Linda Lewis Griffith

Easing the need for control

Do you like to have things just so in your home or office? Do you insist that others do things exactly the way you want them to be done? Do you become excessively angry if others do something that you don’t like? Then you may be a control freak and it may be wreaking havoc on your life and your relationships.

“Control freaks are people who care more than you do about something and won’t stop at being pushy to get their way,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Les Parrott from the Center for Relationship Development in Seattle.

While each of us is passionate about certain issues and wishes to occasionally run the show, control freaks are passionate about everything and stop at nothing to ensure that they’re in charge.

Control freaks may be perceived as domineering, but they are actually anxious and fearful. They harbor underlying fears that they will be exposed as being inadequate and that they’ll lose control of their jobs or loved ones. The more anxious they feel, the more they attempt to control their surroundings.

Many control freaks struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder, a type of anxiety disorder characterized by repetitive thoughts and behaviors, such as hand washing, cleaning or counting. For instance, a man with OCD may incessantly wash and wax his car and become furious if someone gets handprints on the paint.

Control freaks also have trouble managing anger. They respond to seemingly minor issues with tirades and emotional outbursts. They will escalate an argument to irrational levels if they feel threatened, causing others to back down instead of risk a possible explosion.

Control freaks rely on intimidation tactics such as put-downs, insults or criticism to keep those around them in line. Family members may feel incompetent and powerless as they are bombarded with negative messages by their controller.

In fact, control freaks are often in relationships with compliant, accommodating partners who allow them to take charge and are willing to back down whenever there is a disagreement.

Few control freaks mean to be controlling. Most express remorse when they realize that others are frightened or humiliated by what they do. Still, their behavior can have debilitating consequences to those with whom they interact.

Of course, no one should stay with a person whose controlling behavior is physically dangerous or threatening. Nor is it wise to be involved with anyone who is emotionally abusive. Those relationships should end ASAP and steps should be taken to avoid hooking up with such difficult partners in the future.

But many controlling people are achievement-oriented, get-’er-done types whose do-it-my-way personalities have been key factors in their success. Most have lots of positive attributes and, though sometimes difficult to live with, are capable, high-functioning folks. (And let’s face it, who wouldn’t want a pilot or a surgeon who has a here’s-how-we’re-gonna-do-it brand of perfectionism and self-assurance?)

Even so, control freaks would do well to recognize when they are anxious and learn strategies to calm themselves down. They should address their anger and disengage when they’re hot under the collar. Finally, they should practice respect toward everyone they meet, especially those living in the same household. These changes won’t happen overnight. But they’ll make control freaks much easier to be around.

Tips for coping with a control freak

Are you involved with a control freak? Try these suggestions to make things run more smoothly:

• Stay calm. Control freaks are already feeling out of control. They don’t need partners who are ballistic too. Instead, notice when your control freak is feeling anxious and do your best to defuse the situation.

• Grant control freaks the control they seek. Never attempt to out-control control freaks. They’ll always escalate a situation to the max. Instead, be willing to say, “We’ll do it your way,” to avert an impending blow-up.

• Address problems when the dust has settled. Let control freaks know where you stand on issues, but do so in a respectful, logical way. You want to elicit cooperation; becoming aggressive will make them defensive.

• Offer assurance and information. Control freaks are often soothed by data, facts and encouragement. Remind them you have the tickets before leaving for the theater. Let them know where you’re going if they tend to worry. They’ll feel as if they’re reclaiming control, and they’re apt to be more reasonable.

• Be patient. Living with control freaks requires vigilance and effort. Yes, they can be wearing. But if your control freak is basically a good partner, your energies will be worth it. If not, get out and find someone new.

Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her visit