An intense fear of losing control can drive people to micromanage, criticize, or manipulate others.

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Everyone needs to have some sense of control over their lives. This is a natural human desire. Control gives a feeling of order, stability, and safety.

But what if this need for control goes awry? What happens when a person’s desire for control is so strong that it infringes on other people’s rights or well-being?

Knowing how and when to respond to a controlling person requires understanding why they do it.

Research from 2021 suggests that a sense of control is associated with better physical and psychosocial health. In other words, control leads to behaviors that can improve overall well-being.

But like every other human trait, control exists on a broad spectrum and can move into unhealthy territory on both ends.

A person with a “controlling personality” is driven by high levels of anxiety to feel safe. Though the need for control might be an unconscious feeling, the anxiety can create a strong desire to control surroundings and other people to keep a sense of order.

A controlling personality may also be caused by mental health conditions, such as:

What does controlling behavior look like?

There are numerous ways to exert control over others. Here are a few common signs of controlling behavior:

  • tight with money
  • giving the “silent treatment” when things don’t go their way
  • criticizing another’s behavior or appearance to make them change
  • dominating conversations or constantly interrupting others
  • not allowing a partner to have friends of the opposite sex
  • micromanaging employees or even family members
  • manipulating others or lies so that things go their way
  • feeling the need to have complete and specific information about another person (such as where they are at all times)
  • extreme desire to impress others
  • unwillingness to adapt to new circumstances

Behind almost every controlling action is fear, such as the fear of being rejected, being alone, or of poverty.

Still, fear doesn’t excuse the controlling behavior, but it offers some perspective on handling controlling behavior.

Here are a few tips on how to cope with controlling behavior:

  • Try to remain calm. Whether it’s your boss, your mother, or your partner, try not to lose your cool when they behave in a controlling manner. If you feel an argument coming, take a short break to cool down, if you can, before discussing the problem.
  • Try to understand what’s driving the behavior. For instance, if your partner wants to know where you are at all times, what’s the underlying fear? Are they afraid you’re going to cheat on them? Or are they afraid you’re going to get physically harmed? Consider talking with them and try to be open when listening to their reasons.
  • Express in plain terms how you feel about their behavior. You might say, “Your behavior makes me feel like you don’t trust me. It makes me really uncomfortable.”
  • Establish your boundaries. Setting clear boundaries on how you want to be treated and what makes you feel comfortable can help you manage controlling behavior. Consider speaking with the controlling person to reflect on how their actions may affect you or cross your boundaries.
  • Know when to leave the situation if they don’t change. If the behavior continues and affects your self-esteem or autonomy, consider leaving the situation. For instance, if your boss is constantly micromanaging or belittling you, it’s probably time to talk with their manager or look for another job.
  • Examine your own reason for staying. Though most people end up in controlling situations through no fault of their own, some choose to stay even when they could leave. Consider reflecting on your reasons for staying without judgment to determine whether this controlling situation supports your needs.

Controlling behavior comes in many forms. Understanding the signs may protect you from harm and help you see how you’re affected.

Though none of it is acceptable, some types of controlling behaviors are more dangerous than others. Control plays a big role in the following types of abuse:

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline 24 hours a day at 800-799-7233.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline also offers an online chat feature and the option to text by sending “START” to 88788.

Controlling behavior is a fear-based pattern that needs to be addressed.

In some cases, the behavior may be occasional or specific to certain circumstances. If the person is willing to change, talking it out or getting therapy can improve the behavior.

In other situations, a person’s fear of losing control is so strong that it can lead to manipulation or abuse.

If you’re in a dangerous living situation, consider seeking help immediately. Help is always available to you. You’re not alone.

Taking that first step to address the controlling behavior is an act of empowerment to help you take back control of your own life.