Someone with control issues likely feels the need to exert power over their life, relationships, and environment. In general, these kinds of issues indicate a fear of losing control, relating more to a person’s character and personality rather than a specific mental health disorder.
What Are Control Issues?
Control issues is a general term for when people seem overly focused on controlling situations around them. Control issues could stem from high anxiety, obsessive-compulsive symptoms, or other mental health conditions. Some people with control issues will attempt to micromanage every aspect of a situation. Other people will want no say in the situation and demand that others make all of the decisions.
Some Control Issues Are Self-Focused
People may act in controlling ways towards themselves, such as restricting their eating, engaging in compulsive exercise, and self-harming. Likewise, they may perform excessive cleaning, tidying, and organizing of their home as a way of controlling their environment. By exerting control over themselves or their environment, they may bring themselves some sense of relief or power.
Signs Someone Is Over Controlling
Controlling people may try to control others and also manipulate a situation or their environment. Control issues can occur in a range of relationships—romantic, friend, co-worker, family, acquaintance, etc.1 There are several signs of controlling behavior that you can learn to identify in others, or in yourself, including being jealous or possessive, or not letting you access finances in a relationship.
Signs of control issues include:
- Mood swings—upbeat one minute and upset or irritable the next
- Fear of being abandoned
- Sense of entitlement, self-importance, and little empathy and respect for others
- Unwillingness to accept responsibility or accountability for their actions
- Identify as the victim in arguments or disagreements
- Possible unemployment, financial and legal issues, precarious living conditions, etc. in connection with the implications of their controlling behavior
Examples of Controlling Behavior
A controlling person may be hypercritical of others as a way of trying to portray themselves as superior. Similarly, they may spread gossip, rumors, and private information about another person to create a negative self-image and perception about them. They may try to pressure others to do what they want and relish being the center of attention.
Extreme behaviors, such as lying, deceiving, omission of crucial information, and abusive behavior can at times be evident in people demonstrating controlling personalities.
A few examples of abusive behavior are:
- Preventing a partner or family member from leaving the home unless they are given “approval” or unless the person has met certain criteria
- Financial abuse (managing the bank account and how much money the person can have access to)
- Neglect such as restricting access to resources like food, shelter, phone, internet, lights, electricity, and required health and mental health care
- Controlling communications, including who a loved one spends time with, using a loved one’s phone or email and social media accounts against their wishes, etc.
- Physical abuse and/or threats of abuse to a loved one or to other people their loved one cares about
What Causes Control Issues?
Researchers suggest that the desire for control is instinctual in all animals, including humans, and that this desire is connected to areas of the brain associated with pleasure and rewards.4 Obtaining control is also closely linked with reducing stress and anxiety. Research suggests that adults with controlling personalities are likely to have developed these behaviors, attitudes, and approaches early in life.
There doesn’t seem to be a major gender difference in terms of controlling behavior. This suggests that controlling behavior may be more connected to certain personality types, past experiences and traumas, and certain coping mechanisms for stress, anxiety, fear, and uncertainty.5
Anxiety & Control Issues
Feeling in control by acting in certain ways may reduce feelings of anxiety by helping people cope with their worries and stressors.4 Controlling behavior may also be related to feeling insecure or having low self-esteem, so exercising control over themselves, other people, or their environment may give them a sense of power or an ego boost.1
Inappropriate Control From Others
Control issues may stem from observing others in their life exhibit controlling behaviors over them or others, not having support from authority figures and having to obtain control to survive and thrive in a challenging environment, or learning through others or personal experiences that acting in a controlling manner is appropriate behavior to integrate into their relationships.3,4
History of Trauma
Controlling oneself, others, or the environment may also be a response to a traumatic history where they experienced or witnessed abuse and felt out of control.
There is research to suggest that people with controlling personalities may be narcissistic, perfectionistic, engage in substance use, display obsessive-compulsive behaviors at times, and may express antisocial behavior, which may coincide with some personality disorders, especially OCPD.2,3
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How to Be Less Controlling
People with control issues can learn to understand the potential causes of their controlling behavior, modify their style of communication, identify their triggers and stressors, and explore alternative attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. In doing so, they can improve their coping skills and ability to build healthy interpersonal relationships.
Here are 10 tips for managing control issues:
1. Use a Journal to Track the Circumstances You Wish to Control
Take notes and journal about situations where you find yourself acting in controlling ways. For example, were you at home or work? And are you extremely stressed in these settings? Or, were you with certain people? What exact behaviors did you engage in (yelling, excessive cleaning, restrictive eating, etc.)? How did you feel at the time? What was the outcome of the situation?
Did you accomplish what you wanted to? And did the other person respond in the way you wanted to out of their own free will or was it because they felt forced? Gaining an understanding of ourselves and how our actions affect others is an important step toward building awareness of control issues in order to start taking some steps toward change.
2. Identify Your Emotions & the Roots of Your Behaviors
Figure out what kinds of feelings may be leading you to act in a controlling manner. Do you feel vulnerable and cope with that by critiquing others? Is your behavior caused by a fear of abandonment or fear of rejection based on difficult childhood experiences, so you try to control others to keep them close to you? Do you cope with stress by keeping up a rigid and particular routine? Learning to pinpoint what feelings are tied to your controlling behavior will provide insight into your emotions.
3. Challenge Unhelpful Thought Patterns
If you notice you are catastrophizing, holding yourself or others to impossible standards, engaging in negative self-talk, or blaming yourself or others for outcomes that you or they may not have influence over, this will have a significant impact on your mental health and your relationships with others. By challenging these maladaptive thoughts and considering other, more positive ones, you may be able to shift how you approach certain situations and interact with others for the better.
4. Let Go of What You Can’t Control
At the end of the day, the only thing you can control is what you say, how you act, and what you do. You cannot control the environment or another person. Letting go of what you can’t control may help improve your overall mental health and reduce possible conflict in personal and professional relationships. This will take time and a lot of effort, but it will be worth it in terms of your quality of life and happiness.
5. Accept Yourself & Others As Is
We’re all human. No one is perfect nor should they expect themselves or others to be. Holding yourself or others to unattainably high standards will only be an exercise in frustration. Learning to accept and love yourself and those in your circle of family and friends can help generate peace, love, and greater well-being in your own life and in your valued relationships with others.
6. Practice Relaxation & Stress Management Techniques
Dealing with stress and anxiety can impact your daily functioning in all areas of life. Learning effective ways to manage this stress and anxiety can be helpful. This might include practicing meditation, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, visualization, journaling, using scented oils in a diffuser, etc. are all ways to promote relaxation. By entering a deeply relaxed state, you may be better able to deal with stressors and triggers that activate your controlling behavior and, therefore, you may be in a better position to choose a different, more adaptive, approach.
7. Look at the Positive Side
When things don’t go according to plan, considering the positives or what you are grateful for may help you shift away from only seeing it negatively. This mindset may help you stop controlling behavior in its tracks, especially if that was your typical tendency when you feel things are not going well. Instead of placing strong restrictions on yourself or others, think about what has gone well so far, what you like and appreciate about yourself and those you care about, and how responding positively can be beneficial to you and your loved ones.
8. Search for Balance
Controlling everything or controlling nothing is not sustainable. You can never have all or nothing, so find the situations that lend themselves to more control and ways that lend themselves to less control. People with control issues tend to see things in “black or white” and “all or nothing terms.” Look for the shades of gray.
9. Accept Your Imperfections
You’re not always right, and you’re not perfect. This statement may seem obvious, but people with control issues often feel that their way is the best or only way. You’re not perfect, so controlling every aspect of the situation might lead to unwanted consequences. Bring in trusted collaborators and use their feedback and direction. You could find yourself being pleasantly surprised.
10. Devote Energy to True Happiness
Often, people use controlling behaviors as a way to find happiness, but this only creates a false or fleeting sense of happiness. You cannot find contentment and satisfaction through control. Seek out true happiness by shifting your perspective by trying new activities with new people to break the habit of control.
How to Respond to a Controlling Person
The person on the receiving end of controlling behavior may need to take steps to shield themselves by:3
- Limiting the controlling person’s access to their funds
- Continuing to maintain relationships with important others in their lives
- Not following the person’s demands
- Distancing from the controlling person where possible
- Advocating for their own needs if they choose to stay in contact with the controlling person
- Seeking out mental health support for themselves
If a person finds themselves in an abusive situation, it is vital to seek help immediately. If they feel in danger, they should call 9-1-1. For non-urgent crisis intervention, calling a crisis hotline that specializes in abuse could be helpful. Similarly, developing a safety plan if a person plans to escape an abusive environment is crucial, and can involve figuring out who you can trust and where you can stay if you flee the home, having some funds available to live on your own and manage your essential daily expenses, and having information regarding domestic violence shelters and other important resources that can help you figure out your next steps.2
If you’re being abused, call one of these crisis hotlines:
- National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233
- National Dating Abuse Helpline: 1-866-331-9474
- Assaulted Women’s Helpline: 1-888-932-1752
- Talk4Healing: 1-855-554-4325 (HEAL)
When to Get Help for Control Issues
For people who are engaging in controlling behavior, it can be helpful to reach out for help if you notice you are extremely stressed, anxious, have difficulties in your personal relationships, or notice a negative impact on your quality of life.
How to Find a Therapist
You can find a therapist or counselor in a variety of ways, including contacting your Employee Assistance Program through work, reaching out to your school counselor or college counseling center, exploring therapy offices located near you, or perhaps finding an online therapist who offers video counseling.
You can also ask loved ones if they can recommend a therapist they have had a positive experience with. Using an online therapist directory to find counselors who practice in your area is another great way to find a good match.
Final Thoughts on Control Issues
Experiencing control issues, whether you are engaging in controlling behavior or feel another person is trying to control you, can be very serious. It’s important to know that help is available and things can change in a positive direction. Take comfort in knowing there are services and professionals out there who can help.
For Further Reading
- Considering online therapy? See whether BetterHelp or Talkspace would be better for you.
- Check out our favorite books discussing self-improvement.
- NAMI support groups
- Nice Guy Syndrome