Maybe you’ve become aware that someone in your life is trying to control you, albeit in very subtle ways. Controlling people want to know about every facet of your life and often push your buttons to get an emotional reaction out of you. They can then exploit what they see as your weakness and it seems that they have no respect for your (or other peoples’ boundaries).
This could be a partner, sibling, colleague or friend. If you’ve realised what’s going on, you’ll probably start asking yourself why they’re doing that and it may not make a lot of sense to you. This is especially so if you’re a live-and-let-live sort of person and can’t understand why someone would want to micromanage your life.
There are lots of different theories about why someone would even want to control you:
- Fear of abandonment – they don’t feel really secure in their relationships and are often testing to see if they’re about to be betrayed.
- Narcissists – who look to control their environment by whatever means necessary, making other people pawns
- People who can’t control themselves turn to controlling others. A person who’s full of insecurities finds a positive sense of themselves from others because their own self-esteem is actually too low to do it for themselves.
However, these are theories and if you’re reading this blog, you may have your own ideas about why someone in your life is trying to control you. It can by mystifying, especially when it feels that they only do it to you. However, most controlling people choose whom they control very carefully, albeit subconsciously at times. In other words, they know who they can control and who they can’t.
If you’re a target for a controlling person, it may be because:
- You’re a good person with solid principles
- You’ve achieved something that the controlling person would like
- They admire a facet of your personality that they wish they possessed
- The controller wants something that you have
In addition, there may be an element of learned behaviour here – if you’ve been a bit of a scapegoat within your family, for whatever reason, a sibling or partner will take on the role when you’re an adult.
Whilst there’s almost always an explanation for the way a controlling person behaves, ultimately it doesn’t matter if it’s having an adverse effect upon you and the way you live. One way to put a stop to this is to put down some strong boundaries and stop the controller stepping inside them. Be assertive with them if they’re pushing for too much information that you feel is inappropriate. Their requests may seem innocuous but there’s often a reason for them asking certain searching questions and you don’t have to answer everything you’re asked. Saying to someone who’s controlling “why would you want to know that?” may well take them aback but nonetheless, it’s a reasonable question that deserves a reasonable answer.
Some of the saddest clients that I’ve met over the years are those who are quietly but very efficiently controlled by their partner or their parent. We tend to think of men being more controlling in general but this hasn’t always been my experience in the counselling room. A lot of women control their partners very subtly by withholding something like affection, sex or company which can make the other person feel very vulnerable, especially as they’ve had a parent who took on a similar role when they were a child or if they lost a significant person in their life in their early years. Women are often very good at controlling their children too – even when they’re adults, these young people have to report back to their mothers, make sure that their parent always knows where they are and they have to keep in constant touch. Sadly, these young people don’t even realise that this is happening and often say things like “we’re so close. I’m so lucky to have her to guide me in everything”. In reality, without knowing it, their mother is actually still choosing their friends, where they go and whom they choose as life partners (usually someone malleable!).
Of course, this can, and often does, apply to men who are equally controlling as well but in our culture, we sometimes tend to think that women are mostly the ones being controlled and this isn’t always the case by any means.
Controlling can also be manipulative which means that the person controlling others makes sure that they don’t do tasks that they don’t like but makes sure that they get done by others (“I don’t do driving/ironing/making tea”), thereby assuming that the other person does like doing the onerous tasks. Sometimes, sheer audacity makes sure that the controlling person doesn’t do anything they don’t like and the rest of us end up accepting it as being totally reasonable!
If you have realised that someone close to you is very controlling, ask yourself whether you want to continue in this way. If you decide that you don’t want them in your life any longer, there will be repercussions that maybe you’re not willing to deal with. Some controlling people have a lot of positive points too and that’s why you get on with them at some level or another. Therefore, you may not be willing to let that go. If the person is a close family member there will inevitably be a lot of ‘fall-out’ if you cast them out of your life and in any case, that may seem too drastic.
Whether or not you can work out why they feel the way that they do, if you’re not comfortable with it, think about what I wrote earlier regarding putting down boundaries – with most relationships, there are only so many ways to deal with things you don’t like and these apply whether the relationships are personal or professional:
- Continue in the same way which means nothing will change
- Leave the relationship whether that’s in your personal or professional life. This can apply to family members, friends or colleagues. However, it’s often easier said than done – most of us don’t want to walk out on family or on our jobs (financially and professionally the latter often doesn’t make sense)
- Change the way you deal with it – the other person is unlikely to change whether they’re controlling, disloyal or bullying. Once you accept that, you will be able to find ways of making it work better for you. Be prepared for comments like “why have you started doing it that way? It’s always worked alright before”. Well, it’s worked for them, but not for you! Bear that in mind and you will be able to make changes that mean that your life isn’t being controlled by someone else.