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Help, My Controlling Behavior Is Ruining Relationships

Tips to kick-start change in your controlling behavior.

Why would anyone continue to meddle, fix, advise, worry, obsess, or monitor other people's behavior when it makes them and everyone around them miserable?

Simply put, they do it to keep their anxiety or fear at bay believing that they cannot find peace as long as people or situations around them are not okay and they don't know any other way of functioning. No one plans to do this for life but for many people it may be there as long as they can remember.

Jody, one of my former clients, described her life this way:

"I wake up every morning with a feeling of dread and urgency. My mind quickly races through a list of people I love or care about, or maybe even just met or heard about, reviewing in my mind the pressing issues, needs, and problems of anyone or anything that may need my attention or my help that day. Next, my mind turns to the list of things that my husband or my two children need to do. I have to be sure that no one forgets anything that might cause problems later. If I don't come up with anything significant, I might search further into what might happen in the future that could be prevented if only I could think of it and take some action. I am exhausted before I start."

In the big picture, Jody was surrounded by two types of people, those who depended on her and could not function without her support and those who resented her and complained that she needed to mind her own business and stop trying to fix them. Despite her efforts, she could not make anyone happy and in the end, she felt unappreciated, criticized, and alone.

She would vow to try harder and dreamed of a day when the world would stop throwing challenges and problems at her and someone would reach out to pull her up and out of the mess. That day finally came, but not exactly the way she imagined it.

After 22 years of devoting herself to taking care of everything at home, work, and in her marriage, Jody's husband announced that he was leaving. He didn't "love" her anymore and he felt that she no longer needed him anyway.

They had never had a direct conversation about his feelings so Jody always assumed he must be fine with things the way they were. She was too busy doing things for him to consider that her efforts might not be enough or at least not enough of the right things. That was the day she asked for help for the first time in her life.

How does a person become controlling? It is basically a method of coping with the anxiety they feel early in life. Some had parents who couldn't quite fulfill their role as strong caregivers and seemed to be weak or incapable.

A child in this situation, as early as age 3, may begin to prop up their parents and become a little adult early on. If the stress continues, fear increases and the attempts to control what they can become compulsive and unconscious. It is more likely to happen with children who are helpers, and/or leaders by nature, often firstborn boys or girls feel proud of themselves for helping and it is encouraged or reinforced by parents and other influential adults. They may also have a tendency toward anxiety, worry, and perfectionism that make it worse.

How does one change a pattern that is so ingrained? It may take years but it is worth the effort and may in fact save your life. In fact, research shows that stress-related illness can be a serious problem for anyone whose mind is full of negative thoughts and worry. In addition to the ordinary stress that we all deal with, the controller has the self-created stress of feeling responsible for preventing disasters by obsessively focusing on the possible problems or even tragedies that may occur if they neglect something.

Therapy is a good option and will speed up the process. But here are some other tips:

  1. Begin a new policy. If my helping is effectively changing anything in a permanent way, I'll keep doing it. If it isn't helping, I'll stop. Example: A woman who makes daily phone calls to her unemployed brother, checking on whether he found a job and making suggestions for what he can or should do to solve his problems may want to ask herself whether she is helping at all. Maybe she is just making him feel worse or she cares about it more than he does. It may be time to stop calling unless you have a reason other than fixing his life.
  2. Learn all you can about anxiety and how to manage it rather than trying to micro-manage everything around you. Read books about it, carry tools with you—books, audiobooks, music, a journal to write in, pray. Pause and use a tool before you act on the fear you are feeling. Without tools, you are alone with your own obsessive thinking. With practice, that will change too.
  3. Identify a friend or two with whom you have an equal and reciprocal relationship and begin to tell them about your anxiety. Stop talking about other people in your life and share your internal struggles with someone who has something to offer you. Ask for help with your fear or at the very least get some healthy distraction from your thoughts. Anti-anxiety medications and, or, alcohol are not good options if you want to change and grow.
  4. Find a support group. Easy options available in all communities would be Al-Anon or local church groups. You may find that some of the people you are helping would love to help you too but you don't ask or you don't accept help.
  5. Try a "no advice" policy with those you love. It's a hard habit to break but being conscious is the first step. Sometimes advice is disguised in this language: "I know someone who can help you with that." "Here is a book that helped me." "I have aspirin in my purse."
  6. The best way to love someone is to let them be who they are and that includes mistakes, hurts, and even losses. They and you will learn more from a mistake than from taking someone else's advice or reminders to prevent anything bad from happening. A wise therapist once said to me "Do you really want to deprive those you love of the benefits of learning from their own experiences? They too have a need to write their own story."
  7. You will be very uncomfortable at first when you no longer use the crutch of helping others as your primary relationship skill. Pay attention to your emotional reactions. You may feel guilty, selfish, inadequate, and definitely helpless when you begin to accept others as they are and allow things to happen that are less than perfect. Be gentle and kind to yourself. Worry has been your hobby and you will need to find new things to focus on.

About the Author

Ann Smith is the author of the books Grandchildren of Alcoholics and Overcoming Perfectionism.