The desire for control may be rooted in a fear of uncertainty. Sometimes, it can also be related to a mental health condition.
Being in control of your life sounds like a positive thing, and in most cases, it can be. But for some people, the need to control everything can become all-consuming.
If you feel the need to control all things and events around you, you may consider yourself a perfectionist, holding yourself (and others) to very high standards.
Perhaps you tend to have trouble coping when things don’t go to plan or change unexpectedly. You may even find yourself mentally going over the same situations as you seek to regain a sense of control.
Like most aspects of mental health, controlling behaviors exist on a spectrum — most people experience them to some degree.
But a persistent need to control every situation can take a toll on your relationships and mental health. And as you work on managing that need for control, it can be helpful to know where the tendency comes from.
A persistent desire or need for control may be linked to difficulty accepting uncertainty. By trying to exert control over every aspect of a situation, you may be trying to create a sense of security and predictability.
This need to feel safe and in control can, in turn, result from:
1. Traumatic events
A history of trauma can have a great impact on many aspects of your life. It could also result in a deep need for control.
A traumatic event is loosely defined as any incident that causes significant physical, emotional, or psychological pain to a person.
When you live with trauma, you may get stuck in cognitive distortions like catastrophizing. Catastrophizing is when you tend to assume the worst in any given scenario.
You could also be hypervigilant, which can make uncertainty very unsettling. Hypervigilance is a state of increased alertness where you may continually scan your environment expecting danger.
By trying to control everything, you could start unconsciously trying to protect yourself from experiencing trauma again.
This is a natural and adaptive response. In fact,
Still, excessive control could overwhelm a person’s resources and impact quality of life.
2. Childhood experiences
The environment you grew up in can affect how you see the world.
For example, growing up in a family with unstable dynamics, where it was difficult to predict what would happen next, may lead to controlling behaviors as a coping mechanism.
Living with guardians who had alcohol or substance use disorder can also affect your relationships and behaviors as an adult. Children in this environment often have to face unpredictable situations. As adults, they may feel an intense need to control everything.
Growing up with emotionally unavailable caregivers could also result in a need to control your interactions with other people in an attempt to get reassurance and validation. For example, anxious attachment styles are related to both unpredictable primary caregivers and a tendency to be controlling in relationships.
3. Anxiety disorders and OCD
Uncertainty may mean there’s more room for intense worry and rumination. People may self-soothe by trying to control as many outcomes as they can to reduce this worry.
A need for control may manifest differently, depending on the type of anxiety disorder you live with.
For example, if you have social anxiety disorder, you may feel the need to plan out all the details of social interactions. Last-minute changes to these plans may make you feel extremely upset.
With generalized anxiety disorder, you may anticipate possible triggers, which could also result in controlling behaviors.
People with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) may also have a strong need to control everything in an attempt to reduce anxiety and fears.
Folks with OCD can constantly face intrusive and irrational thoughts that lead them to engage in specific actions, called compulsions, in order to soothe the anxiety those thoughts cause. These compulsions often go hand in hand with a need for control.
4. Personality disorders
An excessive need for control can sometimes be a symptom of certain personality disorders.
People with borderline personality disorder (BPD), for example, may feel intense fears of abandonment. This fear could lead you to want to control your interactions and romantic partners in an effort to stop them from leaving you.
Some people living with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) may also engage in controlling behaviors, like using manipulation tactics to direct situations in their favor.
5. Learned behaviors
Sometimes, feeling a need to control things can be unrelated to a condition. It’s possible to have a tendency toward controlling behaviors if this is something you constantly witnessed and experienced when you were younger.
For example, having a parent who micromanaged you or monitored everything you ate or did may lead you to repeat these patterns as an adult.
Perhaps you find reassurance in repeating these behaviors, or maybe you assume this is how things need to be managed at home. You could also associate control in certain situations with caring for others.
If you feel your need for control is affecting your relationships, self-image, and other aspects of your life, you may want to reach out to a mental health professional.
Psychotherapy can be a useful tool to help you gain perspective on your thought patterns and what may be causing your fear of uncertainty or need for control.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), specifically, can be especially helpful for teaching you to develop strategies to manage your need for control.
A therapist can also work with you to explore the root cause behind why you need to control things — whether it’s based on a mental health condition or defense mechanism.
Uncertainty is a part of life, but it may be harder to manage for some people. This difficulty could lead to an intense need to control everything around you.
Everyone’s experiences are unique, but there are some reasons you might be more likely to want to control things, like:
- living with trauma
- modeling learned behaviors
- having an anxiety disorder
Needing control can also be a natural response to the stresses of life. It’s how you’ve learned to cope with things that overwhelm or upset you. And this is valid, but avoiding things can also hurt you in the long run.
In every case, overcoming your need to control is possible. Just by identifying this tendency in yourself, you’ve already taken a major step toward change.