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

Tip #2: Build up your ability to put up with imperfection. Look up “control freak” in a thesaurus, and you’ll find “perfectionist” as a synonym. When things aren’t done perfectly, it’s stressful. So in order to reduce your stress, you intervene. It “works,” but done over and over, keeping things perfect is exhausting.

But more importantly, intervening keeps you from learning that you can wait out your stress. So next time you get the urge to straighten the shoe rack or re-do your kid’s science project, wait ten minutes. The first couple minutes will be uncomfortable, but then it will get easier. As the minutes tick by, intervening will seem less urgent. This is called “distress tolerance,” and it’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s enduring distress with the knowledge that what goes up, must eventually come down, even if you don't de-fuse your stress by correcting your partner's grammar.

Tip #3: Delegate. This is a hard one. At first, letting someone else be in charge will feel weird and wrong. And things won’t get done the way you prefer. But guess what? They will get done, and it won’t be a disaster. You probably won’t like it, but it won’t be as bad as you think. With your newfound distress tolerance, you’ll know the urge to intervene is temporary.

To supersize this tip, shift it to “delegate and don’t critique or re-do.” So try it out: let someone else drive and refrain from giving turn-by-turn directions. Don’t re-load the dishwasher after your helpful houseguest leaves. Make your kids fold their own laundry in the name of gaining life skills and don’t touch the result. Your brain will learn that the world doesn’t end. And that’s better than any perfect pile of laundry.

Tip #4: Consider how it comes across. Re-packing your partner’s suitcase, over-helping with your kid’s homework, or other controlling behaviors show two things, neither of them particularly good. First, it shows you don’t trust them. Second, it shows you think they’re not capable. If you’re the only one who can do things right, that means everyone else does things wrong, which doesn’t exactly come across as supportive to family or welcoming to guests.

Tip #5: Get older. This is an easy one. A study from over 20 years ago found that as we age, we naturally gain greater flexibility and more satisfaction with life in the present. What’s more, as we get older, our awareness that we can’t control everything grows, and our tendency towards control freakishness shrinks.

To wrap it all up, control is a natural human need; indeed, not being able to control anything in your life would be a one-way ticket to depression. But it can go too far. So next time you have the urge to say, “I can show you the right way to do that,” remind yourself that everyone has their own best way of doing things. Allow another way, and not only will your brain learn it isn’t a disaster and that others can be capable, you might just learn a new way to, say, change a tire or fold a fitted sheet.

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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.