5 Ways to Stop Being a Control Freak

Are you the dictator of your corner of the world? If your theme song is Frank Sinatra’s My Way, check out this week’s five tips from Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #135

Being a control freak isn’t all bad. Indeed, if you’re a control freak, you’re probably super competent and super efficient. You have high standards. You’re a go-getter. You get things done right the first time.

Plus, when things are spiraling, a little extra control can be healthy coping. If you’ve lost your job, strict structure and discipline around finding another one is good. If your child is seriously ill, knowing every inch of her medical chart is a natural reaction. For me, after core-shaking disasters like Hurricane Katrina or Sandy Hook, I find myself getting strict about exercise. It took me awhile to make the connection, but I realized that when the world makes me feel small and helpless, I cope by literally trying to be strong.

But of course, there’s a dark side to control. Complete control can never be achieved, so you can never relax. Relaxation, including sleep, feels unproductive or weak, which leaves you exhausted. No one else can reach your standards, which leaves you lonely. And when forced to collaborate, without quite meaning to, you use a collection of sharp, pointy tools—criticism, judgment, and micromanaging—to keep your anxiety at bay.

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That’s right: anxiety. Control is a cover for anxiety. Here’s how it works: anxiety is caused by uncertainty. You don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s unclear if your decisions were exactly right. There’s no guarantee that everything will be okay. So being a control freak is the attempt to eliminate all uncertainty. Scratch a control freak, and underneath, you’ll find fear. Knowing that you’re just scared might help people who love you but roll their eyes at you feel more compassionate, but it also might help to put down the label-maker.

If that’s not enough, here are five things to try before you make a list of New Year’s resolutions ... for someone else.

Tip #1: Expand your definition of “control.” We can’t control whether we live or die, but we can control exactly what our family eats, which model lawnmower is the right one to buy, or which towel is appropriate to dry the dog. This kind of control is called “primary control,” and it’s defined as “the attempt to win mastery by striving for goals and asserting one’s will upon circumstances.” This is what most people mean when they think of being in control.

But there’s also something called “secondary control,” which is adapting to the things that can’t be controlled. Call it acceptance, call it reframing, call it making sense of things, call it making lemonade out of lemons. In short, primary control is changing the world to fit yourself, while secondary control is changing yourself to fit the world.

According to a recent study out of Johns Hopkins, both primary and secondary control go along with feeling happy, but only primary control also goes along with being unhappy. What’s more, secondary control was associated more strongly with life satisfaction.

In another study in the journal Developmental Psychology, researchers examined more than 350 people who were losing their vision due to macular degeneration, a progressive and irreversible condition. The researchers checked in with each participant at 6-month intervals over two years and found that those who shifted their control strategies from primary to secondary had higher happiness and lower depression. As their ability to see and get around independently declined, using secondary control strategies went along with better well-being.

Now, the benefits of secondary control don’t mean you have to morph into a go-with-the-flow hippie. It just means that both parts of the classic serenity prayer are correct—so try some of each and have the wisdom to know the difference.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.