How to take your life back from a control freak.
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One day long ago, someone decided it was the right thing to tell another person what to do, and in that moment a precedent was set that would make millions of people miserable. Unfortunately, the person who enjoys being controlled by another has yet to be born, but that hasn’t stopped anyone from trying. The good news is I’m going to tell you where controlling behavior comes from, why people do it, and how to stop it once and for all. Old habits die hard, of course, but with hard work and determination you can take back your life and live it the way you choose. Let’s get started.
Where it comes from. It begins with self-esteem, boundary, and trust issues.
The concepts I am about to describe were created by Pia Mellody, a humble nurse who in the 1970s and 80s worked with her husband at The Meadows Behavioral Health Center in Wickenburg, Arizona. She was tasked to figure out how patients there became addicts, as it wasn’t understood at the time. As she began to unlock the puzzle, she realized that even non-addicted people had the same issues the addicts did. In 1989 she published the book Facing Codependence, which should be mandatory reading for all adults, and a movement for treating childhood developmental trauma was born. In all my education and research, no one’s work comes close to Pia’s for explaining how we became dysfunctional, and what being a healthy adult is. I studied with Pia from 2010 to 2013 and learned how to help people using her model. To say that it has transformed my practice is an understatement.
It all begins at ground zero, with our caretakers. Children have no knowledge of how to survive, so our parents are supposed to lovingly protect, guide and nurture us until we can take the reins of life and take care of our own needs. A child is dependent and has no impulse control, and they love to test boundaries, so they would not survive without the appropriate intervention of well-meaning adults. All too often, though our parents fail us, even ones with good intentions. As we grow, we’re supposed to be given enough freedom and autonomy, on an age-appropriate level, to gain the self-esteem and confidence we’ll need to one day fly the nest. If they fail, by being too strict, overprotective, and controlling, or too lenient and not teaching us how to protect ourselves, we will either end up with no self-esteem — thinking we are less than most others, or with too much self-esteem, thinking we are better than most others.
Parents who show through word or action that children are less-than or second-class citizens, compare children to others, push them to be perfect, teach them that being accepted is earned by some sort of action, achievement, or is conditional on external things being true (job, money, beauty, etc.) set them up to have low self-esteem. Parents who teach their children through word or action to find fault with others, and/or teach them that they are special or superior to others, fail to correct them when they do wrong, set them up to believe they are better than most others. In my family I was taught that we were better than some people, and less than others. This is how we are all set up as young adults to have dysfunctional self-esteem.
Had our families not failed somewhere along the way, our self-esteem would be healthy, and we’d could understand that just because we are human beings, we are all equally precious and valuable. Self-esteem isn’t earned, it is a feeling of worth and value that comes from within. Nothing anyone might say or do could change that. Parents should teach us that human beings are flawed and imperfect by design, and when we do make mistakes, it’s not the end of the world. In my experience, 99 percent of adults are either toxic-shame filled and feeling less-than and not good enough, or arrogant or grandiose, and feeling better than. I have never met anyone (yet) who came out with healthy self-esteem, though I understand they exist.
Boundaries are the security system for human beings that 1. Keep others from coming into our space and abusing us, 2. Keep us from doing that to others (self-control), and 3. Give us a way to embody a sense of who we are. We must protect our bodies from others, restrain ourselves from harming others physically, and to be able to be who we are as far as how we think, feel, and what we choose to do. Once grown and independent, no other adult has the right to control these things.
Since babies are born with no ability to protect themselves, our parents are supposed to teach us how. They are to teach us not to abuse others, nor to allow others to abuse us. But most of us come from homes with impaired boundaries, and we either not protected enough, or were too protected. Our external boundaries have to do with our physical body, and internal boundaries have to do with how we think, feel, and what we do. People with healthy boundaries know how to protect themselves physically, to restrain themselves and respect other’s wishes concerning space and being touched. People with healthy internal boundaries don’t tell others how to think, feel, or what they should do, and they take responsibility for how they think, feel, and what they do. They also know they are only responsible for their own internal boundary system, and not that of others.
One more aspect to people who try to control others, is a lack of trust in our fellow human beings. If your parents had a fundamental distrust of people, you likely learned at an early age not to trust people, too. Another way to learn distrust is if you had family members who weren’t trustworthy. If your past experiences tell you that can’t count on mom or dad, then you likely came to believe you can’t count on anyone. Now armed with toxic shame or grandiosity, an inability to set boundaries, and a distrust of people, the die is cast to either control or be controlled.
How control works in real time.
Ron set on the couch in my office and smirked at his wife, Sonja. He had told her over and over what he wanted her to do, and she refused to do it, and felt she was being unreasonable. He had brought her in to get me to persuade her that what he was telling her was the right thing to do, but he was in for a rude awakening. He would not be the first person to come for marriage therapy wanting me to straighten out their spouse, when it was the complainer themself that mostly needed to learn a thing or two. Ron was grandiose and sincerely thought he was an authority on how others should live their lives. An only child, he’d been raised as his parent’s golden boy, and believed he was especially gifted. He didn’t trust his wife to know what was best for her own life. I asked, “Where did you get the idea that you are an authority on how one should live, and should be telling others how to live their lives?” He looked stunned. “I don’t really know.” “Right,” I said. “Well sit down while I teach you about the healthy way to have relationships with others.” He slinked back into the cushion for the lesson you are now learning. My feeling is, until the day you have mastered perfection in your own life, which will never happen, you have no business telling others how to live theirs.
As I said before, people who are controlling do not trust others. My personal stance on trust is a healthy one. I neither trust nor distrust anyone when we become acquainted. Trust is earned over time, when what you tell me turns out to be true, or what you said you would do was done. If you lie or mislead me or promise to do something and don’t one or two times, that’s it. I won’t trust you, and our friendship will end. That’s a far different stance from the people who have never trusted anyone in their lives. Quite a few married individuals have told me they trust no one, including their spouse. You can imagine all the terrible ways that not trusting your spouse might play out.
People with low self-esteem and those who have falsely high self-esteem (grandiosity) may feel the need to control others. The idea is, I don’t trust people, and I don’t feel comfortable with you going out into the world without my awareness and control of your life. I want to know where you go, who you are with, how long you were there, why you were there, and if I don’t like any of it you must stop doing it. Better yet, why don’t you stay at home where I can feel comfortable and know that you’re behaving the way that makes me feel comfortable? When a family member is out in the world and the controller doesn’t know what they’re doing, it creates enormous anxiety. The antidote for the unbearable anxious feelings is to control. The grandiose person may feel entitled do this since they know better. The toxic-shame person may internally say, “Well, you’re better than I am, and it’s a matter of time before you figure that I’m not worthy of you. So, if I sequester and control you, I can make sure that doesn’t happen.”
The person who gets controlled.
Enter the person who has no boundaries. This is the person who will be compliant when they meet a person who wants to control them. These are the people who say things like, “My husband won’t let me …”
We typically have the same boundary system our families had. If your family was boundary-less and said exactly what was on their mind unfiltered, you may well have learned that this is healthy, but it isn’t. If your mother and father or siblings didn’t control themselves, and invaded your privacy, touched your body at will, took your things, asked you inappropriate questions, offered unbridled opinions, mostly let you do what you wanted to do when you wanted to do it, didn’t set healthy guidelines like bedtimes, didn’t teach you how to protect yourself from others, then you may be like that today, or at least think it’s just how people are. If you learned that you must not speak out and complain when someone is doing something you don’t desire, and you must engage in people-pleasing behaviors to be liked and approved of, you didn’t learn how to protect yourself. I was raised by a classic southern belle, born in 1919, and she scolded me when I didn’t do what others wanted me to do, or if I complained to anyone about anything. If the room was too cold, don’t speak out. If someone’s smoke was nauseating me in a car, endure it. If dad wanted to hug and kiss me every morning with his nasty whiskers scraping my face, even though I begged him not to — he also smelled! — I was the one with the problem. I became a world-class pleaser, a toxic dynamic that took me years to overcome. It also set me up to tolerate too much from men for a very long time.
A person who does not believe they have the right to set boundaries is catnip for a controlling person. You may not like what is happening, and you might resent others to high heaven, but you allow yourself to be controlled and victimized because you don’t realize you are valuable and have the right to live your life the way you want. You may wrongly feel that what others want is more important than what you want. If your caretakers didn’t encourage autonomy and authenticity, you may not have developed a strong sense of self and rely on other adults to direct you. Clients frequently tell me their compass for living is not what they want, but what others want them to do. This is why they end up as adults who have no idea who they are or what they want. Boundary offenders can sense people who lack boundaries. Put five hundred people in a room, and the boundary offender will find the person with no boundaries every time.
Healthy boundaries look like this: Every adult has the right to free will. No one else has the right to control you in any way. No one may tell another adult what is true for them, how to think, feel, or what to do. Unsolicited advice and trying to fix people without their permission is a boundary violation. Physically, we have the right to not be touched, and people should always ask permission to touch or hug another. We do not have to have sexual relations with anyone if we don’t want to, even our spouse. We get to live life our own way, regardless of other people’s opinions. Of course, if we are married, we should be considerate and sensitive to our partner’s needs and wants, and make important decisions together, but no one has the right to control us, even our romantic partners. How we live our life in long-term relationships is negotiated.
When I married my children’s dad back in the 1980s, he was a young physician. He had achieved so much in 30 years that I was in awe of him and internally concluded that he was smarter and wiser than I was. I stepped aside and let him make important decisions for us. I would tell him what I wanted, but I was often overruled, and I wrote it off that he knew better. In many ways it was a parent/child dynamic, until I started having depression and anxiety. I went to a therapist, and slowly began to figure out what it is to be a healthy adult. I realized I had no power in the relationship because I gave the power away. My belief that he was better than I was gave way to understanding that I was as valuable as my husband in every way. What I wanted was as important as what he wanted. I started to speak out, set boundaries, and have strong opinions. One day he said, “What the hell has happened? I paid for you to go to a therapist, and you basically came home and told me to go to hell.” I guess that’s what it felt like to him when I began to stand up for myself. When I began to be true to myself, I stopped having depression and anxiety. Once you experience the freedom of advocating for yourself, you won’t want to go back.
While someone who allows themselves to be controlled needs to attain healthy self-esteem and boundaries, the person who controls needs to learn that they are better than no one and have no right to tell another what to think, feel, or do. In healthy relationships we have two individuals with a solid sense of self, and an ability to set boundaries when needed. This is not an impossible task and can be learned. Of course, there are those who have personality disorders such as narcissism that are unable to change their perspective. These people will not change.
If you have children, you may now question how you are raising them. Overprotection is nothing to brag about. The good news is that if you change, they will change. Learn healthy self-esteem and boundaries and role model how it’s done. It’s never too late to change your own behavior, and when you do, it’ll change the family. Learn who your true self is. You find out by tasting life — take you for a spin and see what you enjoy and what you don’t. Do more of what makes your heart sing, and less of what drags you down. A healthier relationship with yourself will make you a happier person. A happier person leads to better health overall.
Becky Whetstone, Ph.D. is a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist in Arkansas and Texas*, and is known as America’s Marriage Crisis Manager® . Sh would love your support with a follow and appreciates you sharing her work! She has worked with thousands of couples to save their marriages, and is also co-host of the Call Your Mother relationship show on You Tube, and has a private practice in Little Rock, Arkansas, and as a life coach via teletherapy. To contact her check out www.DoctorBecky.com and www.MarriageCrisisManager.com.
*For licensure verification check Becky Whetstone Cheairs.
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