How to Stop Being Such a Control Freak

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Admit it. You might be a little (or a lot) controlling. If you clicked on this headline, you have either a sneaking suspicion—or a profound certitude—that you are possibly (probably?) guilty of trying to control the shit out of everything you can.

You don’t like when anyone else is in charge (naturally—they are too slow and doing it wrong). Change gives you anxiety, surprises are not fun, lateness makes you irritable, and when things don’t go according to (your) plan, you are, suffice it to say, not pleased. Someone does the laundry or loads the dishwasher wrong? Hope their ears are closed because a litany of under-the-breath swear words are about to be spouted in their name. Can you relate?

How to tell if you’re a control freak

Chances are, you already know. But on the off chance you’ve never taken over a situation to embarrassing effect, and no one has ever implored you to stop telling them what to do, here are a few telltale signs.

  • You’re a perfectionist with high standards (and you don’t trust anyone else to meet them).
  • You want to know every detail of an activity or event: Who, what, when, where, and why.
  • You over-plan and get upset when things don’t go the way you envisioned them.
  • There’s only one right way to do something—which happens to be yours.
  • You get angry when other people mess up your plan, or do things differently than you would.
  • You prefer to be in charge. That way, there will be fewer mistakes.
  • You have trouble giving others free rein to do things as they see fit. Instead, you micromanage.
  • You’re overly-critical of yourself and others.

Why we turn into control freaks (and how it negatively affects our lives)

“Controlling behaviors often stem from anxiety and fear,” writes Sharon Martin, LCSW, for Psychology Today. “When things feel out of control, it’s natural to want to control them in order to feel safe (or happy or content).” It can come from growing up with an unpredictable parent who made the home feel scary or out of control—or it can be learned behavior from a rigid, anxious primary caregiver. It’s closely linked to perfectionism—that affliction that causes you to crave predictability, shy away from risk, hold others to exacting standards, and only try things at which you know you will succeed.

The catch is, we actually can’t really control other people or situations—or do anything “perfectly.” (Sigh.) Striving for control “[doesn’t] ultimately make us feel better,” Martin said. “In fact, controlling behaviors usually create problems in our relationships and make us feel frustrated and stressed out.”

Any control freak who has gone through a major life change with a partner (a move, job change, or baby) knows that snapping at them (“Why are you doing it that way?”) doesn’t exactly lead to household harmony. Not only does controlling behavior contribute to emotional and physical stress, it can damage your important relationships.

How to stop being a control freak

There are a few practical tips you can follow to change your controlling mindset. Taking them to heart won’t be easy, but with time and practice they can be effective at helping you keep a lid on your worst impulses.

Challenge the fear. Ask yourself: What will happen if I don’t control this situation? Recognize that you may be “catastrophizing” or worrying about the worst possible outcome, which may be quite unlikely.

Evaluate whether your attempts to control are truly effective. Tony Robbins suggests bringing truth and self-awareness to the behavior by asking, “Are my efforts at control making a lasting difference?” If they are effective, and aren’t deleterious to your relationships, OK. You may want to continue. If not, that’s your cue to stop.

Realize perfectionism slows you down. Far from being the magic pill your subconscious mind believes it to be, perfectionism is getting in your way. Yes, everything you write may be free from typos, but how many times did you review it? (It’s usually at least six for me.) How long did you obsess over the word choice? How many times did you not start (or finish) a project, not try a new activity or take a chance on a person because you were afraid it, or they, wouldn’t “measure up”? Trying to get everything perfect is time-consuming and it limits your growth and learning experiences.

Investigate the root cause. Do you know what led you to be so controlling? If not, engage in some self-reflective work to learn why. It could be therapy, meditation, journaling about your childhood or other formative experiences—anything that will bring you closer to an understanding of the fears driving the need for control. Are the fears and conditions that drove you to learn the behavior still occurring? (Often, they’re long in the past, but the habit persists.)

Realize you’re not actually right all the time. It’s time to let go of (some of) your ego. Yes, you’re great at what you do. Your systems and attention to detail are top-notch. And—we know this is a tough pill to swallow, but—the way other people do things is also valid. Regardless of the 26 ways you may judge their method to be inferior, they have a right to do the same thing differently. (And sometimes, let’s face it, their methods are better.)

Notice the cost. When has your need for control caused you to lose something of value? (Be honest.) Reflect on the times your need for control has had a noticeable cost—in terms of lost friends, weakened relationships, missed opportunities.

Accept you can’t control everything (and choose a mantra). Acknowledge and accept there are things outside of your control (including people). Choose a mantra to recite when you’re feeling anxious and want to interject. Psychology Today suggests adopting one or more of the following: “I can only control myself. My way isn’t the only way. I will respect other people’s choices.”

Practice giving up control in one small area: Choose one small area of your life in which to give up control (and stick to it). Maybe someone else chooses the restaurant, shops for and makes dinner, or plans your next family excursion. Remind yourself throughout the process that you are a guest in the experience, and resist the temptation to comment or intercede. Practice with small things first and work your way up to larger ones.

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