"My boss is a control freak,” the young man complained. “She hovers over my shoulder all day long. It’s like she’s looking for mistakes.” He went on to describe the classic micro-manager, often cited in cases of bullying. Later the same day, I saw a young mother who was excessively anxious about her new baby’s wellbeing. She used the same label on herself. “It’s my own fault — I’m such a control freak.”
While not a clinical term, control freak has become almost embedded in our language. It’s slapped onto everything from personality disorder traits (e.g. narcissism) to bullying behavior, to perfectionism and anxieties. In simple terms, the phrase "control freak" describes a person who is obsessively driven to manage themselves or others. The main driver is the fear that things will spin out of control if they don’t keep a very tight rein on, well, everything.
While controlling traits can be helpful in leading, organizing, and smashing the to-do list, excessive efforts to box up the world we live in — and the people we live and work with — are not only futile; they can wreak havoc on our mental health.
Are you too much of a control freak?
The obsessive need for control is both a trigger and maintaining factor for various anxieties. Here are some of the signs to watch out for. [Note: This checklist is not designed to capture extreme personality disorder traits]
Answer the questions below with "yes" or "no."
- You have a hard time with uncertainty — you keep active and continue“doing things” to avoid those anxious feelings.
- You enjoy order. It helps you relax. Your house, desk, or bedroom is usually neat as a pin.
- You find it hard to delegate. When you do, you worry the work/outcomes won’t be up to your high standards. So you keep a careful eye.
- Speaking of high standards, yours are right up there. You’d say you were setting the bar high. Others would call your expectations unrealistic (or even madness).
- You’re a my-way-or-the-highway type. Being right is important to you and you’ll argue your viewpoint for as long as it takes.
- When you give “constructive criticism,” it comes attached with your own agenda (how do I get what I want?).
- You constantly worry the worst will happen — you mentally prepare for it and you spend a lot of time and energy trying to prevent bad things from happening.
- You have an authoritarian management or parenting style (you’d call it direct; others might say bossy or even a call it dictatorship) because you know what's best for everyone.
- Feeling vulnerable makes you uncomfortable.
- So does spontaneity. You’d rather have a plan.
- You put excess energy into managing the behavior od other people (staff, partner, kids). You wish you didn’t have to, but everything would fall apart if you didn’t.
You’re okay. Your control freak factor is well managed. But make sure you’re not too laidback and don’t organize or initiate anything — especially if there’s a control freak in your world; they might have good reason to be.
A little control freak-ness can be a useful life management skill. But check the reactions of your staff and family to your style: Are they worn down, avoiding you, and/or excessively resentful? Even more importantly, check in with yourself. If you can’t deal with uncertain times or manage your feelings of emotional discomfort, you have some work to do.
Uncertainty is a part of life — it can bring good things too. So practice sitting with distress and the uncomfortable feelings that go with it, letting some things go and being a little more spontaneous. Hey, it might even be fun!
This post was originally written by Karen Nimmo, author and clinical psychologist. For more, check out her blog on Medium.