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Control Issues: Signs, Causes And How To Get Help

By Leoni Jesner An individual with controlling behavior may exhibit jealousy, possessiveness and even use threats or insults to exert power over someone—for example, a partner who tells you how to dress or a friend who peer pressures you into doing something bad for your health. People who are controlling may try to take advantage of another person or dominate romantic relationships, friendships and other social situations to get their way. Living in a controlling environment can be exhausting and often damaging to your mental health. Here’s what you need to know about spotting controlling behaviors, and how to get help for yourself or a loved one. What Are Control Issues? A person who exhibits controlling behavior may meddle in the lives of others, exert dominance or try to remain in charge of all decision-making. This may look like depriving an acquaintance of their independence by deciding who they can be friends with, or one partner regulating their other half’s weekend plans. Controlling people may come across as intimidating, overbearing and use manipulative techniques. People with control issues may “often come across as rigid, believing their way is better than others, have a need to be praised, are critical of others’ ideas and have a hard time respecting boundaries,” explains Sid Khurana, M.D., a clinical assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who is double board-certified in adult, child and adolescent psychiatry. Control issues can come to light in many different scenarios, such as in the workplace, where a micromanaging boss leaves colleagues feeling exploited, says Dr. Khurana. In a romantic partnership, your significant other may control what family members you see and when, and in friendships, controlling behavior can manifest in the form of a friend growing cold if you resist their recommendations or plans. What Can Cause Control Issues? Desiring a sense of control is natural in humans, but when the tendency to control becomes persistent and pervasive, it’s problematic, says Dr. Khurana. “It often has origin in childhood, where the basic attunement and attachment process with primary caregivers was not quite right,” he says, explaining that this can lead to adults craving control. According to Dr. Khurana, possible causes can include: Lack of unconditional love from caregivers Lack of adequate nurture from caregivers Household abuse and neglect Households with mental health and substance abuse issues Children who are not adequately supported in their early years are at a higher risk of developmental and mental health outcomes later in life. A person with a history of trauma, such as child abuse or domestic abuse, may later feel compelled to dominate later in life, says Deena Manion Psy.D., a licensed clinical social worker in the Los Angeles area and the executive director and chief clinical officer at Westwind Recovery. “It may also be a need to feel ‘above’ someone else, which comes across as controlling, but more often than not, it’s fear-based or anxiety from past experiences,” she says. Acting in a controlling manner might also be consequential as a fear of failure, the need to strive for perfection or dreading specific emotions. Quite often, controlling people seek praise from others as a means of reassurance and boosting their own self-esteem. Control issues may also result from: Learned behavior: Often people shadow controlling behaviors of those in their immediate family or community, which can lead them to crave power. Disorders: Controlling behavior can result from several mental health disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which cause intrusive or uncontrolled thoughts, pushing a person to spiral in a controlling manner. Anxiety: Generalized anxiety disorder can cause a person to obsessively worry and develop a need to exert control as a coping mechanism. How to Spot Controlling Behaviors Controlling behavior can present itself in many forms, such as an individual refusing to accept blame for a mistake, or a friend who seems to be annoyed with you for no obvious reason. Because of its wide-ranging forms, it’s not always easy to spot. Control issues are not a medical disorder, explains Renee Solomon, M.D., a clinical psychologist and head of the drug and alcohol addiction treatment center Forward Recovery in Los Angeles. They can, however, be pinpointed by a qualified professional in the mental health space, such as a psychologist or a licensed therapist. Telltale signs that a person may be exhibiting controlling behaviors toward you include the following, according to Dr. Solomon: A partner or friend telling you who you can or can’t spend time with One partner telling the other how to dress Someone speaking for you, without asking your opinion first In a marriage, one partner controls all of the finances, including the other partner’s money A colleague not letting you arrange the office furniture or decor unless they approve it A friend who insists on which restaurant you eat at and will usually resist any change of plans A sibling deciding how the family reunion or vacation is planned depending on what works best for them The Impact Control Issues Can Have On Relationships Having controlling tendencies doesn’t make a person “bad,” says Dr. Khurana, rather it means they struggle with factors that have contributed to them exerting certain behaviors. Nonetheless, controlling behavior can be destructive to relationships when it results in emotional and mental abuse toward the person being controlled. When persistent and pervasive controlling behavior is used to dismiss, humiliate or gaslight another person, it may not be possible to resolve the conflict through cooperation, says Dr. Khurana. In fact, when this type of behavior escalates past a certain point, it is considered abuse, says Dr. Manion. This type of abuse can often look like: Intimidation Coercion Ridicule Harassment Treating an adult like a child Isolating an adult from family, friends or regular activity Using silence to control behavior Yelling or swearing According to Dr. Solomon, a worst-case scenario is when a controlling person in an intimate relationship acts out physically with violence, which is referred to as intimate partner violence (IPV). If you are at risk of, or think you may be experiencing, IPV, it is important to get help and support from a trusted source. Resources include the National Domestic Violence Helpline and / or a local domestic violence organization. Treatments for Control Issues Processing control issues and emotions in therapy can help you to stay present and avoid negative repercussions, says Dr. Manion. “Clients actually are able to free themselves of their anxieties and gain more control over their lives when they embrace this truth.” If you’re looking to manage your own controlling behavior, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be a helpful tool and a good place to start. In addition to CBT, Dr. Manion recommends other integrative therapies like mindfulness, meditation and yoga. Such mindful and spiritual practices have been found effective at calming one’s mental state, allowing for better self-regulation and reduced anxiety. For example, if you find yourself wanting to control a moment, practice mindful breathing to help dial down your response to the situation, suggests Dr. Manion. On the other hand, if you feel someone is trying to control you, advocate for yourself (if you can do so safely) to address a person during a situation in which you feel controlled. If the situation is volatile or unsafe, however, it may be wise to seek help from a mediator, or leave the situation.

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