When I was young, our family friend took a couple of other friends and me to a quarry in the upper peninsula of Michigan. This quarry was vast, with a 40-foot-plus drop into water that was crisp and clean. Even with water as crystal clear as this, it was so deep you couldn’t see the bottom of the lake. Before I even had a chance to hang my towel on a branch, people were leaping off the cliff’s edge and jumping into the water.
I’ll never forget the fear I felt. A rock was forming in my stomach when it was my turn. I wanted nothing more than to dart away. Instead, I began fidgeting with my water shoes, ensuring they were strapped on tight. I looked over to my towel hung on a branch and realized I should probably fold it and put it under a rock so it doesn’t fly away. I began to inspect the dirt floor around my feet, ensuring there were no small rocks that could cause me to slip off the edge before I was ready. I later realized that at this moment, I was yearning to control the environment around me. The others called me on it and urged me not to delay my jump. They wanted me to make a decision. Feeling like I was unsafe, I had to fight with myself to let go of my control and accept my fate. I wanted to jump, but my mind told me – hell no!
Eventually, when I ran out of things to control around me, I leaped and hit the water. Before I could even swim up to the top of the water, I had a big smile. Despite my fear, I still did it. I jumped.
Where Control Comes From
Now, I think it is important to preface this with an important note – Control is often a good thing. A balanced mindset on controlling yourself and your environment can help make you a better person and more productive and can contribute to much of your success in life. The control we are largely addressing here is the control that comes from a damaged place inside. Whether that is from trauma or neglect, if the origins of your control stem from a damaged place like this, it can lead to an overcontrolling behavior. Overcontrolling behavior is where further damage can begin to form to your emotional health.
One important thing I discovered about control is that – Control tends to be reactionary. It stems from two different places. The first place comes from past experiences. I once fell while running on this section of trail with my friends, so now I am going to run in the grass along the side of the trail the next time I run through that section. Or control is activated from a need to feel safe again. I see a root on the trail; therefore, I want to run safely past it; I will run on alongside the trail for this section. Control is a defensive measure. It ensures we can continue to thrive in life. And, as I said before, it’s a good thing when balanced. Our body overcompensates in so many different ways for pain. Overcontrolling in one’s life is one of those ways.
When you start to exert control, it can come from several different places inside. It can come from anxieties or an innate reaction to a traumatic event when we were younger. Because this terrible thing happened when I was younger, I will do everything I can to prevent it from happening again. You can tell whether you are overcontrolling in your life when you think in absolutes like this. This can fuel anxiety around this aspect of your life.
Another area of your emotions in which overcontrolling behavior can show its face is a need for perfectionism or even, in some extreme cases, OCD. Brene Brown, a Ph.D. studying human behavior, has a lot of insight in her books and interviews on perfectionism. However, what struck me was her high-level view of perfectionism. Perfectionism for Brene does not stem from a Yearning to have high expectations and challenging yourself and others to achieve at a higher level. Instead, perfectionism is actually used as a defensive measure. Watch this video to learn more from Brene about the damaging effects of perfectionism.
This need to be perfect fuels an output throughout our lives of being overcontrolling, overbearing, and anxious in many aspects of our lives. It creates a cycle of damaging emotional behavior that can spiral out of control and grow your overcontrolling behavior.
How To Recognize It
There are several ways to identify overcontrolling behavior in yourself and others. Below is a list of the most common ways that exports and researchers have been able to identify.
How You Can Change
If you can notice or spot these behaviors in your orbit or in yourself, that thing about control is that you can overpower it. The feeling of needing control is just like any other feeling your mind gives you. It’s a consideration. Mo Gaudet, the author of Solve For Happy, writes about the inner voice inside your head. This inner voice is there to give you options in life. It does NOT, however, get to decide your decisions; even more importantly, it does not define who you are.
A common saying I love to use a lot is – the first step to solving a problem is realizing you have a problem. This speaks truth to overcontrolling behavior too. For you or someone you know to begin to grow out of the overcontrolling behaviors, they must first realize they have this problem to begin with. Control is a decision, not a diagnosis, for most people. However, this is a lofty life for any one person because even if you do the work to try to recognize the trauma that may be fuelling your overcontrolling mentality, it may be so habitual in your life that it will still take a lot of work to truly get out of being overcontrolling.
Below are some simple ways you can start the process of growing beyond this overcontrolling mentality –
- Start the process of identifying why you need to be overcontrolling.
To fully heal from a trauma in your life, you have to do the work to recognize it and articulate it. Brene Brown says in her research that when we speak about our emotions, we actually change how we experience them. So identifying this problem with a therapist or phycologist could give you many tools to start the long healing process.
- Ask your orbit.
I have found that sitting close friends down for a one-on-one in which you ask them directly about a problem you are having can be a huge season in how people receive you and your behavior. Ask your friend an open-ended question like –
- Do you think I act overcontrolling sometimes?
- If so, are other people noticing me too?
- What can I do to make sure I’m not overcontrolling something you’re doing?
- Can you help me?
- Challenge those thoughts.
Challenging those thoughts when they first enter your mind can be the quickest and easiest way to ensure your need for control doesn’t affect those around you. Ask yourself –
- Am I dominating this situation?
- Or Am I being too over the top right now?
- Is this a fair expectation for those around me?
- Am I being fair or playing God in this situation?
- Have I been asking any questions, or am I asserting my dominance here?
Now, with language and an understanding of control, the next time I’m faced with that cliff, I know that I need to clear my mind, take a breath, and understand the emotional reactions that come from fear. Overcontrolling behavior is very difficult to grow from, but if you can recognize the behavior, you can begin to change your behavior. Ask yourself – Where in my life am I being overcontrolling and why? Trust me, upon reflection on this question. You can go down some interesting thought trains. Building that self-awareness is core to growing and becoming a better and engaged human being to those around you. It can help deepen relationships and help you grow more confident and comfortable with the person you are meant to be.