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How to Respond to Controlling People


It can be extremely frustrating to try to deal with a controlling person in our lives. Unless we have specific tools, it might even be an exercise in futility. This is because there is no reasoning with him or her. But once we apply new awareness of how to respond with effectiveness to someone who’s controlling, we can free ourselves from his or her manipulative ways.

 Yesterday I posted a column, “How to recognize controlling people.” If you haven’t already read this, you may want to take a look at it to see the behaviors they exhibit. That said, once you realize another person in your life—perhaps your mate or a friend—is trying to control you, it becomes imperative to release yourself from that control and try to restore balance to the relationship. If this proves to be impossible, it may be time to distance yourself at least emotionally from this individual, who has a toxic effect on you.

One thing to remember when you’re trying to liberate yourself from someone else’s control, is that your objective is to change your behavior, not his or hers. When there are disagreements, individuals vary in their willingness to engage in conflict. Often, more passive people, sometimes known as people pleasers, will immediately give up or give in to restore peace. When the other party in the relationship is a controller, always needing to win, there’s little chance for a balanced relationship. In fact, the stress that results from allowing yourself to be controlled can actually interfere with your immune system. If you’re permitting someone to control you, both you and he or she are contributing to this pattern.

It’s difficult to cope with controlling people. Dr. Judy Esmond, Ph.D counsels that you need to learn to respond, not react, in dealing with difficult people: She suggests in doing this that you “pause, breathe, think, and then speak.” You can download her book Dealing With Difficult People, offering helpful tips free of charge, as well as separate articles, from her website at nodifficultpeople.com.

When entering into dialogue with a controller, show that person the same respect that you desire. Emphasize positive things. Ask questions in an attempt to understand this person. In a conflicted conversation, stay focused on the topic at hand, rather than getting personal. Ideally, your mutual goal is cooperation.

If your positivity isn’t resulting in a collaborative outcome, you can point out to the controlling person that their ways are making you uncomfortable, but be strong so their problem doesn’t become yours. While it’s best to stand firm on the fact that you aren’t going to be controlled, remain free of anger. Remember it’s within your power to set boundaries in your relationship. Allowing someone talk down to you is demeaning. Don’t let it happen. When you disagree with someone’s inaccurate or inappropriate criticism, a simple “I don’t agree,” or another short explanation is much more convincing than a lengthy defense.

Liz Ryan wrote in “The Five Habits of Controlling People” for Forbes (01/01/’16) that a controlling person is one who “…needs to have people around him or her behave in certain ways and not in others” and suggests that in developing our relationship management skills, when someone tells us “That’s not how it’s done” we learn to say “It sounds like you have found an approach that works for you. I do it differently, but thank you so much for your help.”  At the same time she cautions that if you disagree with a controller, he or she will believe you’re wrong—even bad or evil.

In his article “How to Successfully Handle Aggressive and Controlling People” for Psychology Today (09/07/’14) Preston Ni also wrote about the “critical life skill…of managing relationships” and suggests that you:

  • Keep your cool and maintain composure
  • Keep your distance and keep your options open
  • Depersonalize and shift from reactive to proactive; i.e., try to empathize
  • Know your fundamental human rights and recognize when they’re violated
  • Reclaim you power without being defensive by asking constructive questions relevant to the subject at hand

Controlling people need to feel the power of influencing other people and must see evidence of that influence. While we all have some narcissistic tendencies, and try to control our environment to some degree to suit our purposes, the most controlling people are regarded as narcissists. In its extreme form, narcissistic syndrome is considered a mental disorder, which occurs when an individual is completely self-serving, with no regard for the rights or feelings of others. If your partner’s efforts to control you seem to be crossing the line into the realm of verbal abuse, you should seek counseling right away, before the problem escalates.

Not to be an alarmist, but verbal abuse can sometimes advance into forms of physical abuse, endangering you and any children you may have. If counseling doesn’t work, it may be necessary to leave an abusive situation, so research your options ahead of time and always keep your own and your children’s safety a top priority. Don’t hesitate to report it to authorities if you become a victim of physical abuse. The Domestic Violence Hotline, which offers 24/7 service in all 50 states, is 1-800-799-SAFE, (7233). If you believe you’re in imminent danger, you can call 911.

Mary Kathryn “M.K.” Jones


Founder of Women Who Walk the Talk™