(transfer post, previously published on HubPages, as a Hub in reply to question in HP's "Answers" section)
Controlling Other People - Why Do Some People Try to Do That?
Observations and remarks on people who try to control others in relationships (and the negative consequences of doing so).
A Look at Controlling and Relationships
The question, "Why do people want to try to control other people?" is one that may be asked by someone who is simply curious, someone who has been the victim of a another person with a genuinely controlling personality, or someone who sees another person's behavior/beliefs as a "wish to control others" when, in fact, it is something else completely. In other words, this is a question that has built into it a lot of "colors" that mean addressing it requires a multi-faceted answer. In other words, while there are certainly people who have a wish to control one or more other people, the matter of why they do can range from something as reasonably understandable as having a tendency/personality that leans towards over-estimating a two-year-old's need to have some degree of control over his own body/actions to the most demented forms of wanting control which are components of crimes such as child abuse and rape.
It is not the aim here to address the sickest degree of wanting control that could be said to "fall at the high end of wanting control spectrum", because when the question about people want to control others arises it usually isn't about disturbed criminals. It's usually about the common interactions between parents and kids, spouses, partners, colleagues, and/or lawmakers who are seen as over-stepping boundaries and limiting the freedoms of others.
PEOPLE WITH GENUINELY CONTROLLING PERSONALITIES/TENDENCIES
The fact is that in normal, day-to-day, interactions we run into people who do have controlling personalities. Again, emphasizing that what looks like a controlling personality and what really is that are not always the same thing, genuinely controlling personalities can range from mild to extreme. Compared to the relationship between two people with non-controlling personalities; in the relationship when one person is more controlling, one person often has a dominant nature or else a wish to dominate the other person/people. In other words, the wish to control someone else even when no physical attack/force is used) is generally a matter of being more aggressive (except in situations where parents try to exercise more control than may be appropriate, in which case they may not be aggressive, but instead simply misjudge the appropriateness of the degree of control they believe parents should exercise over children).
In adults who have controlling personalities, accompanying some degree of being more aggressive is often a sense of being very intelligent and/or generally capable. This is not to imply that people who know they are intelligent and/or capable always have controlling personalities because, quite simply they don't. In fact, people who have the "right kind" of intelligence (the kind associated with a solid understanding of people) are usually "smart" enough to know that they have no right to attempt to control others. Although this is based purely on speculation, there is at least the possibility that it is degree of aggressiveness that may (at least in come cases of controlling personalities) make the difference between being intelligent/capable AND controlling and being "merely intelligent/capable" without also being controlling.
People who have lived their lives, knowing that they are intelligent/capable, often come to see themselves as superior to (what seems to them) the large number of others who are less intelligent/capable. Sometimes people build their own self-image on some fairly isolated aspects of their own life. For example, the person who enjoyed a reputation as the "smartest kid in school" (perhaps because s/he was the class "math wiz", in addition to generally getting high grades in school) may tend to build his self-image on that. This may be a person who has below-average intelligence in the area of understanding human nature or social skills, but he may not realize that his form of intelligence is not the only form. Therefore, he comes to see himself as "smarter than most other people". Another example of how capability can be something on which a person may build an inflated self-esteem may be the person who is the only one of his many siblings to own a home, the only or first one in his family to graduate college, or "the one" in the family who is known for managing his money well.
How much a person comes to see his own level of capability as reason for feeling superior to other people can also depend on his values. The person who places inappropriate value on being older than someone else may see that as reason to feel superior. People who think that only young people "know anything" may think they are superior to people who are older. There are any number of things in life that can make some people see themselves are being more capable than others; and unless they are fairly free of aggressive tendencies, that can lead them to think they have a right to want to control others.
Some people, of course, aren't people to try to control anyone other than those close to them. That is often because many people confuse love with control; and, in fact, there can be an unhealthy tendency to objectify loved ones and believe their is ownership of them.
Just as it is known that some children in a multi-sibling home can be singled out for abuse, some women may be "more the type" to become the targets of attempts of others to control them. Even boys and men with softer appearance/demeanor and/or youthful appearances may have to struggle more others' attempts to be controlling. People who "seem young" or "seem soft" because of their appearance but who, in fact, are mature, independent, and strong in their thinking may be seen by those with a controlling nature as "out of line" in their belief that someone has no right to control over them.
While being controlling is certainly not the exclusive domain of men, and while there are certainly men who are well adjusted and not "out to control everyone else", many fathers, husbands, boyfriends, and even older brothers are guilty of believing they have a right to control younger people, elderly people, and (especially) female people. At the same time, most of us have worked with a female, co-worker who operates as a "control freak". Many of us, too, know some very young girls who attempt to control others (or at least the situation) through manipulation.
In general, when it comes to people who are genuinely and inappropriately controlling, there are the elements of "ego issues" and degrees of aggressive personalities. Many attempt to "appoint themselves everyone else's/someone else's parent", regardless of whether they are someone's parent or whether their child has outgrown the need to be "parented".
(On a personal note, many of the "control-freak" people I've met in my own life are generally decent, loving, people with an over-inflated sense of their own importance; and without, apparently, having had parents who sufficiently pointed out the equal importance/value/capability of other people when they were kids.)
PEOPLE WHO APPEAR TO BE CONTROLLING BUT DON'T NECESSARILY HAVING CONTROLLING PERSONALITIES
There may be two different groups of people who fall under this category. The first are often well adjusted, loving, parents who exercise (or try to exercise) some degree of control over what children do. Their motives are simple (and even pure): They want what is best for their children and know that parents must, at times, exercise some degree of control.
The fact is parents do need to have some degree of control in their relationships with their children, and one of the biggest challenges between parents and kids is often how much control is correct/appropriate at any given time at any given child's stage of development. In general, there are some generally accepted guidelines with regard to how much control parents should have over children, but within those rough guidelines there is a lot of room for individual differences. For example, most people agree that allowing a two-year-old to wear lipstick (except for Halloween) is grossly inappropriate, but not everyone agrees about whether, when, were, or even what color lipstick a thirteen-year-old should wear. The ten-year-old who thinks she should be wearing lipstick to school may think her parents are "too controlling" if they "make an issue" out of this. Most people (at least those mature enough to see all the possible consequences) would agree that this kid who wants to do something "ridiculous" and "inappropriate. If the same girl's parents "make an issue" out of lipstick four years later many of those same people would see them as "a little too controlling".
Good parents will "control" the three-year-old who will run into the street by holding his hand. Good parents will tell a ten-year-old he can't watch television until his homework his done. On the other hand, parents who are a little too controlling may expect their child to eat more than he feels like eating, or to eat foods he hates. Parents who are too controlling may not allow their child to have a phone conversation without wanting to hear it.
To further muddy the matter of parents and control, however, are individual differences among kids. The seventh-grader who is simply having conversations with his friends online wouldn't warrant parental "spying", while the seventh-grader who is believed by parents to be "dabbling" in drugs may call for more parental vigilance (and, yes, even control). Both the three-year-old, whose parents grabbed his hand rather than allowing him to run into the street as he wanted; and the twelve-year-old who has taken what could be the first steps down a destructive path; will resent parents' taking steps to control their activities. Neither is mature enough to see the potential dangers, but no good parent (even the one without a controlling cell in his body) would sit back and allow his child to head for disaster.
The control issue becomes a bigger one when kids are teens (or even in their early twenties) because it is so obvious that they aren't three years old any longer. Although some parents (the ones with "control issues") may try to control their older kids more than is appropriate, much of the time what looks like a wish to control older kids simply is not that. Often, the conflict arises because young people are - quite simply - young. Their brains have not reached complete maturity. (A PBS special on the teen brain pointed out that the prefrontal cortex does reach full maturity until "early- to mid-twenties".) The exact extent to which that contributes to any one young person's belief that nothing bad is going to happen to him may not be clear; because sometimes even adults who have not seen enough "bad things" happen to them have a similar innocence (less politely - aka, "stupidity").
When a sixteen-year-old's parents won't let him take the car out nights it isn't always that they are controlling people. They may be among the least controlling people in the world, but they may know the risk of letting inexperienced drivers have too much freedom with cars. They may, for example, just want their child to get some limited driving experience before allowing him carte blanche with the car. They may think, too, that limiting the car until he reaches the "legal" age of eighteen may build in a period of gaining experience before having absolute freedom. The teen (particularly the one with friends who have unlimited use of a car) may see his parents as "controlling". What he can't see is that those same parents will see things very differently once he is just a little older.
The fact is that normal parents love their kids in a way that only other parents can understand. Besides their desire to be good, solid, responsible, parents; most parents are absolutely terrified that their son or daughter (out of nothing more "evil" than the simple "innocence" of youth) will make a mistake that destroys their future, or even ends, their life before they ever get to really live it.
Even when parents are more than aware that their son or daughter is grown-up (but hasn't been grown up for very long) and are more than aware that they have no right to attempt to control them, they may still appear to be trying to control them (at least in the eyes of the freshly grown-up person of 18 or even 23) when they continue to try to influence them. Essentially, if a young adult is willing to allow his parents' preferences to determine his decisions he is likely to feel that his parents still have control over him. At the same time, the young person who doesn't allow his parents' preferences/urgings change his behavior may feel free of their control but may make terrible mistakes.
If I may share a perfect-example story: When I was 19/20 years old I, like most other people of that age, was enjoying the freedom of staying out as late as I wanted as often as I wanted with my girlfriends. The freedom of not having to pay attention to the clock, and of being out driving around and having long conversations about life, was great. My girlfriends and I knew we weren't doing anything wrong whatsoever. All we were doing was talking (and sometimes going from one coffee shop/fast food place to another, in our wish to just be out and being with friends). My parents were not controlling people. They did, however, frequently urge me not to "be out at all hours, all the time". They just kept saying, "Something is more likely to happen, the more you're out driving around at all hours." I wasn't a stupid person, and I was far more mature than a lot of people my age were. Still, I reasoned that my parents were "worrying over nothing", and I assumed it was because they were not aware of how absolutely innocent our activity was. (I never even drove fast. Neither did my girfriends. My friends and I were "sensible young people".)
Well, we defied the odds for a while, until one night a drunk came out of nowhere, killed my girlfriend, and left me with a change life and change outlook on it. I lived to see that my parents had been right. My girlfriend did not have that luxury. I turned the "completely adult age" of 21 a few weeks later. Although my parents had not attempted to control me beyond what was appropriate for my age, one could see their frequent urgings not to "be out driving at all hours, all the time" as some version of an attempt to influence/control my activities. The point is if they tried to influence me the reason was that they knew something I wasn't mature enough to believe.
Much of the time when parents of almost-grown, and recently grown, sons and daughters attempt to influence them, it isn't about trying to be controlling. It's about having lived long enough to have seen a lot of what can happen and not wanting their son or daughter to have unnecessary disaster in his/her life.
The second group of people who may not have particularly controlling personalities, but who seem to want to control others, are often the people who vote for, or make, laws that are seen as infringing on the freedoms of others. Sometimes laws do step on the rights of others too much. Sometimes they only step on the rights of people who want the freedom to do things that voters/law-makers think may be detrimental to society as a whole. While there may certainly be some voters/law-makers who have an unhealthy wish to control others in general, some don't. Some simply believe they are supporting a law that is in the best interest of the public.
OTHER GENERAL THOUGHTS ON CONTROL
Another point that may be worth mentioning relates to yet another possible scenario when one person is "accused" of wanting to control others, even when he may not have a controlling cell in his body. This is when a person values, and has a lot of, self-control. People who, themselves, have a lot of self-control are often misunderstood. Some people don't care what anyone else does but happen to value self-control in general. These may be people who exercise a lot of self-control, who like having control in their own lifes as well (who doesn't?), and who believe in encouraging self-control and control of one's own life in young people.
This may be parents or teachers who, themselves, don't, for example, go out and drunk. They may see going out and getting drunk as unappealing (or even dangerous), and they may try to discourage it in young people for that reason. The combination of someone's obvious leanings toward his own self-control, and toward exercising a lot of control with regard to his own life, can make something like trying to discourage young people from getting drunk for "entertainment" as "controlling". In other words, the general picture of a person who has a lot of control in his own life and cause others to jump to the conclusion that such a person wants a similar degree of control over others. The point is there are people who care only about their own control over their own lives, and who may know that self-control is generally a positive thing in life, who simply have no wish to control anybody else, but many people who aren't as "skilled" with self-control may just grossly misunderstand it in others.
This is also speculation and a matter of personal observation, but it would seem that there's the chance that people who have grown up with parents who were deemed to be "inappropriately controlling" (whether that was truly the case, or whether a particularly "independent minded" child just experienced his parents' rules/expectations as "too controlling') may have more of a tendency to interpret a lot of the behavior/opinions of others as "trying to control", even when that is not the case. Possibly, another group of people who see "controlling" when it is not present are those people who project their own wish to control on everyone else.
When all is said and done (and after removing from the equation appropriate parental control at the different stages of a child's life; and removing, too, those times when what looks like an attempt to control really is not what someone thinks it is), no adult has a right to attempt to control any other adult. It's that simple, and yet that concept seems to be a very difficult one for many people to grasp. There is a reason that we all became so familiar with that line used by kids at a fairly young age, "You aren't the boss of me." As adults, we may smile at the wisdom of that line we may have used on our childhood playmates. As adults, however, none of us should live under someone else's belief that he/she is "the boss of us" - and none of us should have to struggle to assert our own right to control over ourselves and our own life.
First HP PUB Date: 04/27/09