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How to Stop Being Controlling

Manage your anxiety and put an end to your controlling behavior.

Djim Loic/Unsplash
Source: Djim Loic/Unsplash

Are you a controlling person? If so, you’re not alone. This has been one of my personal struggles over the years — and although I haven’t completely freed myself of the desire to control things, I’ve figured out some ways to keep it in check that I’ll share with you in this post.

But before we delve into how to stop being so controlling, let’s talk about what it means to be controlling and why we act in these ways.

Signs that you’re controlling

  • You want to know what’s going to happen, how it’s going to happen, and when it’s going to happen.
  • You over-plan and get upset when things don’t go according to plan.
  • You obsess over even insignificant details.
  • You think there’s only one right way to do something.
  • You’re critical of others.
  • You boss people around or micromanage.
  • You have impossibly high standards.
  • You want to make the plans and decisions so you can do things your way.
  • You dislike change (unless, perhaps, you’re initiating it).
  • You don’t like surprises.
  • You feel anxious or angry when you don’t know what’s going to happen, things don’t go according to plan, you can’t complete a task the way you want, or others make “bad” choices.
  • You have trouble trusting people.

Why are people controlling?

Controlling behaviors often stem from anxiety and fear. When things feel out of control, it’s natural to want to control them in order to feel safe (or happy or content). But of course, we can’t control other people and situations. So our efforts don’t ultimately make us feel better. In fact, controlling behaviors usually create problems in our relationships and make us feel frustrated and stressed out. (Please note that being extremely controlling of your partner or loved ones may also be an attempt to have power over others and can be abusive.)

Controlling and perfectionism

Controlling is a common feature of codependency, a result of growing up in families where things were unpredictable, scary, out of control. Controlling is also closely related to perfectionism (which is also rooted in anxiety and fear). Perfectionists also crave predictability; they’re risk-averse, they want to know they can succeed at something before they try it, they’re rigid and anxious, and they’re demanding and critical of themselves (and often of others, too).

Some perfectionists mainly try to control themselves and hold themselves to impossibly high standards (students who must get an A+ on every assignment, or those who struggle with disordered eating and body image). Others focus on controlling others and hold others to impossibly high standards (nagging, criticizing). And some of us do both.

How to stop being controlling

Challenge the fear. Since controlling behaviors are fueled by fear, we need to understand exactly what we’re afraid of and determine if it’s realistic:

  • What are you afraid will happen if you can’t control this situation or person?
  • Are you catastrophizing or expecting the worst?
  • What are the chances that this bad thing will really happen?

Often we exaggerate both how bad the outcome will be and how likely it is to happen. But sometimes bad things will happen and there’s little we can do about it. In this case, we need to accept what’s in your control.

Practice acceptance. We need to accept that we can only control ourselves because doing so frees us from the stress and responsibility of making sure everyone and everything goes perfectly. But this is hard to do when you want control and feel anxious.

Staying mindful and noticing what’s going on in this moment helps keep you from thinking too much about the past or future. You can do this with a formal mindfulness practice like meditation or by simply using all of your senses to purposefully tune into the present moment. You may also want to remind yourself that controlling doesn’t work.

  • What’s in your control? What isn’t?
  • What problems do your controlling behaviors cause?
  • How else can you cope with your fears?
  • How can you stay present-focused?

Practice being flexible. Also, try to notice all-or-nothing thinking, which tells you that your way is the best and only way. Most of the time, there’s more than one decent way to do things. At the same time, stay focused on the problems that are truly yours to solve. Solving everyone’s problems isn’t possible and it often causes us more stress and damaged relationships than it’s worth.

We don’t only have the option of being “in control” or being “out of control." When we stop trying to control other people, we choose to trust that they can make good decisions; if they can’t, those aren’t our problems to solve. Accepting that we can’t control everyone and everything is essential to our happiness, as is recognizing that we don’t have to be responsible for everyone else and don’t have to burden ourselves with the pressure to always be “right” and in control. Detaching from other people’s problems isn’t uncaring; allowing people to figure things out for themselves is a loving and trusting act.

Try a mantra. Changing our thoughts and behaviors takes practice. We naturally and unconsciously want to drift back to our old ways. A mantra can help you keep your goals front and center:

  • I don’t need to control everything.
  • I can tolerate uncertainty.
  • I can only control myself.
  • My way isn’t the only way.
  • I will respect other people’s choices.

Try using one of these or create your own. Read or write your mantra a few times per day to reinforce it.

Most of all, try to be patient with yourself. Change is a process and you’re asking a lot of yourself.

More from Sharon Martin, DSW, LCSW
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