Are You A Control Freak? The Surprising Truth

[fbls] Hello. My name is Travis Robertson and I’m a control freak. But I’m not alone.

You’re a control freak too.

Control is a funny thing. We usually associate control with certain personality types. We say that someone has a “dominant personality type” or that they are a “control-freak.” We may even describe ourselves this way.

We associate control with obvious, overt actions such as…

  • Micro-managing
  • The need to get your way
  • The need to be the boss
  • The need to be the team leader
  • Taking over decision-making processes
  • Not valuing the opinions of others
  • Bullying
  • Pressuring others to see things your way
  • And so on…

Control gives us certainty, it gives us predictability, and it gives us a feeling of significance. The truth is that we all want control – but not all of us go about it in the same way.

I work with people who are dominant in their controlling and I work with people who are passive in their controlling. The difference is that the passive people don’t see themselves as controlling. Most of my dominant personality clients practically blurt out their controlling tendencies in our first meeting.

We’ve wrongly associated the desire for control to a personality type rather than recognizing it as a fundamental desire that we all share. Therefore, those without certain personality types believe themselves to be relatively free of the need to control outcomes. But they’re not.

The easiest way to understand this is to look at an example. And the best examples generally center around our fears. In this particular case, I’m not referring to phobias such as spiders, snakes, or butterflies. (Don’t laugh. I recently watched a TV show featuring a woman who had a phobia of butterflies.)

The fear that I’m referring to is that feeling that prevents us from taking actions we either want to take or know we should take. It could be asking for a raise, starting a business, growing your business, ending a bad relationship, etc.

One of the reasons we experience fear in those situations is that we are experiencing uncertainty about the future. Our inability to predict the outcome frightens us because we like predictability and certainty. We like control.

Suppose a person hates their job. They’ve been there for a decent amount of time, they’re good at it, but they hate it. Why don’t they find a better job so they can quit? Usually, it’s because they can’t predict what will happen on the other side. They know what their current job entails. Even if they don’t like it, they have certainty, predictability, and control.

So, when given the opportunity to change their situation, what do you think they will do? Usually, they will self-sabotage. Why? It puts them back in control. Perhaps a position opens up that deep-down they would like to apply for. Instead of acting on that desire and accepting the uncertainty, they think of every reason why they can’t meet the requirements and don’t even attempt it.

In that brief moment of consideration, life felt exciting, thrilling, and completely out-of-control. In order to get back control and certainty, they created excuses, sabotaged the process and returned to their job they hate. They took control of the outcome by making sure nothing changed – even though that change would likely have been better.

And therein lies the problem. People will take certain misery over uncertain improvement. Maybe that’s what you’re doing right now.

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  • Great post, Travis. I had never thought about the “why” behind self-sabotage and I think you made a good case for explaining it.

    • Thanks, Luke! It’s certainly one of the reasons. I probably should have made it clearer that there are other reasons we self-sabotage as well but control is a big one for people.

  • Good perspective on seeking control. I think you are right, it is part of human nature to seek safety and resist the unknown. Makes more sense when the unknown trying to kill or eat you. Having a sense of control keeps the fear down.

    I’ve seen people try to exert control over their situation by passive resistance which is the most dangerous in a group setting. Hard to see because they seem to be on board. Then they really don’t give it their all (just enough not to be obvious), the change fails and they go back to their safety even though long-term the safefy may disappear through irrelevance. Nothing overt so it is hard to spot.

    • You’re right on about the passive type being the most dangerous in a group setting. Interpersonal relationships can be majorly shipwrecked by passive aggressive behavior.

      I’d rather someone be a jerk and straightforward than nice and passive aggressive so that I at least know where they stand and how to address the objections.

  • Kcampbell

    Yep, that is exactly what I am doing now, accepting certain misery over uncertain improvement. Absolutely right on again. Thanks Travis.

  • Kcampbell

    Yep, that is exactly what I am doing now, accepting certain misery over uncertain improvement. Absolutely right on again. Thanks Travis.

    • You’re welcome! I’m glad it helped you see things as they are. It takes courage to be honest with ourselves. Now, my question for you is: what are you going to do about it? (No need to answer here. Just a gentle nudge.) 🙂

  • Kaari

    I know I do this. I’ve been working hard for years to stop waiting until the pain of the present is worse than the fear of the future. How I ended up in Chicago looks like a story of leaping (decision to move in less than 30 days), but I had six months to consider and talked about leaving Seattle for at least three years before I did it.

    Hadn’t ever looked at it as looking for control though. Very interesting!

    • Thank you, Kaari! That’s a great example of a decision that took a long time but that you eventually found the courage to act in spite of the fear. Each time we act on that, it gets easier and easier to put the fear in perspective.

      It’s like jumping into a pool. When we’re kids, jumping from the side (about 12″) seems terrifying – until we do it. Then, we move to a two foot ledge. Then a diving board. And so on…

      I’ve found my fears are the same way. Things that feel MASSIVE to me right now will feel like 12″ jumps in a few months. So long as I actually jump. 🙂

  • Hey Travis,

    Interesting post.. a few thoughts on the topic.  I’m not sure it is about control, in its literal sense, so much as it might be about comfort and familiarity. This might just be a minor distinction in word choice.  In healing parameters.. control is taken to indicate control over others… much the same way that the word Power, has become a dirty word- for that same reason.. it is taken to mean power OVER.. rather than being in your own power. 

    Additionally, again in healing framework- we enter all engagements with pre-set “contracts”.. which are our established truths about ourselves/ lives and worlds.  The choices we make, will generally- both consciously and unconsciously, work to fulfill these Truths.  they serve much like what the layman might note- self fulfilling prophecies. In scientific terms- it is proving the hypothesis.  Generally these contracts, or truths.. will be patterns that play out in many different scenarios, be it professional or personal.  The trick is to learn how to step back and see the bigger picture.. what is the “truth” or belief, that is being enacted, usually repetitively.

    Sometimes these contracts are truths we learn from direct experience- someone labelled/ called you lazy and you wuld never amount to much… or maybe it is from watching the roles of our parents/ mentors/ families, like never being able to escape the blue-collar/middle class paradigm- this can be an ancestral sort of inherited blueprint..

    There is also a fundamental biological-anthropological aspect.. a species will evolve, adat, etc.. until it attains survivability.  After that I do wonder to what extent we are hard-wired to have “ambition”… I honestly don’t have any answer for that one.. but it could account for a lot of “settling” that people do in their lives… It could also be a deeper cultural aspect that we have been conditioned t buy into the myth of “good enough.”… And that is the end result of media television, professional sports and cheap sitcoms… I think the word is soporific…?

    BUY- I think there is a change happening.. a lot of people are starting to ” wake up…”  and that’s a good thing:)

    Keep up the good writing!

    Tnx

    Teri