk. Balance feeling out of control with ways to feel in control. Small is OK! Small steps lead to big changes.
- Differentiate. Differentiate between need and want, and act honestly and accordingly.
- Make lists. Prioritize. Delegate. Repeat.
- Seek out support. “When we set our egos aside and open up to community, we grow together, go further, and reach heights as a collective we simply can’t grasp on our own. Remember that saying: ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’”
Practical ways to insert balance:
- Start or join a kudos thread at work or with friends to celebrate others’ wins and/or team wins.
- Schedule days off from your regular grind and stick to them.
- Set time limits on each task or assignment before focusing on something else.
- Keep a daily journal with no “score-keeping” rules.
- Start a new hobby/task that requires you to take direction or learn from others.
There may not be any hard and fast rules as to what constitutes a control problem, but experts say there are signature signs of when excessive control becomes trouble:
- The thought of delegating or sharing work creates a lot of stress and anxiety.
- Your first instinct is to frequently criticize or nitpick other people or their achievements.
- Your brain goes into fight-or-flight mode when someone questions you or your behaviors.
- You get overwhelmingly annoyed if you don’t receive most of the credit for something.
It’s important to recognize that controlling tendencies are a symptom of a larger issue.
“In therapy, for someone to discover why they need to be in control would require some exploration and understanding of why that need is there,” says Mass. “As living beings, lack of control may signal to the brain vulnerability, and that feeling may signal a fight-or-flight survival response. Every person’s individual makeup and life experiences create a threshold for what would trigger this response.”
Grasping for control can create friction with those around you, especially if you don’t or can’t communicate the core need behind your control.
“This is often at the root of many work and family disagreements,” says Mass. “For example, someone with an eating disorder may come across as controlling if she dictates where her office Christmas party should be because she knows a specific restaurant may trigger [her disorder]. Her officemates may not understand what’s behind her resistance, and she comes across as the one who won’t just go along with everyone. In reality, she’s trying to protect herself — so we go back to survival.”
Experts say excessive control can have a variety of negative effects on your health and relationships, including:
- lack of sleep due to racing thoughts
- anxiety and/or depression
- loneliness or a shortage of true allies
- decreased feelings of self-worth
- inability to have deep, trusting, and communicative relationships
- having mostly surface-level or purely transactional relationships
MacDonald says the need for excessive control can create blockages in collaboration and relationships.
“It’s important to prioritize and understand what needs to be controlled and what you simply want to be controlled,” she says. “Learn to realistically and honestly differentiate between want and need. Doing so helps immensely in knowing what to keep a tight grip on and what to let go of.”
“Trying to control others is a self-focused game,” says Albina. “You are trying to feel safe in your own body by manipulating others into doing what you want them to. This is an understandable habit, but, at its core, is not a loving one. It doesn’t build trust or respect in a relationship and in fact erodes it. We often learned these habits in childhood from controlling parents or caregivers. So pause before you continue this family tradition of telling others what they should do with their life. No one likes to be ‘should’ on.”
Of course, talking about the reasons behind your need for control can be daunting, especially considering how stigmatized certain mental health conditions can be. But using control as a communication technique is not helpful for anyone.
If you think your need for control is a sign of something more clinical, talking to a professional may give you some helpful tools.
“Personality disorders — like narcissistic or borderline — are considered Axis 2 disorders,” Mass says. “These are less malleable and more hard-wired conditions.”
Mass adds that in non-personality disorders, control may show up to manage symptoms.
“Typically, people come to therapy when their coping mechanism of choice has stopped working for them and they may need support and guidance in exploring new ways of being in the world. Usually, that’s pinpointing what’s creating the underlying anxiety/depression that laid the foundation for control.”
Labeling yourself or someone else as a “control freak” may feel like a lighthearted way to call out flaws — or it could be trivializing. Albina points out that healing the need for control starts with recognizing that need.
“I call it a ‘thought habit,’” she says. “I don’t believe there are controlling people but, rather, people with this habit. That means you can change it.”
And while taking action to manage your control impulses may be difficult or even feel counterintuitive, compassion is the key to transformation.
“The way to change this habit is by noticing when you’re doing it, by giving yourself love, and then reminding yourself that the only thing you can control in the world is yourself and your own thoughts,” Albina says.
“Focus on building the intentional life of your dreams and spend your time and energy on you, not anyone else. Your life — and theirs — will be all the better for it.”
Michelle Konstantinovsky is a San Francisco-based journalist, marketing specialist, ghostwriter, and UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism alumna. She’s written extensively on health, body image, entertainment, lifestyle, design, and tech.