Dealing with Control Freaks: How To Tell The Difference Between Manipulation and Control

by Karen Keller, Ph.D.

Manipulation, Influence, Persuasion. Control. They are all words used to describe how one can ‘navigate’ a situation, person, or event to their advantage. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily if you know the difference between the traits and how they are being used.

So how exactly are the control freak and the manipulator related?

The control freak is obsessed with being in the middle of things, directing, assigning and telling (or demanding). The manipulator isn’t necessarily in the middle but is on the side-lines just to make sure everything goes her way – as she intended. The control freak needs control. The manipulator needs to control you.

I know you like being in control of your life. Me, too. However, some people want to control everyone else’s life as well. The control freak believes that nonstop intervention is beneficial and even required.

What do Steve Jobs, Angelina Jolie, Bill Gates, Tom Cruise and Kate Gosselin have in common? They are famous control freaks!

What is it that makes a control freak tick?

The control freak sincerely believes that in order to protect him or herself they have to be in control of every aspect of their life. Their greatest fear is being vulnerable.

Now who can blame them? Haven’t you been crushed at some time or another when you were vulnerable? It didn’t feel good, did it? I have a few fences myself.

But the control freak has an obsessive need to get his or her way in ALL exchanges with you. He or she wants to make the plans, deciding what and when you will do anything. If they can’t do this then they let you know in no uncertain terms they will be unhappy – and it’s YOUR fault.

When a control freak cannot control he or she experiences a series of rapid phases:

  • become angry and agitated
  • then panicky and hesitant,
  • then agitated and threatening, and
  • finally, falling into misery

What happens to you when you become a control freak?

1. You have tremendous amounts of anxiety. Anxiety about what could happen if you don’t take charge. It’s the anxiety that is constantly lurking in most situations that involve decisions and actions – both directly and indirectly. Control becomes your anxiety management tool.

2. You experience fear – the ‘what if’s’ of the situation. What if I don’t get in on the action? What if I can’t make the decision? I’m afraid everything will go wrong if I don’t intervene?

3. You suffer from bouts of insecurity. You live in a state of second-guessing everyone else. Why? Because you really don’t trust they know what they are doing. And if they did, they would screw it up without your help or direction.

4. You’re angry. Angry that everyone isn’t asking you for your help, your opinion, your direction or your know-how that only you can give.

Under all of this ‘control’ lies unhappiness. You try to convince yourself this is the best way to live, to get things done and to be of service to others. You tell yourself that you know what’s best for people, what they need to do and you can show them the way. Being in control gives you a temporary sense of calmness.

So, what message are you sending to the rest of us? That we are incompetent and untrustworthy – which is why we avoid and don’t like you.

Bonus: What do Attila the Hun’s look like in the workplace?

  • Unwillingness to delegate important projects
  • Micromanaging staff behavior
  • Feelings of worth increase when people agree with you
  • Volunteering for multiple new projects/extra work – the ultimate way to gain more control and influence
  • Constantly finding yourself playing the mediator (you like being in the middle of the action)
  • Anxiousness when things change rapidly

Beware of the coworker or boss control freak. Creating your agenda, controlling interactions with you, running the show and calling the shots is their shtick.

How do you recognize if you are a control freak?

Here are common ‘control freak’ symptoms:

  1. Preoccupation and worry with minor details. You fuss over small things. It goes beyond perfectionism.
  2. Worry over other’s actions and how they will affect the big picture. You start scheming how you can control what they do.
  3. When something does not go your way, do you get crazy?
  4. Are you pessimistic about things not in your control?
  5. Are you spending time covering up – creating a favorable impression – when you are being a control freak?
  6. Finally, you can’t help pointing out others’ mistakes – constantly correcting them.

Look at the underlined words. Notice they represent unhealthy ways of being which is extremely stressful leaving you void of pleasure.

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