If you live with a control freak, you love them despite their constant need to make sure that everything goes their way.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
If you work with one, you tolerate them because you like your job, you have bills to pay — and prison orange isn’t your color.
You can’t avoid all the control freaks of the world, so you have to find a way to peacefully coexist with them. It’s tough, but believe it or not, it can be done. Let’s start by understanding the psychology behind the behavior.
What makes a control freak tick?
Control freaks tend to have a psychological need to be in charge of things and people around them. This often includes circumstances that cannot be changed or even controlled. The need for control can stem from deeper psychological issues such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety disorders or personality disorders.
“People who try to dominate you can be exhausting and suffocating. They make you feel like you can’t breathe and you are trapped in their ways,” says psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD.
“Unfortunately, we all have control freaks of different degrees in our lives. Sometimes it is a boss or friend. It’s particularly difficult when it is a family member which creates a toxic and tricky world to navigate. You often can’t just cut them out — you have to learn how to skillfully navigate their nature,” Dr. Albers explains.
Control freaks are always aware of what they’re doing, right?
Not necessarily. It might seem like they have agendas to take over our lives and the world, but that’s not the case. Dr. Albers says fear is often a motivator in their desire to control. Anxiety is another reason for their behavior.
“People who have control issues experience a lot of anxiety. They try to control things to reduce their anxiety level. Finding other positive ways to reduce their anxiety can help divert or shut down their need to control others.”
Changing your perspective can make them a little easier to deal with
The term “control freak” is a pretty charged one when you think about it. ” ‘Control freak’ can be a negative term that makes you automatically feel angry and indicates that people are abnormal,” says Dr. Albers. She recommends reframing the term by saying that people with control issues “like to take charge of things.” That can help take your negative association with these individuals down a notch.
Bullying is never the way to go
People with control issues may tap dance on your last nerve, but don’t take the low road when interacting with them.
“Remember that it is never okay to bully them. Sometimes control freaks genuinely don’t realize that their behavior is coming across that way. Labeling it as such can sometimes shine a different light on it for the controller,” says Dr. Albers. She also recommends not hurling insults at people who struggle with control issues.
“With these individuals, it’s important to get to the root of what is driving the need for control. If it’s due to a psychological disorder, telling the person that they’re acting like a jerk isn’t going to fix the problem.”
How to stay calm when dealing with someone with control issues
In a work situation, you have a glimmer of hope because you don’t have to spend your days and nights with the source of your frustration. Living with someone who has control issues might be more of a challenge. Thankfully, Dr. Albers has some pointers for both scenarios.
How to handle a controlling coworker or boss
It’s in our nature to be polite or to try to keep the peace at work. We’re with our coworkers 40 or more hours a week. The last thing we want is a tense or tumultuous work environment. On the other hand, it’s not fair for you to be on edge every day because you have to interact with a controlling officemate.
There’s a fine balance to coexisting with a control freak in the workplace — and it doesn’t mean that you always have to be the sacrificial lamb.
Dr. Albers suggests taking this route.
“When someone with control issues tries to take over at work, calmly point out how it makes you feel in the moment at the exact moment when it’s happening. Don’t let it fester so you explode later. It helps to connect the feeling and the event clearly. For example, you could say something like, ‘Right now you are telling me how I should run the meeting tomorrow. I feel like you don’t trust me to do a good job.’ ”
If your coworker or boss is allergic to the word “no,” Dr. Albers suggests using “gentle nos.” This means, instead of telling the person “no” with a little bass and a lot of “get out of my face” behind it, try saying something along the lines of, “What I am going to do is…” or “Another way of doing this is…”
With a controlling person, Dr. Albers says that a firm “no” can escalate the situation. “The word “no” can be very triggering and fighting words for someone who has control issues.”
How to handle a loved one with control issues
To be clear, we’re not referring to a situation where someone is extremely controlling or abusive. If you are in a situation like that, please know there is help, and we encourage you to seek it for your safety and sanity.
In this case, we’re referring to someone who might be a little too particular or peculiar about the little things. They could be a partner, a friend or even a family member.
When dealing with loved ones with control issues, Dr. Albers recommends picking your battles. Some things are worth holding your ground and doing them your way. She encourages you to know your limits and be very clear about them. Don’t ask the person for their opinion when you’re planning something or even doing the simplest tasks.
“Don’t invite opinions. Instead of saying, ‘What do you think about…’ say, ‘I am doing this,’ ” adds Dr. Albers.
If you spend a lot of time with a person who has control issues, shave that time down a little to make things less stressful. And when you talk to them, only give high-level details about what’s going on in your personal or professional life. This way, they won’t have the opportunity to critique your decisions.
Don’t sweat the small stuff
Some things aren’t worth the time or energy. When it comes to minor tasks or things that really aren’t relevant, don’t argue. “Sometimes it is just easier to allow people with control issues to do things their way. For instance, if it doesn’t truly matter where you eat lunch or dinner, let them decide,” says Dr. Albers. “But giving them complete control across the board is not good for you or your relationship. This will only cause resentment and anger.”
You can make things more manageable by giving your coworker or loved one positive and constructive ways to challenge their controlling nature. Give them tasks that you aren’t enthusiastic about. This doesn’t mean punishing them with horrible projects. You can assign them mundane tasks that they really enjoy doing. And once they complete those projects, thank them for “taking charge.” (Wink, wink.)
Surround yourself with supportive people
It can be overwhelming when you have to deal with a control freak on a daily basis. That’s why you need a supportive network of people who will back you up and allow you to vent.
“Be sure to talk to others. A controlling person knows how to make you feel guilty, or feel like you are doing something wrong or unwise if you don’t follow their advice. That’s why it’s always good to check in with a neutral party or another family member to reinforce that your opinion matters and is valid,” says Dr. Albers.