Controlling behaviour and the need for perfection

When we work face to face with people who are experiencing anxiety disorders a common theme often arises – they are usually unaware of how controlling they are. We ask are you methodical? And they say yes. We ask are you a bit fussy? And they say yes. And we ask are you controlling? And they say no, not really.

If you think about it, a person who is methodical (or fussy) is methodical because they know how they want things to be – and because they know how they want things to be, they have to control life, events and people so that their desired outcome prevails! Therefore, control and perfection are two key facets of behaviour that underlie anxiety based conditions – or to be more precise control and perfection are tools used to avoid uncomfortable emotions.

Everyone around them knows they are controlling, yet, somehow, the anxious person is able to justify (to themselves) that it is OK and there is a good reason to have a high attention to detail and to control things in a way where the outcomes are as managed as possible.

So what are anxious people trying to control?

Basically, they are trying to avoid emotional discomfort – and that discomfort may come in a number of varying forms:

  • Avoiding being overwhelmed by their emotions
  • Avoiding being rejected or belittled – because that will hurt emotionally
  • Avoiding failing in an endeavour – because it will feel bad
  • Avoiding feeling less than or not good enough
  • Avoiding failing because they will beat themselves up in their own mind
  • Avoiding losing face or looking silly – as they will feel less than..
  • Avoiding not living up to some external expectation

So, what it is really about is avoiding the discomfort of their emotions or the stories in their mind of who they should be and how they should act in the world. Typically, there are a few more common types of controlling behaviours;

The anger and fear based controller – Generally these people rule by fear and the threat of anger, shouting or dominating those around them to act in ways that won’t fire off their insecurities – like stopping a partner going out with friends because they would worry all night. Usually, these peoples bark is worse than their bite, but it is still irksome to be controlled in this manner.

The knowledge / expertise type controller – This type of anxious person uses logic, reason, facts and an “I am better than you” pompous air to intimidate and get others to doubt themselves and do what they are told. These people are usually hiding a lot of anxiety and tend to be very inflexible in the way they view the world and feel that knowledge and understanding will keep them safe, of course this is a fallacy because those around them don’t bother to argue and just agree with them for a quiet life.

The manipulative controller – Are perhaps the most annoying to those who support them, because they are the ones who most deeply need to remain in control of all outcomes (due to their underlying fears) they will do anything to get their way, they use flattery, bribery, emotional blackmail (“well, if you loved me you would do it…“) and any other manipulative and deceptive tool to get their own way.

Regardless of how you may control others to avoid your fears – none of these behaviours address the underlying issue, which is, “I am afraid to just let life unfold around me and trust that I will be OK, I am afraid to experience discomfort or embarrassment – I am afraid of failing or being judged badly, I am afraid of my emotions!

The trap of avoiding discomfort by being perfect

Being a perfectionist is basically doing the same as being a control freak – you are trying to avoid bad feelings by doing things as well as you can. However, when it comes to perfectionism it has three main drivers, firstly, a self consciousness, whereby you feel you are being judged by others and therefore need to excel or you won’t feel good enough. And secondly, you are living to a set of invisible rules that define what ‘good enough’ is in your mind, we might call these rules self-beliefs or values and many come from our informative years and parental experiences.

Often these rules are out-of-date or only important to you not others. For example we know of a woman who has a cleaning OCD, yet won’t admit anything is wrong, she cleans for 3 hours each day and just says “I just like it to be tidy in-case people pop in” however, people don’t pop in because they feel too uncomfortable as they are scared to put their coffee cup on the table! This is a classic case of a lose-lose situation masquerading as a win-win situation.

The third element to consider when perfectionism is disrupting your life – is, what is your personality type? Because there are a few personality profiles that lean towards self-consciousness, a need to please others and a fear of failing. Just knowing that these feelings are intrinsic to your way of thinking may be very liberating  for some, along with a realisation that others don’t feel the same way – suddenly, you have a new context within which you can begin to challenge your beliefs and become more flexible in your behaviours.

What controlling people they say & what they mean…

Just for fun (but to make a point) here are some translations from what the anxious controlling person says and what their family and friends hear!

What the controlling person says

I just like it that way…

What you need to do is xyz…

If you loved me you wouldn’t do that….

I just can’t…

But it needs to be perfect…

But I need your help…

What their family hear

Your way is wrong…

You don’t know what to do, but I do, you are an idiot…

You are blackmailing me, that isn’t love…

I just won’t…

I won’t start anything unless I know I won’t fail…

It is OK for you to have discomfort but not me…

Real confidence is feeling OK when you are out of control!

True confidence is an attitude where you think to yourself – “I don’t know what will happen, but I’ll probably be OK” – what this really means is “Whatever emotion I experience as an outcome of whatever life or other people throw at me, it is only an emotion, and I am OK with my emotions good or bad, my emotions don’t define my me, my actions do, regardless of their outcomes.

Most people can’t really argue with that sentence, except to say something like “It makes sense, but I could never be OK with fearful emotions or anxiety.” Well, the Calmness In Mind anxiety and depression treatment program teaches you how emotions work, how to befriend them and how to be OK with discomfort. That way, you don’t need to control things to avoid discomfort and you no longer need things to be perfect to avoid uncomfortable emotions.

As you begin the journey to free yourself from yourself – it often comes as quite a surprise that is wonderful to face life with no need to control things, quite liberating and very exciting. Perhaps if you follow this course perfectly you’ll find a new you?

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My name is John Glanvill and an Anxiety & OCD specialist. I overcame my own issues with mental illness and want to teach you how.

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My work is logical and rational and helps people with Anxiety, OCD and Depression to understand what is happening and what to do about it!