What is a control freak, and why is it seen as bad to be one?

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Do you treat people as though they were books in your library?  Or do you let them roam free? Photo by Charl van Rooy on Unsplash

The term ‘control freak’ has found its way into the English language as a standard phrase.  It is pejorative, meaning that it is often used as a criticism.

When we call someone a ‘freak’, we mean that they are somehow different from the norm, unusually controlling.  The word ‘freak’ has side connotations of ‘freak shows’, and so when we call someone a freak, we are in some sense holding them up as an exhibit, an example of a divergence from what we consider normal nature.

WHY DO WE TRY TO CONTROL OTHERS?

Humans seem to dislike being out of control.  We think it humiliates us, so we do our best to appear in control.  We tidy up our houses, organise our schedules, list our friends in contact lists, place people and things in cupboards and categories… all to try to make sure that our world is comprehensible to us, like a library.

You can even see it in the world of academic psychology.  We try to get control of human nature by categorising it, labelling it, sorting it, finding rules to make it predictable.  We invent terms such as ‘disorder’ to describe ways of being and behaving that we don’t approve of.  We even try to make inventories, orderly lists of concepts with which we can gain a purchase on human nature and the world.

It is a compulsion.  When a group of people is gathered together, there will tend to be individuals who need others to behave in a certain way, and will use tactics to make it happen.  It’s a dislike of disorder.  The little dictator in all of us, but more prominent in some of us.

HOW DO WE TRY TO CONTROL OTHERS?

There are possibly three main ways we try to control each other:

  1. SORTING: We treat other people like a stamp collection, deciding for ourselves what kind of person they are, and how valuable they are to us.  In effect, we are using our sorting faculty to place them on shelves in our library.  It demeans others, because it deprives them of the dignity of unpredictability and freedom.
  2. IMPRISONING: We also treat other people like pets, deciding for ourselves how they should behave.  We train them like dogs, rewarding them with smiles when they do what we want, and punishing them with frowns and detachment when they fail to do what we want.
  3. ATTACKING: Finally, in extreme circumstances, we round on people we disapprove of by attacking them.  This could be with insults, attempts to enlist social forces against them, or attempts to enlist physical forces against them.

HOW TO SPOT A CONTROL FREAK

A control freak is someone in whom this instinct to control has gained a strong and consistent hold, to the exclusion of the usual tolerance we give each other.  You might want to look for the following traits:

  1. SORTING AND LABELLING PEOPLE: In extreme circumstances, control freaks will separate their world into good and bad types of people, whether by race, gender, culture or behaviour.  In their conversation, look for times when they seem to assume that certain categories of people, or certain individuals, are ‘idiots’, ‘lower orders’, or ‘scum’.
  2. IMPRISONING AND OVER-GUIDING PEOPLE: Control freaks will not be able to resist creating environments which press others into particular ways of behaving.  The boss who overwhelms their staff with enforced behaviour at the expense of their happiness.  The friend who seems to give you no option but to pay them attention and behave their way.
  3. ATTACKING AND VIOLENCE: Pushed to their limits, control freaks push outwards not inwards.  They tend to react to stress by forcing their environment to conform to their wishes, rather than adapting themselves.  Sometimes it is because they can’t adapt.  Some get frightened of their own impotence, and get angry with others in order to hide their powerlessness.

WHY IS IT SEEN AS BAD TO BE A CONTROL FREAK?

It is not a pleasant experience to be overcontrolled.  Think about it.  Do you like being labelled by others without your consent?  Do you like being pushed into behaving according to others’ wishes?  In particular, do you like being attacked, mentally and physically, by other people?

Socially, the human race has got wise to the disadvantages of this kind of behaviour.  So people get together to escape control, to make little havens where they can be themselves and behave freely without interruption.  Control freaks can find themselves ostracised, set apart from society, because others find them inconvenient and disruptive to be with.

THREE QUICK TIPS FOR DEALING WITH CONTROL FREAKS

  1. Learn to ignore their labels.  Don’t try to fight them unless you have to.  Learn to hear their mislabelling, and to smile at their foolishness.  There will always be more fools than you can correct all at once, so give yourself a rest and become tolerant of ignorance.
  2. Learn to escape their prisons.  Walk away and find other things to do, away from them.  If you fight them, they may become even more controlling.
  3. Hold them accountable for their violence.  When they overstep your boundaries of appropriate behaviour, for instance by violating your physical space, then leave them or report them or both.
THREE QUICK TIPS IF YOU ARE A CONTROL FREAK YOURSELF

  1. Put your labels down.  Notice when you start typing people into categories.  Let people surprise you.  See individual natures instead of races or genders or cultures.  See people as full of free potential.  Be ready to be proved wrong.
  2. Resign as General Manager Of The Universe.  Put down your rulebook, and spend the day letting others do what they want to do.  You won’t die.  Learn to enjoy a bit of mayhem and disorder.
  3. When you are angry, blame yourself.  Remove yourself from others at such times, as you have become an unguided weapon.  Learn to calm yourself before you return to the company of others.  Ideally, learn to calm yourself WHILE in the company of others.  Then your violence will be cured.
AN EXERCISE

If you are a control freak, then have a day letting the world do just what it wants, and let yourself be powerless as a waterfall.

If you live with a control freak, then escape for a day, and get some time for yourself and your own play.

If you’re not sure which you are, then you’re probably a control freak, so relax and let others be for a day!

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SUMMARY

The term ‘control freak’ is used to describe someone who is abnormally keen to control the path of others’ behaviour, without letting them be free.  They decide for themselves what others are like, over-guide them, and are sometime aggressive or violent.  They often become unpopular because people do not like to have their freedom restricted like that.  If you’re a control freak, then try to let others be.  If you live with one, then walk away and find your own freedom, or, in extreme circumstances, report them and hold them to account.

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