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Claire Nielsen: How to stop controlling behaviour and rebuild relationships

We know we are in the presence of someone with control issues when “everything has to go his/her way.”
We know we are in the presence of someone with control issues when “everything has to go his/her way.”

Control. It is an interesting concept to ponder and try to understand – the whole issue around controlling others or being controlled by others.  We all have times in our lives when people accuse us of being controlling and times where we feel we have to resist the control of others, or even compete for who is in control (anyone who has raised children understand this one). 

We know we are in the presence of someone with control issues when “everything has to go his/her way.”  It doesn’t feel good to be in relationship with controllers within family, workplace or friendships. Controllers have a way of demoralizing others while they need to tell everyone what to do and how to do it.  And nobody wants to be told what to do all the time (or at all).

Control can be a dynamic of relationship - sometimes tangible, extreme and abusive - demoralizing the identity of another. Narcissistic tyrants cause terrible harm and trauma to others in their absolute conviction that they are right and must control all around them.

If we are in relationship with someone who needs to control all people and situations around them, what made them this way?  People who have little control of their inner environment (what they think, perceive and believe or are filled with fear and anxiety) have a tendency to be more controlling of their outer environment. They feel that if they give up control in any area, they may lose control of all areas. This results in a rigid “must be right and in control of everything” attitude. 

So where does controlling behaviour come from?  It can be a personality trait that runs deep – often being developed by necessity in early childhood. There may even be a genetic component linked to obsessiveness (obsessive compulsive disorder).  In early childhood when children are just coming into the realization that they can control certain things (what and if they eat, when they walk, when they get potty trained, when they go to sleep etc.) they will exert their control as a way of testing the boundaries of their world and forming their individual identities. But if the parent gets involved in too many power struggles that become chronic, unresolved and part of the relationship dynamic, the child will develop strategies to exert control wherever he/she can. 

If, for whatever reason the child doesn’t feel they have autonomy, doesn’t feel heard or respected or have any control in decisions (often the case with youngest children), then they may seek out areas they can control and fight for control whenever they can.  This can also be the start of oppositional defiance and other extreme resistant behaviours.  Opposing (real or perceived) control of others can become a character trait and affect the child for the rest of their lives when in the presence of authority.  The standard old school parenting technique to tame willful resistant children has been to break their spirit and control even more which leads to a feeling of repression for the child and can cause more resistant behaviour.

Children who have experienced abuse at the hand of an adult or older sibling will often grow up with control issues.  There is nothing that makes one feel less in control than abusive behaviour from another. And in addition to the abuse there may be psychological manipulation and gaslighting - blaming the child for the abuse.  This early trauma can cause long-term anxiety that may only be contained by control.  Reaction formation is a defense mechanism that switches inner anxiety to outward calm and control.

In my opinion, the opposite of control is respect.  If we respect others’ opinions, rights and choices we don’t need to step in and control them.  Self-awareness is key.  When we notice that as we are entering a combative state (we feel our egoic need to compete), we can pause and ask ourselves if this is something we really need to control.  Then we can look at the individual with a new perspective – one of compassion and understanding that their need for control feeds a lack in their perceived personal power. This understanding can reduce our feeling of being victimized. I wrote a previous article on competition which goes hand in hand with control issues.

I think it is helpful to take an honest look at our claim that another is controlling. Maybe they are indeed needing to control because they are competitive by nature, or they are living with an anxiety that threatens to overtake them if they don’t stay in control.  Or maybe our perception that they are controlling is a projection of our need to control.  What we resist the most in others is often what we haven’t been able to accept in ourselves.  In addition to understanding where someone else’s controlling behaviour comes from, we can take a look at our own reaction and competition tendencies and ask ourselves if we are noticing control in another that we actually own ourself.

I acknowledge my own control issues, which I have been actively trying to understand and soften for many years, especially in my family.  I know my controlling traits developed in my early childhood, as my family dynamic was chaotic and competitive.  As an adult, when my own family was in crisis I was overwhelmed and not at my best.  

Within the same year, three of my immediate family had severe life-threatening health problems, there was intense work and financial stress, relationship issues, teen rebellion, death of a loved one, and mental health issues for all of us. Everything was happening simultaneously and felt completely out of control.  In my desperate attempts to hold everything together and regain some sort of order and normalcy while in an intense state of fear, I was perceived by my children as being controlling.

During this time my relationships with my children suffered and, 15 years later, I am still working on healing them.  Children don’t understand the stresses of adulthood and will often interpret stressed adult behaviour as repressive or controlling rather than protective. This perception may change with age, maturity, and life lessons as our kids become parents themselves and go through their own life challenges.  Or the damage to the parent-child relationship may be lifelong, especially if the parent doesn’t acknowledge their part or the children won’t let go of resentment.  Honest communication, family counseling and the willingness to understand and forgive may be helpful to soften the wounds from the past. 

Claire Nielsen is a health coach, author, public speaker and founder of The information provided in the above article is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional health and medical advice. Please consult a doctor or healthcare provider if you're seeking medical advice, diagnoses and/or treatment.