Recently, I’ve experienced what seems to be an influx of people struggling with relationship challenges, grieving and confused over the state of their connection with someone they love. While relationship issues aren’t exactly new territory for me in my line of work (#therapist), there seems to be a theme to what I’ve encountered lately.
Whether it’s one person accusing another of saying or doing something they didn’t do, or putting unrealistic and immature qualifiers on people who want to be in relationship with them, I’ve seen a steady stream of these situations that are dysfunctional at best, and toxic at their worst.
It would seem in some situations; individuals are editing the truth for fear of retaliation from their friend or lover. Others are working at a frenetic pace to keep all the plates spinning and everyone in their perspective boxes, much like a finicky toddler treats their dinner, preventing things from touching and becoming contaminated.
While some of the more manipulative behaviors can seem outright malicious, upon further (and from a safe distance) examination we often start to see that, in all likelihood, malice isn’t driving these behaviors.
For many of us, we learned at a young age to anticipate the worst from people. We were conditioned to know that what was being said wasn’t nearly as important as how it was being said, or what the look on the person’s face was really communicating. In those situations, we developed a skill for managing other people’s behaviors, and sometimes their emotions, in order to keep ourselves safe. We worked tirelessly to make certain the people around us were happy, because our literal survival depended on it.
In other words, we learned to fear allowing others to be “in control” because when other people are in control, bad things happen.
Then, in later years, we may continue that behavior, strategically managing (controlling) people around us with the goal of getting what we feel we need from those people and the relationships they represent. Again, because deep down our fear makes us believe our survival depends on it. This might work for a little while, but inevitably, we blow up relationships, harming people and ourselves along the way.
Part of the reason our relationships (and people) suffer as the result of our controlling behavior is because we can’t do conflict well- although we convince others (whom we keep at arms-length, all the while convincing them they're closer to us than they really are) that we are emotionally and even spiritually healthy. We become masters at not only our own image management, but we also manage the images of others so people will see them the way we want them to be seen.
One of the saddest things in all of this is that amidst all that managing, we can become someone we really don’t want to be. We become the very type of person whom we suffered under, repeating those behaviors, albeit with a different motivation in mind.
Because the trauma that can drive these behaviors is no respecter of persons (it can hit any socioeconomic environment), the arenas in which these behaviors manifest later in life are vast- from the family home to the board room to the church pew. Whether in leadership roles or as part of a team, the strong need for control can be felt by everyone involved, but often with the exception of the one attempting to establish control.
I say “felt” rather than “observed” because sometimes it’s incredibly subtle, and given the way it may be presented, it’s even understandable. So, it goes unobserved. Other times it may be well-disguised as “the healthy way to do things” or “the best thing for the team”. In any case, controlling behaviors can fly under the obvious radar.
Other times, we don’t call out the behavior because the one exemplifying it is well-liked and dynamic. Perhaps they are “the boss”. Often, there is so much good mixed in with these behaviors that we feel like we’re the ones who are crazy when we’re tempted to call out what doesn’t feel right.
Sometimes a person’s controlling behaviors are the result of something they experienced generationally, and consequently, they can fool the most adept and intelligent of individuals into believing they’re in the right, or at a minimum, that nothing is amiss. Mainly because they’ve been able to convince themselves of the same thing.
I know this topic can feel a little obtuse, so let’s see if we can take a look at some clearer ideas of what that control might look like, particularly in a friendship.
Here are some of the more specific behaviors we might witness when someone is controlling (even if that someone is ourselves).
They Work Hard at Image Management: A controller works very hard to ensure that people see them exactly how they want to be seen. They often do the same with regard to how people see their spouse and children.
They Expect Others to Feel the Same As They Do: If a controller has a problem with someone, they either expect others to have that same issue with that person, or once again, they lean into managing the image of that person in the eyes of others.
They Are Uncomfortable When People In Their Circle Gather Without Them: Whether they say it or not, a controller doesn’t like it when “their people” get together without them. They often will quickly seek out someone who was at the gathering to fill them in on what was discussed.
They Bully People: Whether implicitly or explicitly, a controller will create fear in people that the friendship will be lost if they do or say the wrong thing.
They Make Things Up to Test People: In seemingly confidential conversations, controllers accuse people of saying or doing something they know they didn’t do, thinking they can use that opportunity to “catch” a person doing something wrong, thus proving to themselves and others that person can’t really be trusted.
They End Relationships Poorly: When a controlling person is finished with someone, they’re really finished. No matter what that person did or didn’t do, no matter if there is an apology or not, they make sure the person understands the relationship will never be restored. Then they manipulate and discourage others in their circle from being in relationship with that person too.
They Often Choose Relationships in Which They Have Something to Gain: Whether it’s validation and accolades, power, social status or material gains, they select individuals to get close to whom they believe will “fill in the gaps” in their own life; filling some real or perceived need.
They Sporadically Include or Exclude People: Whether in conversations or in gatherings, they intentionally and sporadically include and/or exclude individuals just to keep others on their toes. Usually, they have a strategic reason for selecting the people who will and won’t make it on the guest list. Sometimes the reason is to keep people guessing who is and isn’t in the “inner circle”.
So- how are you doing?
My guess is that over the course of reading that list, you either began to think of people in your life who exhibit these behaviors, or you possibly recognized them in yourself. In either case, I want to remind you that it doesn’t mean all is lost. Remember, many (if not all) of these controlling behaviors can be less about malice and more about fear.
And what casts out fear?
Not a love that excuses these behaviors or stays silent when you see them manifest and harm others (because that isn’t really love at all).
Rather, I’m talking about a love that calls out the damage or potential damage these behaviors hold and offers to walk through some healing with the person, so they can let go of the toxic behaviors.
It won’t be easy, and if it is a person of influence, you may need to talk with someone you trust (and perhaps a trained therapist) about the best way to protect yourself from any attacks. Not because the individual would lash out against you in anger or spitefulness, even though it may certainly look that way. If they attack, it will likely be yet another attempt to gain control and protect themselves from some threat they perceive.
In any case, the risk will be worth it if your goal is to stay in relationship with the person. But, if they’re too toxic and won’t listen, you must be ready to do the equally loving thing and change the dynamic of the relationship with them so as to prevent yourself from being harmed by them, or made culpable in their harming of others.
And if the person in need of help with control issues is you, let me just say the journey will be worth it. I say that from lots of experience, the professional and personal kind. I, too, was raised in an environment that required a lot of “managing” of others and myself to make sure I would be safe. And those behaviors followed me into adulthood. I was grateful for people who stuck by me, including a wonderful spouse who “got it.”
In the more tense moments of life, when a threat is perceived, there are times when I still need to remind myself to let go of the need to control. I remember how much better relationships are when I’m not controlling and how much more free I can feel. It is in those moments when I can be honest with myself and remember that all the control that I was fighting to maintain was really an illusion; and I was the one being controlled.
Within your relationships and/or within yourself, I pray you find the courage to take on the issues of control with grace, mercy and truth. And I pray you find a new level of peace in the midst of the journey.
Looking for additional resources to help with this topic? I highly recommend the tried and true Codependent No More by Melody Beattie and The Verbally Abusive Relationship by Patricia Evans. Both can be found at www.itsmyoutloudvoice.com/resources. Come join our community! Visit us at www.itsmyoutloudvoice.comand subscribe to learn more ways we can break cycles, slay shame and find freedom.