Throughout my years as a clinician, I’ve met with many individuals whose anger was very much precipitated by their experience of others as being controlling or manipulative. “He’s always correcting me.” “She’s so overbearing!” and “He has to have his way!” are just a few of those commonly voiced complaints.
It is certainly natural to feel a variety of emotions, from uneasiness to frustration, to annoyance, or to outright rage when we experience others as trying to manipulate us. We feel it as a threat to our autonomy, our sense of agency in living our lives in accordance with our own beliefs and values. We may experience both pressure and an imposition to change our thoughts, behavior, and even our feelings—all to satisfy the needs of another person. These reactions are equally evidenced in our national culture wars as they are in our personal relationships.
It is understandably frustrating and annoying when your friend or spouse routinely contradicts your beliefs and values. Your partner may frequently question your feelings with a devaluing or even a dismissive tone. Or they may make you feel guilty or devalue your plan to enroll in a class or your desire for solitude. Similarly, your spouse may be controlling when they criticize how you manage the tasks involved in home maintenance.
Others may attempt to control or manipulate you in order to reduce their anxiety, gain power, or address a heightened need for security. Or they may attempt to control you in reaction to an intense sense of slight they experience when your thoughts, feelings or behavior don’t exactly align with how they believe you “should” be.
Yet, while certain individuals are controlling and manipulative, you may be especially sensitive to feeling controlled—even when that is not your partner’s intent. You may be overly sensitized to be on high alert to never be controlled. When this is the case, you may experience just agreeing with your partner as a form of self-betrayal.
Jolene, 32 years old, often evidenced these tendencies in her relationships. She frequently experienced her husband as controlling. Yet, when questioned, she indicated that he never threatened her or expressed any anger toward her or devalued her when she did voice her beliefs. He never behaved in any way to actually control her, even though she sometimes experienced it in his tone of voice.
She had these reactions in spite of the fact that she actually made most of the decisions in their relationship—whether with regard to choosing a movie, selecting a restaurant, or how to spend time together. In fact, she often requested that he take more initiative in making suggestions and decisions. And, yet, when she did agree with his choices, she often felt that she was “giving in,” as if doing so reflected weakness on her part.
Addressing sensitivities to feeling controlled requires that you ask yourself several questions. These include:
- Does your partner respect rather than devalue you?
- Do they encourage and support your growth as an individual?
- Do they behave in ways that treat you as an equal in the relationship?
- And do they behave in ways that help you feel safe in your self-expression?
If you answer “Yes” to these questions, but still feel controlled, you may have a tendency to feel controlled that can make you vulnerable to anger in a relationship. The following are areas to explore to better understand and reduce this tendency.
Being connected with yourself involves having access to your feelings, your desires, and your values. Without this self-awareness you will invariably feel subject to self-doubt and the sensitivity to being controlled. The anxiety of lacking such awareness can often serve as the foundation for anger even when your partner is simply voicing their belief. Such knowledge provides a solid foundation for responding to, rather than reacting to, any efforts deemed as being controlling.
Lack of Confidence
For many individuals, lack of confidence is the fuel for self-doubt. Such doubt may support your tendency to question yourself and give greater credibility to others—whether with regard to how to raise your children, what color to paint a wall, or how to celebrate holidays.
To the degree that you have both clarity and trust in your beliefs, you’ll less frequently experience the sense of threat that is the hallmark of more intense anger. Your friend or partner could do cartwheels in their attempts to convince you otherwise, but you could more easily brush off such attempts as simply reflecting a difference of perspective—a perspective that you need not embrace.
Look to Your Past
Sensitivity to feeling controlled may be a derivative of unresolved issues regarding childhood and adolescence. Throughout these years we didn’t have full control over our lives. To varying degrees, we were told how to think, feel, and behave. Some of us may have been more fortunate than others to have caretakers who supported our growing independence. By contrast, others had more overbearing parents, which can seed feelings of anger and guilt that clash with and fuel each other.
As an adult, even a simple suggestion made by your partner may lead you to feel as if you are once again a child or teen, with those same mixed feelings that you experienced in your earlier years. As such, you may once again experience those feelings of being trapped that you experienced in your earlier years. The challenge, at such moments, is to be aware that you are no longer that child. The challenge is to be mindful of your emotional brain’s tendency to overly influence your thoughts and reactions in the moment.
The “terrible two’s” and adolescence are both times when a child begins to make bids for autonomy. The ability to say “No” helps us to feel a new sense of empowerment that is an essential element in building a foundation of identity and autonomy. Adolescence is also a time to try out different identities, some aspects of which may even include internalizing certain aspects of our parents.
By contrast, some develop a “negative identity,” a term first described by Erick Erickson (Erickson, 1968). In the extreme, an adolescent may become exactly the opposite of what his parents expect of him. For example, the son of a minister might become an atheist, the daughter of a college professor might drop out of college, and the son of a police officer might be involved in drug use or robbery. In effect, such adolescents respond to the challenge of developing their identity that communicates, “I don’t know who I want to be—but I sure don’t want to be anything like you!”
A heightened sensitivity to feeling controlled may also derive from severe wounds experienced in earlier years, as a child or an adult. In this case, the sensitivity to feeling controlled may help protect you from experiencing similar wounds again. It is difficult to embrace trust if doing so in the past has led to intense emotional or physical hurt.
Unhealthy dependency may also contribute to being sensitive to feeling controlled. If you seek a partner to provide unconditional love, to take care of and fix all of your wounds, or to somehow “make up” for previous suffering, such dependency may only further your disappointment and anger. In effect, you may be “parentizing” your partner, maintaining unrealistic expectations that may only foster hurt and anger. Surely, part of a healthy relationship entails mutual support, nurturance, and care-taking, but unhealthy dependency leaves one continually looking outward for comfort and to define one’s self-worth.
It is inherent in our nature to want to please others, in an attempt to achieve the safety of feeling part of the pack. This desire is rooted in the need for connection and acceptance, by parents, peers, and later as an adult. However, to the degree that we feel overly compelled to please because of fears of rejection or abandonment, we soon start to feel invisible in a relationship. This same compulsion may foster an increased tendency to feel controlled.
A Sense of Not Deserving
Our parent’ rigidity about how we should feel, think, or behave; their unavailability, whether due to self-absorption regarding a physical or emotional illness; physical or emotional abuse; or neglect are just a few examples of experiences that may culminate in a child becoming an adult who feels undeserving of voicing or asserting his or her will.
Many other factors can contribute to this same tendency. Even growing up with a sibling who had some form of physical or emotional illness can leave a child with tremendous guilt about even wanting attention, yet alone expressing his needs or desires.
The “Anxiety of Being”
Because we all seek certainty, trusting ourselves — looking inward to define our identity, including our values—can be extremely anxiety-provoking. “Will I risk criticism, punishment, or even abandonment for being true to ‘myself’?” “Am I making the best decision for myself?” and “What if I am wrong?” are often part of the underlying dialogue that may accompany and fuel such anxiety. This is often the anxiety that accompanies our freedom of choice.
Fear of Self-Assertion
Whether rooted in a lack of confidence, past wounds, dependency, a deep sense of not deserving, or the anxiety of being, the fear of self-assertion lays the foundation for a tendency to feel controlled. The inherent need to please others may dominate and compete with your motivation to assert yourself. Ultimately, however, you get to decide whether you deserve to “be”—to embrace your beliefs, feelings, and your values.
Addressing the tendency to feel controlled requires courage to experiment with becoming more true to yourself. The following are strategies to help with this process.
- Learn skills in assertive communication.
- This may include practicing saying “No” when you mean “No,” and “Yes” when you mean “Yes.”
- Being attentive to and savoring the sense of empowerment you experience in asserting yourself.
- Take small steps by being assertive regarding less threatening issues.
- Voice your perspective in a discussion, even if you’re not absolutely sure of yourself.
- Recognize in your inner dialogue those motivations that compete with being assertive and expressing yourself — the need to please, a sense of feeling selfish, or an overall sense of not deserving to have your will expressed or acknowledged.
- If you’re in a relationship, share with your partner your intent and desire to work on this challenge. Doing so will inform you whether or not your partner is really controlling. Note whether they are supportive of your efforts or appears anxious, dismissive, or even angered by your discussion.
- Remind yourself that developing any new habits will feel uncomfortable for a while until you more completely cultivate this ability.
- Work on gaining self-awareness and recognizing your feelings and values.
- Work at being more uncomfortable with uncertainty—as this can further undermine your commitment to your beliefs and values.
- Perhaps the most challenging strategy is to address old wounds that may impact your tendency to feel controlled. This may require professional help.
Practicing these strategies can assist you in fostering a deeper and more honest connection with yourself. Doing so can reduce your sensitivity to feeling controlled and, consequently, your vulnerability to anger arousal.
E. Erickson, (1968) Identity, Youth and Crisis. New York: W.W.Norton.