I’m an 18-year-old girl and I consider myself pretty emotionally healthy. But I noticed that I have this need to feel in control. For example, I've always had a very difficult time accepting authority and it led me to fight back against my teachers and my parents almost to prove that they couldn't control me. Lots of times I end up angry and in tears when I’m forced to listen to or submit to them. I also noticed it with subtler things. I love driving and I always need to be the one behind the wheel. It gives me a feeling of something I can control. Also with friends, I have lots of relationships where the girl is younger or more vulnerable than I am. Is there something wrong? Am I a control freak?

Lauren Roth

Lauren Roth's Answer

Yes, you are. But you're in good company – so are lots and lots of people in this world! The question is: are you hurting yourself or the people around you with the controlling behavior? Sometimes controlling behavior doesn’t bother the people around you and doesn’t affect you badly. Sometimes, though, it can hurt your friends and your family, and make you lonely and/or miserable.

If you have strong opinions, and the people around you are happy to go along with your opinions, then your wanting things your way doesn’t really matter. But it is important to notice the feelings of the people around you, always, to make sure you’re not stepping on them or otherwise hurting them. If your friends are happy for you to drive, then your need for control in that situation isn’t causing damage.

Usually, when someone's controlling, it's hard for the people around them. To give you an example, today I drove up to my house. I was on the phone, I had a few packages in my hands, it was so hot that my sunglasses were sliding down my nose, and my purse was sliding off my shoulder. Lo and behold! Somebody was at my door collecting money for his organization. Still on the phone, still with my sunglasses sliding down my nose, still with my purse sliding off my shoulder, still with the packages weighing more and more heavily in my hands, I got the door open, went inside, and gave him a pre-written check that I have ready for people who are collecting.

Here comes the controlling part: instead of just telling me “Thank you” and going on his way, or instead of just nodding at me (because, remember, I was on the phone), he said: “Can I talk to you?” (Meaning: “Can I tell you about my organization so you’ll give me more money?”) I looked at him incredulously, as my glasses slid right off my nose and onto the ground, my purse finally fell off my shoulder, and I dropped my phone. All of a sudden, he realized that I was busy, said thank you, and went along his way. But he should have been sensitive before things got that obvious. Thinking about the people around you and how they’ll feel if you’re controlling can help you avoid hurting them.

It’s very freeing to not need things your way

I had a client couple this week whose main issue was that the husband was texting while he was driving. And even though the wife begged him to stop, he wouldn't give up his phone. That’s hurting the people around you by being controlling (and it might even kill them one day).

In addition to not hurting the people around you, trying to be less controlling will also improve your life.

Norman Rockwell's “The Plumbers,”

There’s a famous Norman Rockwell painting that I love. It’s called “The Plumbers,” and it shows workers with their dirty boots and their grimy tools standing on the white, plush carpet of a perfect boudoir, spraying the perfumes of the obviously fancy lady of the house. White carpets will get messy. Dirty people will put their grimy hands all over our pretty glass perfume bottles. And if we can abide, with calmness and serenity, those transgressions over our sense of "the way it has to be," we will have a more tranquil life. Trying to control your controlling urges will free you to have a calm, serene life.

It’s very freeing to not need things your way. And it’s easier on those closest to you.

Maybe try this breathing exercise. Breathe in, and think: "I’m freeing myself from the need for excessive control." Breathe out, and think: "Let it go."

This is not to say you have to be a pushover. You can have opinions. But whenever you can, working on letting them go will probably help you, your friends, your parents, your teachers, and anyone around you have a more peaceful life.

There’s also a deeper psychological level you can think about, and it might help you. Let me illustrate it with a story.

I was driving along, pondering your question, when I saw a young woman yell at a car. (She didn’t like the way he turned or stopped or something like that.) I decided to spread some good, after her spreading her rancor. So I rolled down my window and told her how nice her dog was. She looked happy, and said “Thank you! Thank you!”

Then I asked her, “What kind is it?” She put her hands on her hips, looked me straight in the eye, and said, in a kind of aggressive way: “It's a Pitbull.” That's controlling in a bad kind of way. We were doing fine—until we weren’t. Someone must have hurt her or taken advantage of her, so that she's afraid to stay soft and vulnerable.

I’ll tell you – it's easier to be soft and vulnerable. It's easier to go through life that way. It's just a little scary. Especially if you’ve been hurt. So when you realize that you're being controlling, think to yourself: what is it that I’m afraid of? Why aren’t I free to be soft and vulnerable right now? Why do I have to be so tight? What am I trying to protect? And explore those feelings.

In conclusion, I saw a great billboard the other day: “You choose your own behavior, so you choose your own consequences.” You can have things your way, but often that might hurt the people around you and make your life less peaceful, calm, tranquil, and pleasant. The choice is up to you.