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Last Updated Wednesday March 29 2017 10:42 AM IST

Heal Thy Self | Here's how to deal with a control freak

Nirmala  Ferrao
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Angry businessman in office Representative image

These days, it seems, you can't throw a stone without hitting one. They're there in our offices, in the gyms we go to, the social clubs we belong to, in our housing societies and in our circle of friends. They're the ones with a driving need to call the shots, the ones who want to control every aspect of a situation. They are genuinely concerned that others will get things wrong, will not allow others to share in making decisions. They must win every argument and always have the last word.

In Control Freak-land, the home is a hot spot. Whether it's a micro-managing mother-in-law, a pushy parent, a bossy brother or a domineering spouse, if you share domestic territory with one of these, you're probably already crawling up the wall. Or might soon be, if you don't take things in hand.

Living with a control freak can take a toll on your physical and mental health. Many control freaks also become abusive – verbally, emotionally, physically, sexually – with persons with whom they have a close relationship.

But, in trying to cope, many victims of super-controllers consistently do things that bring out the worst in the other person. They become quiet; they don't interrupt; they allow him to interrupt them; and they bide their time until he decides to shut up. But these responses only create a vacuum for the control freak to fill, implying that it's okay for him to control or dominate the interaction.

So, your first marching order in dealing with a controller at home is not to ignore what is happening.

Instead, work out the strategies that will disable his power plays while asserting your right to your own thoughts, decisions and actions.

Some Coping Strategies

Schedule a time to talk with the person. The interaction should be private, and at a time when neither of you is tired, busy, stressed out or feeling unwell.

Stay as calm as you can. Control freaks tend to generate a lot of tension in those around them. Try to maintain a comfortable distance so that you can remain centred while you speak with him.

Try to focus on your breathing. As the control freak gets more agitated and demanding, just breathe slowly and deeply. If you stay calm and focused, this often has the effect of relaxing the control freak as well. If you get agitated, you will have joined the battle on his terms.

Speak very slowly. Again, the normal tendency is to gear up and speak rapidly when dealing with a control freak. This will only draw you into the emotional turmoil and you will quickly be personalizing what is occurring.

But if you just listen carefully, speak slowly, and ask good questions that indicate you have heard him, the over-controlling person tends to be more receptive to what you have to say.

Talk about how you feel in the relationship. Instead of accusatory “You” statements, try the assertive power of “I” statements, such as “I feel…” Express how you feel in the relationship; ask the person how s/he thinks the situation might be improved; then offer your suggestions for how you might have more autonomy and why that's important to you.

Be specific and positive. For example, if the control freak is your spouse, negotiate how you could come to a pact regarding, say, leisure time – e.g., you trade him a couple of evenings at the club for a couple of evenings at the multiplex or mall.

Treat them with respect. Avoid attaching critical labels to the other person (like “bossy” or “nag” or “dictator”). If you treat them with respect, their paranoia cannot find fertile ground – you've pulled the soil from right under their feet.

But do not allow them to manipulate you. Controllers are habitually – and often unconsciously – manipulative. They'll use a wide range of behaviours in the service of their over-riding goal, which is to get their own way in every situation: play the martyr; throw a tantrum; use ridicule; use guilt trips; cry wolf; try passive aggressiveness.

So, it's important, even as you're treating them with respect and understanding, to send out the message that you will not be manipulated or intimidated. One of the best ways to do this: make demands on them. Ask them to do something for you. By asking something of them, you will be indicating that you are not cowed or diminished by their approach and behaviour.

Say “no” without saying “sorry”. When you must say no to the hyper-controller, don't feel obligated to apologize or offer explanations. Simply say no, firmly yet respectfully.

Don't sweat the small stuff. Focus on what matters most to you when trying to win back control from the over-controlling person. Don't let every small annoyance turn into a power struggle.

Try to see “where he's coming from”. Over time, try to empathize with the hyper-controller by getting to know him better, and by trying to understand what's driving his need to control others. The need to control is almost always fuelled by anxiety and insecurity. Insecure people are terrified of being vulnerable. They worry about failure at work, about not having their needs met in a relationship. They fear the future, they fear that others will harm them or threaten their interests. To keep their anxieties from overwhelming them, they try to control the people and things around them. This way, they believe, they can protect themselves and their world.

Understanding them helps to bring compassion rather than anger to the interaction.

Therapy can bring a lasting change. If you do get to a healthy level of trust and understanding in the relationship, the best thing you can then do to help the controlling person is to suggest that s/he seek help from a mental-health professional. The anxieties and insecurities that impel control-freakism have their origins in early childhood experiences, which continue to be the lens through which the control freak views the world ever after. (E.g., the biographers of Hilary Clinton, one of our quintessential control freaks, ascribe her rigid, fear-driven personality to a stern, judgemental father who was tough on her, and even tougher on her sainted mother).

Its early origins make over-control a central and embedded personality trait, not at all an easy fix to get over on one's own. Therapy is long-term and requires much effort on the part of the client. But, eventually sufficient change does occur so that the super-controller can rip down at least some of the sides of that suffocating box he's been living in. 

(The author, a former editor of 'Health & Nutrition' magazine, now works as a counselling therapist)

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