Exploring Control and the Experience of Control


When people have control issues, they are guided by a deep psychological need to feel in control of people, situations, or outcomes. Having control issues is not uncommon, however, it is an unhealthy state of being that negatively impacts one’s behaviors and relationships.

People who have control issues are beset by fears that compel them to try to control people or events around them. These fears are usually unconscious; the individual is not cognitively aware of them.

For example, a person feels very uncomfortable being a passenger in a car and always insists on driving. By being the driver (literally taking hold of the wheel!), they feel safer and less vulnerable to unforeseen dangers – in essence, they feel more in control.

Feeling a sense of control is a natural human need. We all want to feel safe and in control of what goes on around us. However, life is complex and messy. Most healthy adults understand that they cannot control everything, so they work on the things they can control and try to let go of the things they can’t.

Take an individual, for instance, who is afraid of being unpopular and worries that their friends don’t really like them. They may develop control issues around this, such as feeling paranoid when not invited to an event, or calling a friend incessantly to make sure they don’t miss out on anything.

While the individual is trying to gain some control over their fears, these kinds of behaviors are manipulative. The friends have an intuitive sense that they are being controlled, and this is uncomfortable and unpleasant.

They become wary and seek to distance themselves from the person with control issues. Ironically, the fear of not being in control leads to the exact outcome that the individual was trying to avoid.

People with control issues can develop all kinds of behaviors as a result. They may excessively seek to assert authority or dominion over their environment.

For example, a controlling individual wants the house to be in perfect order, so they spend enormous amounts of time and energy tidying, cleaning, and putting things away. They may become overly strict and controlling about their housemates’ tidiness, nagging them to keep things exactly how they want them.

Control issues can severely impact relationships. When a person is over-controlling towards their romantic partner, they may become extremely jealous when their partner goes out without them.

This likely stems from a fear that they will lose their partner, so they try to control the circumstances in order to reduce the chance that this could happen. The partner begins to feel suffocated and unhappy. Ironically, the need to control their partner is more likely to drive them away.

Many of us grapple with the challenge of navigating life's uncertainties—whether they pertain to our well-being, economic prospects, social dynamics, or security concerns.

Despite the inherently unpredictable nature of life, most individuals maintain a reasonable sense of daily security without succumbing to pervasive anxiety. What enables this equilibrium, and conversely, what triggers chronic anxiety in some?
The foundation of security and control for most people rests upon two distinct behavioral patterns.

Firstly, it involves taking personal responsibility for one's life and acting accordingly.

Secondly, it necessitates relinquishing the desire to control elements beyond our grasp. Consider, for instance, the context of road safety: despite the inherent risks on the roads, most drivers feel secure when they take responsibility for their own actions and let go of the need to ensure that fellow drivers adhere to responsible behavior.

Conversely, the anxious driver is perpetually consumed by concerns regarding factors beyond their control—specifically, the behavior of other drivers.

In an unexpected twist, achieving a sense of security and control demands not only an earnest endeavor to maximize control over what lies within our sphere of influence but also a conscious relinquishing of the pursuit of absolute control—an inherently unattainable goal. This concession permits us to live with a profound sense of security and control, even in the absence of complete dominion over our lives.

Biofeedback emerges as a valuable tool in enhancing our control over our own bodies. It serves as an intermediary, deciphering how our body reacts to our thoughts, and guiding us through cognitive exercises, meditation, and physiological techniques like diaphragmatic deep and slow breathing.

Through biofeedback, we cultivate mindfulness towards our bodily responses, gain insight into these reactions, and endeavor to regulate them to the best of our ability but never to the point of full control.

This, in turn, equips us to confront anxiety and other distressing emotions effectively. Biofeedback serves as a powerful means to bolster our control, underpinned by the realization that the quest for absolute control is bound to be futile.

Reflect measures physiological data and extracts insightful information about what the mind is going through extracts. Using the data one can impact back on the mind on the body to achieve further peace and wellness.

What Causes Control Issues?

While the desire for a sense of control is a natural human trait, an excessively controlling personality can stem from a range of issues, such as past traumas, a fear of vulnerability, a need for security, or a desire for validation and power.

The cause of control issues is highly individual, arising from a unique and complex combination of psychological and environmental factors. Here are some causes of control issues that are fairly common among those who struggle with it:

Insecurity and fear: Feelings of insecurity or inadequacy can drive a need for control. Individuals may attempt to exert control as a way to manage their anxieties or fears about the unknown, fear of change, or the fear of rejection.

Possibly the strongest and most pervasive fear that drives control issues is the need for safety. People who feel unsafe and vulnerable, emotionally and physically, may be more prone to control issues.

Past trauma: Traumatic experiences, particularly those involving a loss of control, can lead to a heightened desire for control. Traumatic events can make individuals hypersensitive to perceived threats, pushing them to overcompensate through controlling behaviors.

Perfectionism: Perfectionists often struggle with control issues because they seek to ensure that everything aligns with their high standards. This need for control is a way to avoid the discomfort of imperfection.

Going through a stressful time: People who are experiencing difficulty in their lives may try to exert control to retain a sense of normalcy and stability.

For example, a person is fired from their job, triggering extreme stress about their financial situation and career path. This can lead to controlling behaviors, which may pass once they get a new job and the stress goes away.

Childhood experiences: Early experiences, especially those related to inconsistent or overbearing parenting, can shape control issues. Children raised in environments with little autonomy may grow up seeking to control their surroundings and relationships.

Additionally, control issues can be a learned behavior; children who grew up with controlling parents may have subconsciously adopted these behaviors by example.

Anxiety and obsessive-compulsive traits: People who have a tendency to anxiety, or those with generalized anxiety disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), often exhibit control issues. Their attempts to control can serve as a way to manage anxiety and obsessions and keep them at bay.

Personality traits: Certain personality traits, such as high conscientiousness or neuroticism, are associated with a greater need for control. These individuals may struggle with letting go of details or may have a stronger impulse to have certainty in their lives than those with more agreeable personalities.

Lack of coping skills: Some individuals may not have developed healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with stress or uncertainty. As a result, they turn to control as a way to manage their emotions.

Relationship dynamics: Dysfunctional or abusive relationships can lead to the development of control issues, particularly in the form of codependency. Individuals may attempt to control others or be controlled themselves.

For some people, leaving an unhealthy relationship will resolve their control issues. For others, psychological therapy may be necessary to understand their need for control and learn how to seek out and create relationships that do not have a controlling dynamic.

Tips for managing control issues

People with a strong need for control may find that it has negative consequences on their emotional wellbeing and makes it difficult to maintain healthy relationships. It is important to work on control issues and find ways to relate to stress, fear, and insecurity more healthily and productively.

The first step to managing control issues is to recognize them. An individual must first become aware of their controlling traits and behaviors, and acknowledge their detrimental impact, to combat them.

Once self-awareness has been achieved, managing control issues should be a daily goal. Here are five tips to help address and manage controlling impulses before and when they arise:

1. Seek professional help: Control issues can be deeply ingrained and challenging to address on your own. Consider seeking the guidance of a mental health professional, such as a therapist or counselor. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) can be particularly effective in addressing control issues.

2. Set realistic boundaries: Understand that you cannot control everything or everyone in your life. Use a mantra, such as the famous ‘Serenity Prayer’, that you can turn to when needed, to remind yourself to let go of things, not in your control.

“Give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what can not be helped, and insight to know the one from the other.”

You can use this one, or create your own. Write it on Post-it notes and put it on the fridge, next to your laptop, and anywhere else you can remind yourself. Recite it when you wake up in the morning and before you go to sleep. This is an effective way to train your mind towards relinquishing control.

3. Develop coping strategies: Instead of relying on control as a coping mechanism, build a toolkit of healthy coping strategies for managing stress and anxiety. This can include exercise, creative hobbies, or talking to a trusted friend or therapist when you feel overwhelmed.

Control issues often stem from a lack of security, a lack of confidence and a sense of fear. In moments like these, looking outside of yourself and doing good is a powerful way to cope with those feelings and let go of the need to control. Volunteering for a cause you believe in is a great way to get busy, refocus your energies on helping others, and alleviate control issues at the roots.

4. Meditate: Meditation is a powerful tool for managing control issues. Meditation helps you learn to be in the present moment and to observe it without judgment. It teaches you to ‘sit’ with uncomfortable feelings so you can accept them and reduce the need to control them and change them. During meditation, individuals can also gain awareness of their need for control and learn to let go of it.

Practicing meditation regularly has even been shown to rewire the brain, strengthening the neural pathways that promote inner calm and emotional balance. With meditation, you can build your capability to respond to life's challenges with greater flexibility and less compulsion to control every outcome.

5. Practice letting go: Control issues often stem from unconscious feelings and behavioral patterns. These must be challenged consciously in order to be overcome.

Try to identify moments when you feel the need to control come up, and actively practice letting go. There are several ways you can do this. Instead of trying to control a situation, step aside and try these:

  • Practice deep breathing for a few minutes to calm the nervous system.
  • Do some journaling. Write down what you are feeling and explore why the need to control came up for you.
  • Remove yourself from the situation you want to control and go for a brisk walk to relieve the tension and distract the mind.
  • Practice giving up physical control. For example, if you never let anyone else drive, make a point of being the passenger when possible. Delegate tasks that you would rather control, and ask a close friend or partner to gently point out when you are being controlled so you can change your behaviors in the moment. Things like this will desensitize you to the discomfort of not being in control. Over time, the control issues should lessen.

Managing control issues is a process that takes time and effort. Be patient as you work towards engaging with the world in a less controlling and more loving way.

The ultimate goal is to achieve a healthier balance between being in control and letting go. Once you achieve it, you can live a more fulfilling, relaxed, and happier life.

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Written by Noga Sapir - Reflect Author

Noga is the founder and CEO of Reflect Innovation. Noga’s work lies in the intersection of technology and design, and how tactility can create unique experiences in the mental health space.

Reflect Innovation was conceived in 2016 when, while completing her degree in Textile Design, Noga developed Reflect, looking to invent solutions for her own struggle with anxiety.

Noga holds a BSc. in Neuroscience from Tel Aviv University and BDes. in Textile Design from Shenkar College of engineering, design, and art.

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