Dealing with controlling behaviour

The need to control is everywhere.  The ability to be free is rare.  Photo by Vincent van Zalinge on Unsplash

We all have the experience of others trying to control us.  From our earliest age, when our carers made sure we were where they wanted us, to the end of our lives, when we might have the same experience of carers, we endure attempts by others to control us.


The first thing to say, therefore, is that the wish to control is a natural wish.  Watch animals, and we can see parents control their young as part of a guarding action; partners controlling their mate(s) as part of a power play; societies controlling their outliers as part of a quest for social security.

If we are unable to handle being controlled, then we cannot properly enjoy the benefits of care, or the security of society.  If, on the other hand, we can accept situations where someone tells us what to do, or tries firmly to influence us, then we are likely to be considered sociable, and will be given practical advantages, or privileges.


However, the need to protect, exercise power, or gain security, can reach an excess in some people.  This causes a behaviour where excessive controlling actions predominate.  Of course, the controller will insist that they are only defending themselves or their kind.  An ultra-controller is usually blind to the dangers of their own controlling behaviour, and the damage it can cause.

Typical behaviours might include some of these:

  • physical violence instead of talking
  • invasion of private space instead of requesting access
  • demanding change instead of asking for it
  • accusing instead of investigating
  • punishing instead of encouraging
Context is all-important.  Under some circumstances, for instance, law enforcers are permitted to use these behaviours in the interests of speedily regaining public safety.

If we look closely, we can see that most controlling behaviours involve a loss of patience.  Since anger is also a loss of patience, it would be true to say that the lack of ability to be patient can cause anger, which in turn can cause controlling behaviour.


Faced with controlling behaviour, a compliant person may experience fear and go silent, realising quickly that to react adversely could stimulate even more controlling behaviour.  Watching animals, we can see this in the appeasing behaviour of an attacked peer in a social group.

In human society, this can cause anxiety and/or depression – anxiety because of the pressure, and depression because of the isolation.  An over-controlled child may become extremely watchful for signs of danger in their wider world (anxiety), but also feel a great sense of being unsupported or unhelpable (depression).

It is very important that such a person, suffering from anxiety and/or depression, escapes from their over-controller, and re-learns free action.  If they can escape, then slowly, over time, their watchfulness will reduce, and their sense of isolation diminish.  It is very common to hear sufferers talk about how stressed and alone they feel.  They seem selfish, but they are only trying, from their own point of view, to defend themselves against their controllers.  Sometimes those controllers are long gone or dead, but the controlled person still suffers.


To regain freedom from other people’s controlling behaviour, we can try to pick up the following active skills:

  • Judicious challenge – where appropriate, skilful challenge of the controller can sometimes work
  • Firm withdrawal – where appropriate, withdrawal is a clear signal that the controller’s behaviour is not acceptable
  • Favour and support non-controlling environments – one can shift attention to freer environments
If we want to change ourselves, we have the following additional self-focused options:

  • Learning patience – we can make sure we do not react angrily
  • Learning compassion – we can make sure we do not become hard-hearted
  • Learning wisdom – we can learn to analyse and accept difficult situations
Even if we practice patience, compassion and wisdom, we need not be passive in the face of controlling behaviour.  But we will be better equipped to respond assertively and flexibly to situations, without blaming ourselves or others.