Controlling makes it “all about you”

We all want to be in control. Life is full of unexpected developments and undesirable outcomes, so it’s just natural to try to control what we can. Sometimes, though (especially with loved ones), there is the danger of imposing this control onto another person. Maybe you know someone who smokes, and, because you care, you want her to stop. Or perhaps you don’t agree with a career choice a loved one is making. The immediate urge might be to somehow ‘stop’ the person from making a mistake. Though you might rationalize this as ‘love,’ forcing the issue will most certainly backfire and make things worse.

Think about your own reaction when someone disapproves of something you choose to do. If the person loves you, you’d probably be disappointed if they didn’t at least speak their mind. You might even value their opinion. But do you want them to actually try and stop you? Do you want them to try and manipulate you with guilt, hurt feelings, shouting or deceit? Obviously not. Well, it works the other way around, too. The person you care about wants you to express your viewpoint, but also to accept that they’re doing what they feel is right for them.

Obviously, very young children have to be controlled because they don’t know any better. But parents sometimes make this mistake with their grown-up kids. ‘Oh, you don’t want to do that,’ a mother will say to her grown son’s desire to pursue a certain hobby or career. Instead of asking reasonable, concerned questions, such as, ‘That’s interesting. What appeals to you about that?’ the parent will express anxiety, hurt or frustration over the choice the young person is making. To the parent this seems perfectly reasonable: ‘Of course I’m anxious and hurt! How am I supposed to feel when my child is considering such a thing?’ (By the way, grown children do this to their parents, too.) The problem with this seemingly understandable reaction is that it conveys to the loved one that it’s all about you. ‘What? You want to be a sword swallower? How could you do this to me?!’ (Bingo.)

When people talk to me about individuals in their lives they have found controlling, they invariably state that ‘It’s all about them.’ If you really love someone, this is the last thing you want to convey. Yet, amid our concerns for those we love, this is exactly what we communicate by our attempt to control.

What about situations where the anxiety is realistic? It’s reasonable to worry about a family member who smokes, abuses alcohol or refuses to take care of his health. How can we stand by and watch a loved one make such dumb decisions? Well, get ready: We have no choice. People will ultimately make their own decisions. We don’t have to bankroll, condone, or enable these decisions, and we can make a compelling and heartfelt argument as to why we don’t approve. But, at the same time, we have to accept the fact that we can’t make their choices for them. Coming to terms with this saves a lot of wear and tear on the nerves and the relationship.

Notice I’m not saying that you ‘shouldn’t’ control other people; I’m saying that you can’t. It’s a scientific fact, not merely an opinion. We human beings, despite our different personalities and levels of self-confidence, have our own minds and the capacity to think for ourselves. Does this guarantee we’ll always be correct and rational? Of course not! Are there legitimate differences of opinion among reasonable people? Absolutely! But when somebody tries to force or intimidate us into doing something we don’t think is right for ourselves, our natural reaction is to become resentful. Though we might pretend to comply just to keep the peace, the mind will shut down, or even rebel, in the face of this resentment.

Several years ago I saw a client who persistently scolded his wife for overeating. Every meal included guilt and pointed commentary. She was, indeed, overweight, and I could tell he was acting out of love. Yet, in spite of the fact that she dutifully ‘dieted’ when they ate together, she got bigger and bigger as she overindulged—sometimes in secret—when he wasn’t there to supervise. She admitted in therapy that part of her compulsion stemmed from her resentment (and resulting guilt) over his well-meaning but constant criticism. She loved him dearly, and knew he loved her and wanted her to be healthy—but she also knew that the decision to control herself could only come from her own mind, in her own time, and not from anyone else’s. Control changed her behavior in his presence, but it never changed her mind.Loving somebody is no excuse for trying to control them. It communicates a message that’s destructive to that love. It says that you don’t think they’re capable of making their own decisions, and that they can’t be, or maybe shouldn’t be, the masters of their own destiny. The truth is, we’re all independent by nature—some of us more so than others—but everybody wants respect. It hurts when someone you love doesn’t respect you enough to allow you to make your own decisions and, of course, to enjoy—or suffer, as the case may be—the consequences of those decisions.