When you suffer from anxiety it can seem like nothing is under your control. The more fearful you feel of not being in control, the more you try to structure your world to feel safe. Perhaps you had previous experience with feeling powerless and you never wish to feel that way again. One way you may deal with feeling anxiety is to overcompensate by exerting great control over your current environment including the people around you. The people in your life may call you a "control freak" and resent your attempts to create structure and order. Yet when you don't exert your control you feel great anxiety.
So what can be done? Chances are that if you have been labeled as a control freak by others, you may see no reason to change your ways because this is how you manage some of your anxiety. You may not even be conscious that you are doing it. Hopefully this post will help you to become aware if you do have this issue or will promote understanding if you have someone in your life that is controlling.
Three Hypothetical Cases
Hypothetical Case Number One: Mary had a rough childhood where she was the victim of sexual abuse from a neighbor. Her family did not believe her when she talked about the abuse and so she lived in both shame and fear. Years later she did marry and had two children, a boy and a girl. She allowed the boy great freedom but Mary could not allow the same freedoms to her daughter. She would not permit her daughter to go anywhere alone. She did not allow her daughter to go to any after school activities, nor did she allow her to go on sleepovers. Every activity or outing was carefully monitored. The daughter, unaware of her mother's past, simply grew more and more resentful of her mother's control. In her teen years the daughter became rebellious, causing Mary to feel extreme anxiety.
Hypothetical Case Number Two: George grew up in the inner city with parents who struggled to keep afloat financially. His father worked a couple of menial labor jobs and one was being the janitor at George's school. George was embarrassed by this and didn't let any of the other kids know that his dad was the janitor. His mother struggled as well and found jobs where she could at the grocery store or beauty parlor washing hair. She would come home and tell George that things wouldn't be this way if only his dad would have gone to school. George took this to heart and got good grades. He won a scholarship and went to an Ivy League college. But he always felt inferior somehow. He felt he had to prove himself that much more.
After college, he married and had children. George pushed the children early on and made sure that they got into the best schools and academic programs. Starting in elementary school, the children did three hours of homework every night which was monitored by George. The children had no time for fun because George was using every bit of their time to prepare them for school. As the children became resentful, George reasoned that he was simply giving his kids the best chance for a good future.
Hypothetical Case Number Three: Cindy met the love of her life in high school and they married early on. Things were very happy until the day her husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Although Cindy researched and tried to do everything to save her husband, he died anyway. Cindy was devastated by his death and felt guilty that she didn't do enough even though everyone around her and including doctors told her that there was nothing anybody could do. Cindy married again ten years later. Her new husband was aware of her first marriage and what happened, but had no idea of the extent of Cindy's unresolved grief and feelings of guilt.
When her new husband would show any signs of illness, including a cold, Cindy would grow very anxious. She would deal with the situation by constantly hovering over him, asking if he was okay and providing far too much care, like taking him to the doctor when he really didn't need to go. Her super vigilance over his health was becoming a terrible strain on their relationship. It came to the point where her new husband feared telling her any time he was sick and hid his symptoms when he was ill. This secrecy made Cindy that much more anxious.
I am sure we have all seen such hypothetical examples being played out in real life. The mother who tries to control her daughter's eating habits battled an eating disorder when she was a teen. The little girl who was picked on by bullies grows up to be a boss who micromanages her employees. The nurse who cannot stop smoking is bossy and controlling with her patients.
How to change controlling behavior
If you are feeling the need to overly control your environment and others, your anxiety may be an influential factor.
The first step is to be aware that you are doing it. Listen to loved ones, friends, and co-workers who tell you that you are crossing the boundaries of exerting your personal control. When you are overly controlling with others, the result is almost always resentment and rebellion and frayed relationships. In order to prevent such damage, it is imperative to make some changes.
Here are some ways to make a change:
- Listen to others if they tell you that you are being overly controlling.
Figure out the possible cause of your behavior. What is causing you to fear not being in control over certain situations? What do you predict is the worst case scenario for letting go of some of that control?
Talk to someone (a trusted friend, a counselor, or a therapist) about your fears and anxiety.
Remember that micromanaging or attempting to overly control situations in your life which arouse fear is not likely to work in the end. At some point you will have to deal with your fear head on and take risks. Progress is when you accept your powerlessness over some situations and life events. It is ironic that when you do reach that point of acceptance and letting go of what you cannot control, you will feel more powerful and in control.