I’m almost finished reading a history book on a particular dictator who caused havoc and mass suffering, and I’m about to read another on a current politician who is showing very similar features to the former. These features include: an inflated ego; an intense need to prove themselves but employing emotional outbursts and insidious manipulation of others to do so; the habit of lying to themselves and others to maintain their own self justifications; an unstinting conviction in their own power and in themselves being right at all costs; being skilled in persuasive oration and public speaking; finally, an intractability to listen to anyone else’s point of view because it simply isn’t true, no matter what evidence there is to the contrary. In both cases this kind of controlling behaviour is fed by supporters who pander to the dictatorial ego through anything from misplaced admiration, to furthering their own agenda for power, to downright fear of reprisals.
But climbing down from these ‘pedestals’ of power to daily life, this kind of overt controlling and bullying behaviour is easy enough to spot in the schoolyard, the workplace, or from people in positions of authority, but what got me thinking was how controlling behaviour manifests in our everyday encounters at work, or with strangers, friends, or family, and because we aren’t looking for it, it can catch us totally unawares. Before we know it we can be subject to the controlling behaviour like puppets on a string, while the ripples of the behaviour spread out to ensnare others close by until a whole social group ends up embroiled in stirred-up feelings and inner conflicts caused by that one controlling person. A little flame is fanned into a fire. So I thought I’d do some searching to supplement my own observations on what the features of more subtle low-key controlling behaviour might be, and why people actually want or need to behave in this way.
Let’s take a look at examples of everyday controlling behaviour, prompted by my finding a great article on the subject. Some of the examples you will easily recognise, but what interests me most are the behaviours which are masked by other interpretations of meaning which actually end up supporting the control.
1. The controller reacts to something or someone who challenges their control with upset or anger, encouraging the other person/people to feel that this upset is all their fault. The ripples spread as the fall-out of their upset affects others with remorse, regret, guilt, and worry for the controller. The controller may well get numerous apologies, while the challenger is cold-shouldered until they too show remorse. This is followed by the controller being treated with deference and kid gloves. You can see how this example could easily go on within families and within close working teams of people. But if the behaviour is never challenged, the pattern will go on and on, doing no one, including the controller, any good whatsoever.
2. They behave like a victim when something goes wrong for them. I really dislike this one! It becomes all about them. They elicit sympathy and if they don’t get it they behave like a martyr, while the original ‘reason’ for ‘the wrong’ lies shoved to the back of the cupboard never to see the light of day again because nobody wants to open that can of worms again.
3. Behaving in the above ways means they create drama. Everyone remembers how upset they were and because it wasn’t resolved, the memory of the dramatic event controls the future for all concerned.
4. They openly criticize others to their face or behind their back, or they make little jibes in public, where it’s harder to pull them up on it without appearing overly defensive or too sensitive. Barbed personal jokes are a particularly nasty kind of controlled criticism because any defence comes across as the receiver not being able to take a joke at their own expense. After all, we are told it’s healthy to be able to laugh at ourselves, which is true, but not under these circumstances. I have to admit I’ve fallen for this one many times when I was younger.
5. This one can come up in abusive marriages or relationships. The controller doesn’t want his or her partner to see/visit other people they love or are close to. They demand attention and gradually isolate the controlled person through reduced contact with people who give them emotional sustenance or self esteem, which they might very well need in a relationship with a controller.
6. Looks of disapproval and groaning, or simply a certain warning or judging look. It may take a while to actually pinpoint the hidden meaning behind these looks.
7. They keep score. Who paid last time? You did! They always expect something in return if they do you a favour or give you a gift. They keep tabs – so there is no joy in giving or receiving anymore. They make public demonstrations of generosity to be seen to be wonderful and before long you can feel indebted to them, where they have the power. They love others being indebted to them, but they also remember every slight to engender regret and guilt in their ‘victim’.
8. They can make the challenger feel as though they are the one with the problem. You’re crazy, it’s all in your mind. This can cause self-doubt in the challenger where they ask – is it really me? This is known these days as gaslighting, after that wonderful film starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, and Joseph Cotton, about a Victorian husband slowly manipulating his wife into thinking she is going insane. Thankfully, Joseph Cotton comes to the rescue in the end. Here’s a nice reminder from the film:
9. In with this behaviour, perhaps not surprisingly, is the inability to apologise, or take responsibility for upsetting someone, because this would be losing face, losing power.
10. They want what they want and they refuse to take ‘no’ for an answer. They tend to pressurise, persuade, and keep on and on until they get the answer they want. I think this one is very common in relationships and within families.
11. They can be unreasonably jealous, want undivided attention, and can get upset when plans are made with other people without consulting them.
12. They try to change you. They’ll try to mould you to suit their own interests by pressuring you to make changes to your appearance or the way you dress. We’re all aware of this one in line with domestic relationship control. But it occurs to me they might also insist that their way of doing something is the best way, the only way – and that might even be something as mundane as doing the washing up!
13. Keeping people waiting at work or at home or for a social event.
I’m sure you recognise many of these, but it’s surprising how they can creep into everyday life and cause stress when they go unrecognised and end up being supported instead of challenged.
But why do they behave this way? What might be going on inside them?
Controlling people often prey upon those they’re closest to, taking advantage of others’ introversion, submissive tendencies, or simple good faith. Within families it is allowed to go on because no one wants to ‘rock the boat’.
Derived from a few articles (listed below), here are some great points as to why controlling behaviour might come about within someone:
1. Low self esteem
2. Being micromanaged or controlled by someone else
3. Traumatic past experiences leading to a need to have ‘stability’ and ‘safety’ which can come from controlling their world in the now.
4. A need to feel in-control by feeling ‘above’ someone else.
5. People who can’t control themselves turn to controlling others. This happens on an emotional level. A person full of insecurities has to exact a positive sense of self from other people because their self esteem is too low to do it for themselves.
6. A possible fear of abandonment. They don’t feel secure in their relationships and are often testing to see if they’re about to be betrayed. The parent whose love seemed conditional, tied to such things as how well the controller in the making performed, and how “good” or capable they were. Because the controller in the making also perceived their parents as critical, negativistic, and hard to please, these bright, sensitive children can feel caught in a no-win situation, never feeling that they were good enough—never feeling secure. The irony is that their behaviour ends up in adulthood creating exactly what they fear the most.
7. Regardless of whether the causes are psychological, biological, or spiritual, the engine room of a an obsessive controller is a constant effort to control everything in the world around them (and inside them). It’s an attempt to guarantee security; to assure safe passage through the risks and uncertainties of living. They somehow think that if they try hard enough they can eliminate risk.
8. Such behavior can pay handsome dividends, as it tends to produce high-achievers, people who are admired for their self-discipline and organization. However, it comes with a dreadful inner price tag of loneliness, fear, and anxiety.
9. Many obsessives suffer the endless agony of having to do everything well—an unnecessary imperative that can ruin even the most enjoyable of activities. Their fear of embarrassment and appearing less than perfect may keep them from trying new things. They struggle daily under the weight of a massive inner rulebook, an overgrown sense of duty, responsibility, and fairness. Most obsessives rarely taste the joys of the moment; the present hardly exists for them. Even in their time off, many can’t fully relax, or just play. Indeed, they never are really ‘off’. Worries bedevil them as they plow through life doing the ‘right’ things, hoping that caution, diligence, and sacrifice will pay off—someday.
So why might you be the target of the controlling behaviour?
The simplest reason is that you’re a perfectly good person. There’s nothing wrong with you. You don’t have a target on your back, and you don’t deserve to be disrespected. But what the controller may want from you is exactly what you’ve got: you’re able to feel good about yourself consistently and without constant reminders from the outside world that you’re worthy. You’re secure in your accomplishments, your status, and your overall place in life. Your attention makes other people feel good. You can feel good about other people’s success — you’re not intimidated by others good fortune. Given all these things, you know you deserve respect, but a controlling person is too intimidated to give it to you. They feel they must cut you down to size. It’s the only way they can tolerate being around you.
The articles referred to:
Finally though, I feel it is important to recognise the controlling behaviour as it occurs in the moment and to tackle the controller, even knowing the discord this might very well lead to as those ripples fan out wide. But it doesn’t have to be a full on attack, it can be a gentle enquiry or observation, coming from a place of understanding what may be going on inside them. And in this way challenging the behaviour can come from a place of caring and affection. But most of all, you must first consciously cut the puppeteer’s strings.
Best wishes to you all!