The Plan to Stop Being a Control Freak

Find out why controlling everything can actually cause stress, not relieve it.

Posted on | By Erin L. Olivo, PhD | Comments ()
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How to Stop Being a Control Freak (3:42)

Are you incredibly efficient, super competent and always the person in your life who gets things done and keeps things moving? Is all this micromanaging causing you to feel stressed out? Have your family and friends told you to lighten up?  

Sounds like you might be a control freak. And while these behaviors can clearly have some benefits, the truth is that control freaks often create the very thing they’re trying to avoid–stress.

Here’s a plan for how to keep your controlling behavior from controlling your life.

Step 1: Observe Yourself

In order to change any behavior, you have to recognize that you’re doing it. Becoming a more mindful witness to your own behavior is the first step to making any behavioral change. 

So make a commitment to observe your behavior for a few days and write down any time you find yourself micromanaging, overplanning, being overly critical, overprotective, or obsessively worrying or engaging in any behavior that feels like you can’t resist doing it. Observing yourself this way can be hard to do, so you can also ask a trusted friend or family member to point out whenever they see you engaging in controlling behaviors.

Step 2: Figure Out What Emotion Is Driving Your Behavior

You might think that your stress is a result of how hard you’re working to keep everything under control, but it’s actually distressing emotions that are driving your behavior–and causing your stress. In order to change your behavior, you have to identify which emotion you’re struggling with. The good news is that there are just eight core families of emotion to choose from:

  • Love
  • Happiness
  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Shame
  • Jealousy 
  • Disgust

Here’s a shortcut for control freaks: The emotion usually behind controlling behavior is fear. Feeling in control is a basic human need, and when life inevitably shows you that you can’t control everything, it makes you fearful and uncomfortable. Then in order to feel less fearful and more in control, you try controlling everything around you–even things that have nothing to do with the part of your life that made you feel badly to start with.

For example, have you ever found yourself reorganizing your closet when you were upset about an argument you had with a loved one? Or maybe you started a very strict exercise regimen after you lost your job. Sometimes, just identifying the emotion can make it lose some of its power over you and then you can start to curb your behavior.

Step 3: Identify the Distorted Thinking and Challenge It

Emotions often cause us to think in inaccurate ways. For example, your husband does the grocery shopping and buys a few of the wrong brands and instead of acknowledging that he got more right than wrong, you think, “He totally failed at this task and clearly can’t be trusted to shop.” This is an example of a common distortion called “discounting the positives.”

Another example of distorted emotional thinking that control freaks often use is called “catastrophizing,” where you assume the worst will happen. Maybe you’ve gotten behind on a work project and you’re going to miss the deadline you set for yourself. By handing it in late to you boss, you decide that she’ll think you can’t handle the job and will want to fire you.

The key in this step is to stop and pay attention to what you’re thinking when you realize you’re feeling distressed or when you notice that you’re about to engage in one of the controlling behaviors you’ve identified. Stop and ask yourself, “What am I thinking right now? Does how I’m thinking about this make sense or is it distorted in some way?”  

Often realizing that you’re using emotional reasoning instead of logical reasoning can change your perspective, reduce the intensity of the emotion you’re feeling and help you resist the urge to engage in a controlling behavior.

Article written by Erin L. Olivo, PhD
Erin L. Olivo, PhD is an Asst. Professor of Medical Psychology at Columbia University, College of Physicians and Surgeons