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6 Reasons You Don't Like Being Told What to Do

Understand your reactions to others' demands so you can respond effectively.

Key points

  • It's common to bristle when being asked or told to do something.
  • Being told what to do can provoke ego-based defensiveness.
  • Complying with what one is told to do doesn't have to mean giving up power and autonomy.
Mat Hayward/Adobe Stock
Source: Mat Hayward/Adobe Stock

Think about how you feel when someone tells you to do something, whether it's a boss, a partner, a parent, or anyone else. I’m guessing you don’t like it any more than I do. Sometimes I bristle even when I’m asked to do something I was going to do anyway.

There are many reasons we can have a negative reaction when someone tries to change our behavior, and they vary from person to person. Here are six common ones.

1. We feel like a kid.

When we were kids, we probably assumed we’d be the ones giving orders when we were adults, and no one would be bossing us around. When someone tells you to change what you’re doing, it can evoke an unwelcome feeling of being a kid all over again. Sometimes, we might even respond childishly and have the grown-up version of a temper tantrum, stamping our foot and yelling, “You can’t tell me what to do!”

2. We feel powerless.

Closely related to feeling like a kid is the sense of powerlessness that can come with being told what to do. When someone tells you to do something, it feels like they are choosing your behavior for you.

Taking orders from another person can feel like sacrificing control and being in a one-down position of weakness. Resistance to their request might be a way of reclaiming your power—even if it goes against your best interests (such as ignoring health advice).

3. We want autonomy.

Autonomy is a fundamental psychological need and is tied to many positive outcomes, such as lower depression and anxiety. Each of us needs to be the master of our own actions, so we rebel against the feeling that we’re being controlled.

You can see this need all through human development, from a 2-year-old's insistence that they “do it myself” to adolescents’ growing need for independence to adults protesting against efforts to control their guns or their bodies. Being told what to do can feel like affront to our very nature.

4. We value our individualism.

Western societies like the U.S. place a premium on individualism. We want to make our own decisions and stand out from the crowd rather than being a “sheep.” Following orders might feel like giving up an essential part of your identity.

5. A command implies criticism.

When someone tells you to change your behavior, they’re implicitly telling you that your current behavior is not good enough. Each of us wants to believe that what we’re doing is right, so this suggestion can feel like a criticism.

6. We fear a slippery slope.

Even if the original request doesn't really bother us, we might worry that it will only lead to more egregious requests and loss of control—“Give them an inch, they’ll take a mile.” This fear can lead to anger and resistance.

3 Steps for Responding Effectively to Demands

There are more and less effective ways to respond when you’re told what to do. With awareness and intention you can avoid non-optimal reactions that cut off your nose to spite your face. These three principles can help you choose an adaptive response.

  1. Be aware of your reactions. Notice the thoughts and feelings that come up when someone tells you to do something, as well as any physical or emotional reactions. Pausing to check in with yourself can give you more flexibility in how you respond.
  2. Notice the ego. When you get into a battle of the wills, it’s hard to think straight. Your ego wants to be right and to be in charge, no matter what. But following the ego’s demands doesn't always lead to the best outcomes.
  3. Check your assumptions. Do you think you’re being controlled? Disempowered? Treated like a child? Remind yourself that the mind’s interpretations aren’t always right. Ask yourself if there might be other ways of thinking about the situation that are more helpful and accurate.

Being aware of these factors can help you to make a reasonable response. Sometimes the best course of action is to do as you’re told, which doesn't necessarily mean you’re giving up your agency. Part of being autonomous is deciding how you’ll respond to requests.

Most likely you’ll never love being told what to do, and it might continue to provoke feelings of powerlessness or infantilization. You can let those reactions be what they are and still make a choice that serves you well.


Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2008). Self-determination theory: A macrotheory of human motivation, development, and health. Canadian Psychology / Psychologie canadienne, 49(3), 182–185.

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