Controlling Behavior: Signs, Causes, and What To Do About It

Controlling behavior can come from just about anyone in your life. It could be your boss, a family member, a friend, or even your partner. 

Although controlling behavior can feel extra traumatic in romantic relationships, any person in your life can control you in a harmful way.

It is a mark of courage to recognize the signs of controlling behavior, and an act of bravery to respond appropriately. 

What Is Controlling Behavior?

Controlling behavior is when one person expects, compels, or requires others to cater to their own needs — even at others’ expense. The controlling person targets an individual and dominates them in an unhealthy, self-serving manner. 

Who Falls Victim To Controlling People?

Controlling people often prey upon those they’re closest to, taking advantage of others’ introversion, submissive tendencies, or simple good faith. 

Being manipulated, used, or controlled by another person can lead to a number of harmful effects. Some may be so subtle, that you don’t realize until you’re cemented into a toxic relationship with your friend, coworker, or partner. 

Controlling people tend to prey on the kindest folks they can find.

Other effects are all-consuming, and can even lead to shame for ‘allowing’ yourself to be controlled. Remember it is not at all your fault. Controlling people tend to prey on the kindest folks they can find.

If you’re being controlled by another person, you may experience any of the following:

  • Damaged confidence and sense of self 
  • Difficulty taking action
  • Fear of being without the person who controls you
  • Depression, anxiety, the works…
  • Lack of will to live
  • Complex PTSD, especially if the control is prolonged or coupled with other types of abuse

Subtle Signs Of Controlling Behavior: 

Remember to be cautious when you see even small signs of controlling behavior. 

Some of the more subtle signs of control can be:

  • Giving or seeking more attention than usual.
  • Threatening you with ultimatums.
  • Putting you down when things don’t go their way.
  • Using banter as a disguise for underlying criticism in the presence of family and friends.
  • Making you feel unworthy or worthless.

If it happened once, it was probably for a reason, and the person will probably want to use you again.

When these more subtle signs become constant, and repetitive, or form a pattern, then it is high time to take action — either by speaking up, setting boundaries, distancing yourself through techniques like grey rocking, or exiting the relationship.

What Causes Controlling Behavior?

There are various reasons why some people try to control others, and sometimes these are difficult to figure out.

Some potential causes of controlling behavior are: low self-esteem; being micromanaged or controlled by someone else; traumatic past experiences; a need to feel in-control; or a need to feel ‘above’ someone else..

None of these have to do with you, the victim of inappropriate control. But if you want to preserve a relationship with someone who controls you, consider whether they might be able to work on any of the above influences.

Common Ways People Control Others: 

No one controlling relationship is worse than the other – they are all equally bad! 

“Control and manipulation are not love; the outcome is a life of imprisonment ultimately leading to deep-rooted feelings of resentment.” ― Ken Poirot

Some controlling behaviors can be recognized easily while others take time to manifest. When the following examples below become repetitive and form into a habit – it has become a controlling relationship.

Psychological Manipulation

Psychological manipulation is a broad spectrum of mental and emotional abuse, and its damaging effects can be long lasting.

Have you ever had to tell someone you don’t like playing mind games? Well, this may be how it all starts, as somewhat of a joke between two people. 

Psychological manipulation can show as one or many of (but not limited to) the following:

  • intense jealousy
  • isolating you from friends and family
  • judging how you speak
  • the silent treatment
  • constant criticism
  • guilt trips
  • emotional blackmail
  • intimidation

Physical Control or Abuse

Often, the person being controlled will turn a blind eye or not acknowledge controlling behaviors. That’s understandable. But in the case of physical abuse, the control may have started without your realizing it – as the other person just crossing a number of subtle fine lines. 

It’s not always as obvious as punches and bruises. Getting beaten up is not the only form of physical abuse, even though it is the most common. Physical control can also look like restrictions on travel, the clothes you wear, or who you see. 

The controlling person in your life may start by asking where you’re going, then by restricting where and when you leave the house. Eventually you find yourself physically isolated and in fear of violence should you decide to meet up with a friend or just go for a walk.

You may be threatened or coerced into sex, or they may gaslight you into thinking it was your idea, even though you don’t want it. These are examples of of controlling behavior using physical abuse – or even just the threat of it – as a weapon.

Financial Exploitation

Financial abuse can come from two directions. 

First, a controlling person may find ways to cut off your autonomy so you become financially dependent on them; they might ask you to change jobs or even leave work. This ensures that everything you do with a financial implication, goes through them. 

The second, alternative manifestation is equally restrictive. They might focus all financial responsibilities on you where you are the only one contributing to the couple’s or family’s finances.

In both situations, it can become almost impossible for you to leave the relationship due to the financial burdens in your name.

“A bird cannot love freely when caged.” ― Matshona Dhliwayo

Not all these signs will clearly mean that someone is trying to control you. Controlling behavior exists on a spectrum, from unconscious or accidental control, to full-blown, intentional abuse.

There might be just one of the signs above, or other signs not mentioned. So the best way to move forward is to trust your gut. Notice the signs and keep them in mind. Proceed cautiously.

If you find yourself in a controlling situation, always ask yourself: “Is this truly what I want and am I doing it of my own free will?”

If your answer’s a NO, then remove yourself from the circumstances and talk about the situation with someone, like here.

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