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What makes people control freaks?

Dealing with Control Freaks

EDITOR’S NOTE: Following publication, this article was found to contain substantial portions of the article “Dealing with Control Freaks” by Thomas J. Schumacher, Psy.D., R-CSW, available on ElderCare Online at, that were included without attribution. We sincerely regreat this omission.

You’ve been asked to serve on an apparatus committee with several other members. You look forward to this opportunity until you discover that Lt. Smith is also serving on the committee. Smith is a control freak. He seems incapable of compromise or seeing things differently; in groups, he dominates discussion. You know just how this is going to proceed: The members will all give their input, but Lt. Smith will make the process so painful that in the end, the group will just wind up going with the specs he wants.

Whether on your crew or in committee work, most of us have had to contend with a fire service member who is a control freak, a person who wishes to set the agenda and decide what you’ll do and when you’ll do it.
Deep down, control freaks are terrified of being vulnerable; they’re anxious, insecure and angry. They believe they can protect themselves by staying in control of every aspect of their lives. They’re very critical of their colleagues and their friends, but underneath their criticism is a mountain of unhappiness.

Let’s look at what makes control freaks tick and some ways to deal with them.

Control-Freak Dynamics

The need to control is almost always fueled by anxiety, though control freaks seldom recognize their fears. At the fire station, they may worry about failure; in relationships, they may worry about not having their needs met. To keep this anxiety from overwhelming them, they try to control the people or things around them.

They have a hard time with negotiation and compromise, and they can’t stand imperfection. Needless to say, they’re difficult to live with, work with and socialize with.

Part of the control-freak strategy is to induce fear in you with the subtle or not-so-subtle threat of loss. Example: Your supervisor gives you an assignment, but doesn’t give you the information or tools you need to complete the assignment yourself. As a result, you must continually return for permission to use the needed tools/personnel. Each time you do this, you reinforce the control-freak supervisor’s feeling that they’re needed and in control of the process, and you’re left feeling unsure of your own ability to do the project. Their actions say, “You’re incompetent” and “I can’t trust you”; you feel off-balance and resentful as a result.

Remember: The essential need of a control freak is to defend against anxiety. By controlling other people, they ward off their own fear of being out of control. Controlling is an anxiety supervision and management tool.

Coping Strategies

When a control freak cannot control, they go through a series of rapid phases: They become angry and agitated, then panicky and apprehensive, then agitated and threatening; finally, they lapse into depression and despair. Following are some strategies you can use to cope with control freaks and prevent these reactions.

  • Stay as calm as you can. Control freaks tend to generate a lot of tension around them. If you stay calm and focused, this often has the effect of relaxing them as well. If you get agitated, you’ve joined the battle on their terms.
  • Speak very slowly. The normal tendency is to gear up and speak rapidly when dealing with a control freak. This will only draw you into the emotional turmoil. Let them control the agenda (initially); you control the pacing.
  • Be very patient. If you just listen carefully and ask good questions that indicate that you’ve heard them, they’ll resolve the issue and move on.
  • Treat them with kindness. Most control freaks are paranoid. If you treat them with respect and kindness, their paranoia cannot take root; you’ll jam them up.
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It’s Not Personal

Keep in mind that control freaks aren’t trying to hurt you; they’re trying to protect themselves. Their behavior toward you isn’t personal; the compulsion was there before they met you, and it will be there forever unless they get help.

Understand that control freaks are skilled manipulators, artful and intimidating, rehearsed debaters and excellent at distorting reality. In the fire service, these members are angry and afraid to let go of you. Hence, it’s your job to let go of them, protect yourself in the process … and grow as a fire service professional.

5 Effective Ways to Deal With the Office Control Freak

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Sound familiar? They’re all phrases you’ve likely heard from the notorious control freak in your office. And, while you’ve somehow managed to continue trucking along without snapping, you’re getting dangerously close to the end of your rope.

Whether you have a control-obsessed boss or a ridiculously overbearing co-worker, we’ve all had to work with someone who has a “my way or the highway” sort of attitude. Of course, dealing with this person isn’t easy—but it’s also pretty much inevitable.

So, take a deep breath. You definitely can manage to tolerate this person—without constantly clenching your jaw and balling up your fists. Here are five steps that’ll help you not only cope with this controlling colleague, but also get some great work done in the process!

1. Recognize Pure Intentions

When you’re dealing with someone who seems to want to micromanage every small detail of every single project, it can be tough to see him or her as anything more than meddling and obnoxious. But, recognizing the positive attributes of this person’s work ethic will make working with him or her at least a little bit easier.

Let’s face it—this person probably doesn’t behave this way to purposely annoy you or make your job more difficult. Instead, he’s just incredibly passionate about the work he does and wants it to be as polished and professional as it can be. That dedication makes him a great employee—even if his approach is a bit overwhelming and aggravating.

Of course, while it’s great to recognize and appreciate this control freak’s enthusiasm and drive, that doesn’t mean he or she gets to dictate every part of every project. But, making an effort to accept that his or her motivations are good will make the next steps easier.

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2. Ask Questions

How do others in your office typically respond to this pushy and controlling colleague? Does anybody ever say anything? Or, does everybody just roll over without ever standing their ground?

Chances are, if this person is still firing out orders, very few (if any) people in your workplace have made an attempt to refute the demands. So, instead of just accepting this person’s directions and criticisms and then muttering under your breath, it’s time for you to encourage a thoughtful conversation about the course of your project.

How do you do this? By following up his or her demands with questions. Let’s say your meddling co-worker spies over your shoulder as you’re drafting a report. She immediately jumps in and says, “You’re structuring that report wrong. Do it this way!” Follow up by saying something along the lines of, “I know that we don’t have a standard template in place for these documents. This process works really well for me, but I’d love to hear the benefits of your method.”

She might be a little taken aback by your forwardness, but she’ll have no option but to explain her reasoning and open up a dialogue about the project. Who knows—she might even have some great ideas you can use. Plus, incorporating a few pieces of her feedback will help to placate her. Bonus!

3. Voice Your Opinions

We all know that control freaks tend to think their methods and tactics are superior to everyone else’s. But, you’re still entitled to some self-direction and independence. So, if you flat out disagree with his or her direction, don’t hesitate to speak up.

If the controlling person you’re dealing with is a co-worker on the same level as you, you’ll likely have an easier time doing this. Explain why you chose the process you’re using—but, don’t feel a need to justify every single one of your choices. That only opens up an entirely new can of worms by making it look like you need a stamp of approval on everything you do. Ultimately, if that piece of the project is yours to work on, you have the right to approach it as you see fit.

Things get a little trickier if the control freak is your boss, though. Of course, you’re still free to share your ideas and opinions. But it’s probably better to couch them with, “I started doing it this way because…” If your reasoning’s valid and still getting the desired result, it’ll be harder for your boss to respond with, “Well, still, do it my way.” However, your supervisor ultimately has final say on the way you get things done. So, you might just have to suck it up and move forward with his or her instructions.

4. Avoid Arguing

Trust me, I know that dealing with a control freak can be a really aggravating experience. And, sometimes he or she winds up so blinded by conviction that a productive, balanced conversation becomes next to impossible.

But, at all costs, you want to avoid getting into a heated argument. If it becomes obvious that you’re not going to reach any common ground, it’s time to walk away. I don’t need to tell you that screaming over each other will get you nowhere.

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5. Request Mediation

When it becomes obvious that you’ll just never be able to agree on something, it’s time to enlist some help. If you’re on a level playing field where neither one of you has the upper hand or a final say on the project, you need to approach a superior to mediate the situation.

Yes, it seems a little childish, and you’d like to avoid this step at all costs. But, if you’re not making any progress, it’s essential. Set a meeting with your boss or supervisor where you and the other employee can each present your case. Then, your manager can decide which method he thinks is best—or even pull pieces from both of your ideas to reach a compromise.

Regardless of the outcome of this meeting, you need to accept the decision and move forward. So, that means no sticking your tongue out and lording your victory over your co-worker. It also means no under-your-breath muttering if things don’t go your way.

I’ve totally been there—dealing with your office’s control freak comes with its fair share of battles, headaches, and tense moments. But, it’s definitely still doable. So, take a deep breath, follow these steps, and prepare to handle that person with poise and professionalism.

Photo of people working courtesy of Shutterstock.

Kat is a Midwest-based freelance writer, covering topics related to careers, productivity, and the freelance life. In addition to The Muse, she’s a contributor all over the web and dishes out research-backed advice for places like Atlassian, Trello, Toggl, Wrike, The Everygirl, FlexJobs, and more. She’s also an Employment Advisor at a local college, and loves helping students prepare to thrive in careers (and lives!) they love. When she manages to escape from behind her computer screen, she’s usually babying her two rescue mutts or continuing her search for the perfect taco. Say hi on Twitter @kat_boogaard or check out her website.

Controlling Your Inner Control Freak: The Art of Inefficiency

I’ve always been a control freak. But I’ve learned to control it!

I was born with the ability to quickly envision the most efficient way through a task, activity, project, problem, puzzle, or challenge. This has made me useful to many people, especially in my workplaces.

But it can make people crazy, too. Especially when I’ve expected others to buy into the approach I knew would work best, fastest, most efficiently.

My partner sometimes reminds me, “It doesn’t always have to be about being efficient!”

I was never good at delegating. I’d rather get the job done right. If I delegate a task to somebody else, it won’t be done the “best” way, will it! I’ll probably end up re-doing it anyway, right?

I have always strived for perfection. “Anything worth doing is worth doing right.” That phrase was nurtured into me as a child. It’s a good philosophy, but sometimes I’ve taken it too far.

Yes, it has affected relationships. Debating about my partner’s housekeeping style. Often being bossy. Being controlling. Wanting things my own way. Commenting about how others were doing things. “Hey, I know a way that would work better…” Sigh.

I always thought I was being helpful!

It turns out I really wasn’t, not always, not for some people. I finally began to understand that some people found my controlling persona annoying.

I came to realize that everybody has their own “best way” of doing things.

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This was a key discovery in my path to letting go of my Control Freak—finally hearing that my ways were often not the most enjoyable ways for other people. Perhaps my way was very efficient, but not necessarily ideal. For them.

How I Let Go of Little Miss Perfect

At the end of my first marriage, I reluctantly had to acknowledge that my “I know the best way” attitude had probably contributed to its demise. I began a personal challenge to unlearn that old behavior.

I found a new thing to be perfect about—being perfectly imperfect.

First, I lovingly acknowledged my Control Freak persona for all the good she’d been to me and for me. Then I accepted that she was officially in my past. I finally let her go.

Honestly, that was a moment of great relief.

I used to be all about “my way or the highway,” and now I’m more like, “My highway has all sorts of new twists and turns to explore.”

I began to enjoy being a passenger when the person driving went the long way to our destination because they didn’t pre-plan the route. Alternate routes can be delightful. Literally, and also figuratively.

I began to “let” other people do things their way—and to observe and learn, while staying silent about the “better” way they might be doing it. (Laughing at myself here about saying “let” and “better”—the control-freak phrases still lurk within!)

Yes, I still often envision a “better” way, but I began to appreciate alternate ways just as much.

I became open to hearing about and trying other people’s way of doing things. Now I stop and listen, rather than jumping right in with my solution.

Housecleaning is now entirely my partner’s task. I’ve learned to patiently await his next cleaning day, even when the cute little dust-bunnies jump out from the corners to mock my lack of caring about their presence. I used to remind him, but I let go of doing that, too. When to clean house is entirely his decision, not mine. I can co-exist with an occasional unmade bed. I can even stand putting away inside-out socks and t-shirts after laundering!

It’s amazing the things we can discover when we’re not trying to go from A to B in the most efficient or direct way.

I’m getting good at hearing Little Miss Perfect when she tries to take over my thoughts. I can now laugh at myself and move on, without meeting her demands. She is no longer in control, that well-intentioned control freak.

To be honest, for me this is not necessarily a more relaxing way of life—yet—but it’s certainly better for relationships and for going with the flow.

Some days I actually focus on not doing things efficiently.

This is a good retirement attitude, and these days I’m all about learning how to be retired. The good news is, I don’t need to do that “right” either. Instead, I read and listen to what other people say about being retired, and I give their ways a try. It’s working out great!

My partner says, “Everything I need to know about retirement, I’m learning from my cat.” I like this feline way. No controlling. No efficiencies. Just relaxed enjoyment.

But I still get to have control over some things.

There are still many things that rely upon me if they’re ever going to get done. Now I focus my control-freak persona on only those things. Sometimes they are things I’ve promised to do. Mostly, they are things that nobody else cares about, nobody else will even notice whether they get done or not.

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I’ll admit it. There are still times when I crave that I’m-in-control feeling. I’ve reframed that craving. I’ve decided that, for me, it’s really a craving for getting something done.

A craving for control is actually a craving for that feeling of accomplishment we all get when we complete something and/or do something well.

When that craving arises, I put myself to work on a current art project or go out for an invigorating walk. Or I tackle a few items on my to-do list. That list is special because I’m the only person in control of whether or not (and how) those things get done.

And yet, it feels so good to cross something off the list. Job accomplished. In exactly the way I wanted it done.

A pleasant side-effect of satisfying my control cravings in this way is that I don’t procrastinate any more. I take control over my avoidance and tackle my lists.

So, in fact, it’s still okay to control whatever I want to control, as long as it’s about me and my own activities. My control freak no longer negatively impacts anybody else. It’s win-win.

Things I’ve learned on my path to No More Little Miss Perfect:

1. Listen to what people think and say. Their ideas are just as important as mine, if not more important.

2. “Anything worth doing is worth doing.” Period.

3. Be completely open to alternative ways of doing things. There’s always something new to learn.

4. It’s absolutely okay to not be a perfectionist. In practice, perfection isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Not if I care about my relationships.

5. Expecting perfection in others is a good way to lose friends and alienate colleagues.

6. “It doesn’t always have to be efficient.”

7. Purposefully seeking out an approach that I wouldn’t normally think of can lead to adventures and discoveries and playful enjoyment.

8. Just for a change, plan to not make a plan. Just forge ahead and see how it goes.

9. Listen first. Think. Listen more. Only after that, it’s okay to speak my mind or give my opinion.

10. Sometimes my way is a good way. But other people can decide that on their own, without my help. It’s okay to present my ideas; it’s not okay to be forceful or insistent about them.

11. I don’t have to be in charge of getting things done. I can gracefully accept when others step up to take charge. In fact, I enjoy encouraging them forward.

12. I will absolutely learn something new when I observe how others do things. I enjoy following their path as a change from my own.

13. Go with the flow.

14. I’m not perfect, never have been, never will be.

15. Working with others is so much more interesting than working to control them.

16. I’ve never been hooked on an outcome, just on the process for getting there. I’m now enjoying not being hooked on the process either.

17. Relinquishing control is as rewarding and as powerful as taking control.

18. Cats have all the answers.

What have you learned about giving up control?

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