We all know someone who is a “control freak.” He or she can’t seem to stop giving unsolicited advice or tell you what to do, and how to do it. At first, you might actually get along, but soon you realize that the attitude of “listen to me, I know better!” seems to permeate the majority of their interactions, and will ultimately end up pushing people away. Control freaks feel compelled to orchestrate and manipulate people and situations to make sure everything goes “their way,” and even if though their intentions might be benign, it can cause a lot of pain. Psychologist Thomas J. Schumacher best describes a control freak’s struggle:

“Keep in mind that control freaks are not trying to hurt you – they’re trying to protect themselves. Remind yourself that their behavior toward you isn’t personal; the compulsion was there before they met you, and it will be their forever unless they get help. Understand that they are skilled manipulators, artful and intimidating, rehearsed debaters and excellent at distorting reality.”

(For more on the psychological dynamics that fuel a control freak, read this.)

It might be easy to confuse control freaks with narcissists, and while there can be some overlap here, not all control freaks are also narcissists. Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is considered a form of mental illness that at least 6.3% of the population experiences which can be highly toxic and is often un-treatable by intervention or therapy (for more on narcissists and NPD, check out this article and listen to Episode 22 of Lucid Planet Radio). While being a ‘control freak’ is not usually considered a mental illness or psychiatric disorder, psychologists tend to diagnose very extreme cases of it as a form of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). If you’re unsure, here are 6 signs that someone in your life might be a control freak:

1. Control freaks claim to know what is best for you, and will employ various manipulation strategies to convince you that they are right:

Control freaks believe they know what is best for you, and it can feel terribly suffocating because of the intense manipulation tactics they can use to convince you that they are right, such as:

  • They will Micro-manage your behavior to fit their (usually unrealistic) expectations
  • They employ Repetition by obsessively pointing out something that you need to change over and over and OVER again – under the guise that they are “helping” you
  • They will sit in Silent Judgment as a form of passive-aggressively withholding energy when they perceive your behavior to be “wrong” or not in alignment with their expectations
  • They will Fear Monger by presenting “worst-case” scenarios in an attempt to direct you away from certain behaviors and towards others
  • They will Intervene on your behalf with other people and try to explain or dismiss your behaviors to others
  • They will offer “Constructive” Criticism (usually unsolicited) in a thinly veiled attempt to elicit the behavior changes they expect or want to see – again, under the guise that they “care” or they are “trying to help
  • They will Invalidate your emotions and tell you that your feelings are wrong in hopes to elicit the behaviors they want
  • They use a “Divide and Conquer” strategy to separate you from other people who do not buy into their controlling attitudes, including getting in between relationships, friendships and family members. For more on these manipulation strategies, read this.

2. Their lives might be out of control… But control freaks will try relentlessly to control everyone else:

The control freak’s mentality often involves projecting his or her own lack of control onto the people around them. Often they are the ones who can’t seem to get it together in some important area of their lives (like their jobs, relationships, health, etc.) but they are the first to try to dominate and dictate how other people live their lives. This type of control-seeking can arise from a place of their own unhappiness and their insecurity/inability to face their personal issues head on.

3. Control freaks consistently try to dominate other people’s plans:

 When you spend time with a control freak, you will begin to notice their needs to dominate and dictate not just their own plans, but the plans of everyone around them. This really shines in a group setting where several people make plans together. The control freak will be the one who demands that everyone follow his or her plans and ideas, even when it is apparent that the majority wants to do something else. Everything is fair game for control freaks, from what you’re wearing, to how you are driving, to where you are going for dinner and what you are ordering.

 4. Control freaks often lack spontaneity and the fun that comes with it:

One of the most tragic things about being a control freak is the inability to have fun doing spontaneous things, because everything needs to be planned out and controlled. While for many people, a “surprise” trip or vacation sounds like a fun adventure, most control freaks simply cannot stand the ambiguity or not knowing about the plan. So instead of being excited about a surprise trip where they can just sit back and go with the flow, control freaks might fret about every little detail, ask a million questions, or in more extreme cases have a full on anxiety attack or simply refuse to go. (Note: this alone without the other behaviors present in this list could also indicate a social anxiety disorder, and is not by itself enough grounds for labeling someone a control freak.)

5. Control freaks are obsessively opinionated and believe their opinions are factually, universally “right”:

Control freaks have this amazing tendency to believe that their feelings and beliefs are somehow universally factually RIGHT, which is why it can be downright painful to get into a disagreement with them. I remember a wise person once told me that “sometimes we have to make a choice between being happy and being right. And yet I have personally heard so many control freaks say that they get to be happy AND right… But unfortunately that is usually not the case. By believing their opinions are fact, control freaks can easily alienate people and push them away, which can become a major cause of their own worry and unhappiness.

 6. Control freaks can be overbearing perfectionists

Control freaks are often the first to judge or to tell you that they know better, and they usually apply the same level of rigid judgment to themselves. They will often try to do everything to make sure that things are done to their liking, with that motto of “if you want something done right, do it yourself!” As a result, they can bite off way more than they can chew, which can lead to a vicious cycle of them failing and letting people down, creating more self-judgment, perfectionism and attempts to control their out of control feelings/situations. Trying to do it all can be a major source of stress and health problems, and control freaks are also frequently workaholics, clean freaks and/or obsessive dieters, for example.

How to Deal with Someone Who is a Control Freak

  • STOP being a victim.

    According to psychiatrist Judith Orloff MD, control freaks are often drawn to people with low self-esteem or victim mentalities, because energetically speaking, they will be able to exercise their will, manipulate and gain power in the situation. Recognize you may be CHOOSING to allow this energy into your life, reflecting an unconscious belief that you are not worthy. You are worthy of good friends and good people who support you and your dreams, who also empower you and give you space to make your own decisions. Remember, you have 100% control over the energies you choose to let into your life, and how to choose to RESPOND to these energies.

  • Be Assertive BUT Do Not Play Their Games!

    Be assertive and speak your mind, but try to avoid telling control freaks what to do. This will most likely lead to a power struggle where they will feel the need to prove that they are right. So pick and choose your battles wisely to avoid getting sucked into unnecessary conflict. Assertiveness means employing compassionate communication whenever possible, such as “I appreciate your opinion but I’d like to express my opinions too” in hopes that bringing awareness to their behaviors, they will recognize that they might be out of line and stop (or at least, chill out).

  • Set Boundaries and Learn to Walk Away

    What if the person will not stop? Is it possible to remain friends/ have a relationship with a control freak when you reject his or her controlling behavior? Possibly. Sometimes, you will need to walk away because the person refuses to be accountable. If the relationship is important to you, or if this is someone who WILL be present in your life (such as a family member or work colleague) it is imperative to set boundaries by communicating the problems that you are having. If the person is willing to make efforts to adjust the behaviors, then give some time to see if changes actually happen. Remember, continuing to surround yourself with people who do not respect your personal boundaries and who are seeking to control your life through manipulative methods DOES NOT SERVE YOU. It locks up your energy, blocking the opportunity for supportive relationships to enter your space (this is of course, exactly what the control freak wants). Cutting the attachment out, in terms of physical proximity, communication, emotional connection and also the energetic cord that ties you together are all important parts of freeing up your space. I have even had to block/remove people from social media when they used these avenues as spaces for exerting control.

  • Go Within to Understand Your Pattern/ Conditioning:

    I personally haven’t had much luck with getting the control freaks in my life to respect my boundaries. I have had to walk away from situations knowing that this person is toxic to me and my happiness. As with narcissists, if they will not respect our boundaries, then loving them from afar can be the best resolution. But reflecting back on my life as of late, I have had to ask the question: Why do I continue to attract and permit these types of people into my life? Going within to understand why you have made these agreements is key. For me, I recognize that I have allowed these people into my life because they reinforce underlying feelings of low- self esteem and low self worth. Bringing awareness to this pattern has empowered me to treat myself with a greater amount of respect and compassion and seek out companions who do the same.

For more info, like what to do if you think you might be a control freak, or how to deal narcissists, listen to Episode 22 of Lucid Planet Radio!