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Control freaks: The psychology of overly controlling people

Angela’s mother was a total control freak. It seemed like she wanted to control each and every aspect of Angela’s life. She enquired about Angela’s whereabouts all the time, chaperoned her whenever she could and always interfered in her major life decisions. On top of it, she had a very annoying habit of occasionally moving things here and there in Angela’s room.

Psychology of control freaks

Any extreme behavior inherently implies that it is satisfying an extreme need. When people push themselves strongly in one direction it is because they're being pulled by something in the opposite direction. Control freaks have a strong need to control others because they believe they lack control themselves. So excessive need to control means the person is lacking control somehow in their own life.

Now ‘lack of control’ is a very broad phrase. It includes every possible aspect of life that a person may want to control but find that they don’t, or can’t. But the general rule stays constant- a person will only turn into a control freak if they think they lack control, over any aspect of their own life.

Anything that a person is unable to control in their life can induce the feelings of ‘lack of control’ in them. These feelings motivate them to regain control over that apparently uncontrollable thing. That's totally fine because that's exactly how emotions are supposed to work- signaling to us that some need needs to be satisfied.

The problem arises when, instead of regaining control over the thing that they lost control over in the first place, some people try to regain control over 'other' irrelevant areas of their lives.

If a person feels they lack control over X (this X can be anything- their job, their relationships, their emotions, their health or their life in general), instead of regaining control over X, they seek to control Y (this Y is usually an ‘easier to control’ thing in their environments like furniture or other people!)

For instance, if a person feels they lack control in their job, instead of regaining control in their work-life, they might try to regain it by moving furniture in the house or interfering unhealthily in their kids' lives

The human mind always seeks the shortest path to attain a goal. After all, to regain feelings of control, it is much easier to move furniture or shout at kids than to face the major life problem and work through it.

Another reason why people become control freaks: Fear

We like to control things that have the potential of causing us harm because by controlling that thing we can prevent it from harming us.

A girl who's afraid that her boyfriend will dump her may try to overly control his life by constantly checking in on him to convince herself that he's still with her. Similarly, a husband who fears that his wife may cheat on him might become very controlling. And parents who fear that their teen-aged son is susceptible to be influenced by a bad company might control him by imposing restrictions on him.

In the above cases, it is clear that the goal of trying to control others is to prevent inflicting harm on oneself or loved ones. 

However, there’s another sneaky fear-related factor that can turn a person into a control freak...

The fear of being controlled

Oddly enough, those who fear being controlled by others may end up becoming control freaks themselves! The logic here is the same- pain/harm avoidance. When we’re afraid that people are trying to control us, we may try to control them to prevent them from controlling us. 

By controlling people around them, control freaks rest assured that no one would ever dare to control them. After all, it's hard to even think of controlling someone when you're already under their control.

It has been said that some of the most powerful dictators, rulers, and kings who sought to control every aspect of their subjects' lives were indeed the most afraid to lose control. You bet! They're control freaks of a whole another level who're so afraid of losing control that they have to control an entire nation.

Control freak-iness is changeable

Like most other personality traits, control freak-iness isn't something you’re ‘stuck’ with. As always, understanding the reasons behind one’s controlling behavior is the first step to overcoming it.

As mentioned earlier, people usually become controlling after a major life change that induces in them feelings of a 'lack of control'- switching career, moving to a new country, going through a divorce, etc. New life events that restore their sense of control tend to appease their controlling behavior over time. 

For example, a person who initially felt ‘without control’ in a new job might cease to be a control freak when he gets the hang of the things at his new workplace and starts to feel comfortable.

However, people in whom ‘being a control freak’ is a dominant personality trait are most likely the ones in whom the need to feel in control was shaped by childhood experiences.

For instance, if a girl felt sidelined since childhood and had no ‘say’ whatsoever in important family matters, she might grow up to become a controlling woman just to make up for the subconsciously held feelings of not being in control.

Since the need was shaped in childhood, it is deeply ingrained in her psyche and therefore it might be difficult for her to overcome this behavior. Unless, of course, she becomes conscious of what she’s doing and why she’s doing it.

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