The Anatomy of a Control Freak

Stephen Fagan always needed to be in charge. When he bought a house that needed extensive renovations, he oversaw the work himself. He ordered his second wife, Barbara, to say “I love you” into the phone whenever he called. He demanded that she stand in the front window each day and wave until he drove out of sight. This behavior was all part of his carefully constructed world—a world of compulsive control that began falling apart in the spring of 1998. That’s when Fagan was arrested at his Palm Beach mansion for the 1979 kidnapping of his own baby daughters from a previous marriage after a bitter divorce.

While Fagan says he rescued his girls from a neglectful mother, his first and second wives claim Stephen was a Control Freak who went way, way too far.  It’s hard to argue with their assessment. Who wouldn’t agree that Stephen Fagan was a categorical Control Freak (not to mention a full blown psychopath)? You don’t need to be a clinical psychologist to see that this guy’s controlling tendencies are out of control. All the signs are there and then some. Most Control Freaks, however, the ones you and I rub shoulders with, are not nearly that obvious. Still, if you know what to look for, they become relatively easy to spot. The Top  Ten Traits of a Control Freak Of course, the most obvious and overarching characteristic of these people is the desperate desire to be in control. But there’s more to this desire than meets the eye. Here are the top ten traits: obnoxious, tenacious, invasive, obsessive, perfectionistic, critical, irritable, demanding, rigid, and closed-minded.

Obnoxious Right off the top, Control Freaks can be characterized as people who are offensive. The term, obnoxious, comes from the Latin noxious, which means hurtful. And many Control Freaks certainlycause harm. They injure nearly every relationship they have with their controlling and pernicious ways.  Tim, a new professor fresh out of graduate school is a good example. I observed him for almost four years at the university where I teach. Wanting to make a good impression on his dean and his colleagues, Tim made every effort to follow his job description to the T. He always arrived at his classes well ahead of schedule, worked hard to mentor students outside of class, attended every faculty meeting and kept fastidious notes on the proceedings, published respectable articles in leading journals, volunteered his services in the community and submitted quarterly reports of his accomplishments to his dean. He was a model scholar and superb professor.  But Tim had a problem. He expected everyone around him, even senior ranking faculty members, to do the same things he did. Tim never hid an opinion. Regardless of rank or standing, Tim would point out his colleague’s foibles and make suggestions on how they could improve. He once told me in no uncertain terms that I was disrespecting my students if I didn’t wear a tie to class.

He would sometimes quote, verbatim, rules and regulations from the faculty handbook to show how others weren’t pulling their weight. He was a stickler for proper procedure in meetings, often hurting others feelings with his desire to follow Roberts Rules of Order.  If that weren’t enough, Tim would often point to casual statements made by his fellow professors in a previous meeting, statements he had recorded in his notebook, and show them how they were inconsistent or misleading. In short, Tim was a Control Freak and his most outstanding quality was being obnoxious. Nobody, but nobody, seemed to enjoy his company.  In case you are wondering, Tim (not his real name) never made it to tenured status. His colleagues dismissed his application out of hand, in spite of his long list of professional accomplishments, because of a “lack of collegiality.” The dismissal report could have just as easily, but not nearly as politely, said he was an obnoxious Control Freak that didn’t get along with others and nobody would have disagreed.

Tenacious A little boy was on the back porch playing sort of rough with his reluctant cat. When they got to making a sizable commotion, his mother heard it and hollered to him, “Johnny, are you pulling the cat’s tail?” “No, Mama,” the little boy said, “I’m just holding her tail. She’s doing all the pulling.” Control Freaks are a lot like Johnny. If someone suggests a new way of doing something, for example, they fiercely resist by holding onto the way they want things done, no matter how loud the commotion.  Stubborn is another way to describe them. I know a Control Freak who will stick to his opinion like a pit bull holding onto a bone. It doesn’t matter how illogical his argument, or how insignificant his point, he won’t let go. It’s part of the Control Freak Code: “Don’t ever, ever, ever, give in.”

This fellow, for example, could easily spend several minutes correcting a story you are telling because he’s convinced that when you said Monday, it was really a Wednesday. No matter that it makes absolutely no difference to the story, he wants to be right. So, even when you loudly protest, he won’t let go of his point until you give in or give up.  Once Control Freaks set their sights on a particular point or goal, there is no arguing them out of it. Compromise is unspeakable. They are right, and everyone else is wrong—period, end of discussion. Seventeenth-century clergyman, Henry Ward Beecher, must have had Control Freaks in mind when he said, “The difference between perseverance and obstinacy is that one comes from a strong will, and the other from a strong won’t.”  Invasive I once counseled a man who grew up with a controlling father. Everything he did as a boy was under his father’s watchful eye. It was more than wanting to know where the boy went and who he was with. This father took careful inventory of his son’s room. Like a private detective, he would rifle through the boys knapsack and desk drawers on a regular basis, not looking for anything in particular, just being nosy.

Control Freaks have little respect for privacy and often snoop in areas that aren’t their business.  Some Control Freaks exhibit their invasive quality, not so much by snooping in other’s belongings, as they do by poking around in people’s private lives. “How much did you pay for that watch?” they will ask boldly. “It is true that your brother might be losing his job?” Or, “Tell me what’s happening with you and your husband, I notice you don’t sit together in church anymore.” They are constantly probing, searching, inspecting, and hunting. Some Control Freaks will do whatever it takes to get personal or private information that’s none of their business.  Speaking of church, I’ve seen some “saintly” Control Freaks cloak their invasiveness in religious garb. “Why has the Lord put you on my heart?” they may ask as a way of getting their gossip fix. Or, “I want to pray for you, but I need to know what’s really going on in your life.” Not that every personally concerned parishioner is trying to invade your privacy, but when a Control Freak slips into a pew, it’s not uncommon. Invasive strategies and techniques come in all stripes and colors. But whatever form they take, you can be assured that experienced Control Freaks have used them most of them. Why? Because information is power. And the more power a Control Freak has, the better they feel.

So they dig and pry into other people’s lives, invading places where we have all but placed signs that read “Private,” “Keep Out.” But Control Freaks don’t think these signs apply to them.  Obsessive A friend recently told me of an experience he had at a luncheon with a couple dozen business leaders. They had come together to hear from a reputable economist who would be giving a speech about the recession. On a large flip chart, the speaker made a black spot with a heavy marker in the middle of the paper and asked a man on the front row what he saw. The man replied promptly, “A black spot.” The speaker asked every person the same question, one by one, and each replied, “A black spot.” With calm and deliberate emphasis, the speaker then walked pensively across the small platform, paused, and then said, “Yes, there is a little black spot, but none of you mentioned the large sheet of white paper it is on.” The speaker then stepped to the podium, gathered his notes, said “thank you,” and sat down.

My friend who attended the luncheon said the room was shockingly quiet for a few moments as the speaker took his seat. The host who was seated on the platform looked nervously around, not knowing what to do next. Then, one person in the back began to applaud. Then another. Soon every businessperson seated around each of the tables was clapping for the speaker. What had he taught them about the recession? That you’ve got to have perspective. You can’t focus on one small thing or one brief moment. You’ve got to see the big picture and put things in context. The message from this daring speaker was simple, but profound. And it’s a valuable lesson for everyone in the business world or not. But it’s wasted on nearly every Control Freak. You see, most Control Freaks are not interested in the big picture. They are zeroed in on some minor detail that often prevents them from seeing anything else. They may have a suspicion that something is going wrong in a relationship,

for example, so they obsess over every nuance of conversation and unintended gesture that the other person makes. They can’t seem to focus on anything other than the possible relationship rift.  At work, Control Freaks may focus exclusively on one particular problem that causes them to lose sight of other issues that are more important. They may become so consumed by the amount of space old files are taking up, for example, that they do not get to the job at hand because they are too busy trying to convince everyone that something needs to be done to purge the files. Or they may fear their upcoming jobperformance review will give them less than perfect marks. So they obsess endlessly about the possibilities and repercussions of a poor review that may not even occur.  Control Freaks obsess about anything and everything: a person’s offhanded remark, a haircut, getting shortchanged at the pharmacy, who someone else is dating, where people are seated around a conference table, their child’s friends, a remark they said last week to an associate on the phone, and on and on. Anything can become their “black spot” as they obsess, lose perspective, and neglect the big picture. Perfectionistic Listen carefully, and you will hear Control Freaks say under their breath, “I can’t believe I did that, what a jerk!”

They will berate themselves for not having everything go exactly the way they wanted it to. “I can’t believe I forgot my cell phone.” “Why didn’t I plan for rain?” “I should have known the bank would close early today.”  We all get frustrated from time to time because something throws a chink in the works, but the typical Control Freak can’t let it go. Since the bank is closed when they thought it would be open, they punish themselves (or get mad at the bank) and focus on how they have now thrown off their entire day. “I really needed to deposit this money today,” they might say. So you ask the logical question: “Did you write a check that might bounce since you didn’t get to make the deposit?” And they respond: “No, no. I just really wanted to get this off my to-do list and I was sure they were open. Why can’t I remember they close at six on Thursdays?”  Control Freaks demand perfection of themselves and everyone else. Few things are “good enough.” If you live with a Control Freak, you know this too well. For their perfectionistic ways set standards at home you never agreed to live by. It may not matter to you that the pillows on the couch need to be angled in the corner just so, but it does to them and you better figure that out. Right? Or maybe you couldn’t care less when the gas gauge in your family car goes below its halfway point, but you’ve learned that your Control Freak spouse doesn’t like to have it close, so you oblige and fill it up when you notice the red needle asking you to do so. This and countless other little quarks are done to appease the perfectionistic Control Freak.  I love what the French writer, Fraçois Fénelon, had to say about perfection. “It is only imperfection that complains of what is imperfect.

The more perfect we are, the more gentle and quiet we become toward the defects of others.” As a recovering Control Freak myself, I confess that I take these words to heart.  Critical I’ve often been puzzled by people who make their living from being critical. How do they get away with some of the things they say? Movie critics, for example, can lambaste a film that ends up being a box office smash and the critic’s reputation isn’t even tarnished. On a recent cross-country flight to D.C., I read a newspaper review of a just-released book that completely panned the author’s efforts. The critic’s comments made me curious. So during my layover in Chicago, I dashed into the airport bookstore and read the first couple of pages. I got hooked. I bought the book and thoroughly enjoyed it on the rest of my flight.  Like I said, I’ve often been puzzled by professional critics. In fact, I’ve made a habit of collecting “bad” reviews. One of my favorites is of the original 1946 Broadway production of Annie Get Your Gun. One critic wrote, “Irving Berlin’s score is musically not exciting or even tuneful.” Annie Get Your Gun ended up being Berlin’s greatest stage success, running more than a thousand performances on Broadway and resulting in some of the most popular songs ever. When Fiddler on the Roof came out, a respected critic said, “It seems clear this is no smash hit.” It became the third longest run in Broadway history. When the movie Gone With the Wind came into theaters, one summed it up by saying, “No Civil War picture ever made a nickel.” And in 1964 when Ronald Reagan was up for a starring role in a movie to play the president of the United States, a critic said, “Reagan doesn’t have the presidential look.”  Surly these critics must have lost their jobs, right? Hardly. It seems being critical, even when your criticism is unwarranted or off base, doesn’t always do that much damage. It’s just part of their job. But when unsolicited criticism comes from an unpaid Control Freak, you can be assured that damage will be done. Anyone who has to live or work with a critic who isn’t collecting a paycheck for being critical knows what I mean. Control Freaks can be some of the most painfully critical people you’ll ever meet. It seems they can’t keep their critical comments in check. They blurt out their critique as easily as a professional reviewer gives a “thumbs down” to a movie.  The question is why? Why do Control Freaks dispense critical comments so willy-nilly when it’s not their job? As one who can be prone to critical comments myself, I’ll tell you why. Control Freaks often think critical comments will somehow make something or someone better. Of course, it never does, but this doesn’t keep them from trying to control through criticism. “Those black shoes don’t do much for your outfit,” a Control Freak girlfriend might say. “You’d look better wearing brown flats with that skirt.” Of course, her friend puts on the brown shoes.

Or in the case of a marriage: “I’m embarrassed to pull up in front of our house with so many weeds in our lawn,” a controlling wife might say to her husband. Guess who gets right to work in the yard? So if you’re puzzled by this Control Freak trait, wonder no more. You see, criticism for the Control Freak is a terrific tool for getting people to do what you want them to do.  Irritable Cranky and contentious. Touchy and testy. These were the kinds of words that pop into people’s minds to describe Roberta. She is a realtor in a large agency just outside of Houston. Successful. Very successful. For three years straight, Roberta was the top selling agent in the city. How’d she do it? By working longer and harder than most everyone else. Roberta was also a self-confessed Control Freak who would oversee every aspect of the sales she made, for both the buyer and the seller. She didn’t want anyone else in her office making a mistake that would reflect badly on her so she handled everything herself. But at a price— being known as the most irascible and irritable person within miles. Everyone who worked with Roberta, except her clients, knew to walk around on eggshells if they didn’t want to set her off. The tiniest of things could ruin her day. One time she sulked all afternoon because the district manager of her agency came through town and did not invite her to a lunch meeting.

On another occasion, she became cranky because the battery on her cell phone would not recharge properly. She once chewed out an underling because a “sold” sign wasn’t posted on a property the day she requested it to be. On more than one occasion she has thrown a major fit because one of her colleagues taking a message for her did not write down the correct phone number of a client. When a train crossing caused her to be late for a meeting with a potential buyer at a property, she actually honked at the passing train as if it would go faster and then whined about it all afternoon back in the office. examples could go on, but the point is that Roberta, like so many other Control Freaks, is one of the most irritable persons you’ll ever meet.  When Control Freaks don’t get their way, there is no mistaking it. They have a seeming inability to go with the flow. When they encounter opposition, no matter how logical, they become cross, crabby, and cranky. Little things tic them off: a messy top on a bottle of ketchup, a car that is parked on the “wrong” side of the driveway, a flashlight not being where it is “supposed” to be, and on and on. For Control Freaks, anything and everything can be cause for a hissy fit. Demanding “Jenny, give me that!” Dan yelled at his wife. “No, I won’t! It’s mine. It’s mine!” she retorted. “Give it to me right now!” Dan grabbed at her paycheck but Jenny had a good hold on it, and before they knew it, the check was ripped in two. Jenny was tired of handing over all financial matters to her controlling husband, but Dan responded in characteristic Control Freak style: by demanding.  This is a mainstay for Control Freaks. To get their way, they often resort to making demands. Like a kidnapper who is trying to secure a ransom, they order people around at their whim and fancy. In addition to trying to control the checkbook, Dan, for example, often barks at Jenny to make him oatmeal in the morning. He insists that she never, ever touch the stereo equipment in their family room.

Dan makes Jenny answer the phone in another room, so as not to disturb him, if he is watching a game on TV. He may even require Jenny to wear a certain outfit when they go to dinner with friends. No doubt about it, Dan is in charge.  Like a brigadier general controlling his troops, a Control Freak often shouts orders and expects everyone to follow them. If you live or work with this kind of person you know how belittling, how demeaning it sometimes feels. And like Jenny, you may have tried to draw the line and put an end to being bossed around, but that doesn’t stop most Control Freaks. They go right on commanding and demanding.  Like I said, it’s one of their mainstays. They muster up a demanding demeanor hoping it will keep them more in control. What the Control Freak doesn’t understand is what the French writer from the Fourteenth Century, Michel de Montaigne, said so eloquently: “He who establishes his argument by noise and command shows that his reason is weak.”  Rigid In the television hit Seinfeld, one of the most popular episodes was based on a real-life situation and titled “The Soup Nazi.” It centered around a feisty man running a small eatery where New Yorkers stood outside in long lines to enjoy take-out orders of this guy’s delicious soup creations. The catch? Customers had to put up with this Control Freak’s rigid rules. Only one customer in the store at a time. Place your order immediately. Do not point. Don’t ask questions. Pay and leave. If you wanted to feast on these tasty soups, you did as the man said. And if you didn’t? “No soup for you,” the Soup Nazi would snap. “Come back three months.”  The episode struck a chord with viewers because we all know Control Freaks who live by rigid rules and expect us to do the same. And we may even know the feeling of wanting what a Control Freak has to offer, and putting up with ridiculous demands in order to get it.

My wife and I once hired a gardener who spoke mostly Russian. He did outstanding work. You couldn’t find a weed in our yard if he’d been there. He could get interesting things to grow in our planters. He trained the ivy to curl up our retaining wall the way we wanted. And the trees in our yard seemed to do whatever he commanded.  The problem? He’d never let us know when he would show up to work. Maybe next week or next month. Maybe never at all. We never knew. What’s worse, he might leave mid-way through a project and not tell us when he’d return. He was in charge of his schedule and he only worked when he wanted to work. If we tried to get him to nail down a date, he’d snap, “No work dat way.” He was rigid about it. Most Control Freaks are.  They have one way of doing things —their way. Control Freaks can be as inflexible as a drill sergeant in trying to force their methods on you. They want life to run a certain way and aren’t willing to budge from their regimen. Their exacting details for preparing a salad (or soup), for driving a car, for raking leaves, and anything else are not to be questioned. They “know” what’s best for everyone and only “allow” others to take the reins if they follow their rules.  Closed-Minded One more quality makes the top ten list for Control Freaks. Most of these people are not interested in discussion. It’s as if they have all the truth and anyone who disagrees with them is suspect. They fail to recognize that only God has all the truth. They feel no need to examine both sides of any issue. Their mind is made up before they even hear that there is another side to an issue. So they circle the wagons to protect their opinions and deny even an effort at clarification, balance, and understanding, to say nothing of building community with people who do not see things exactly as they do.  “My mind is made up and there is no changing it,”

Ron said to all of us sitting around a conference table. We were in a board meeting discussing an agenda item that had potential to modify the direction in which this non-profit organization we were representing was headed. Many of us felt the change might be for the better. It would have allowed financial pressures to be lessened while still maintaining the core cause and mission of the organization. But Ron, the board chair, would hear nothing of it. He put an end to the conversation before it even got going. “Won’t you consider hearing from some of the committee members who have been studying this for more than a month?” a brave board member pressed him. “I’ve read their report,” said Ron, “I’ve heard their concerns, and I reject them. I’ve already told you why. Next item.”  Ron’s zeal for sticking to the organization’s original mission was blinding him to how the original mission would be fulfilled and expanded if he would be open to hearing opinions that did not match his own. But like many Control Freaks, Ron refused. And he left many of us wondering why we, along with our opinions, were even needed. Take help from telephone counseling.

A few days after I left that meeting, a fellow board member sent me a sad but thoughtful note in which he quoted English poet William Blake: “The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind.” This fellow went on to say in his note that he was resigning because Ron’s thinking was too constricted, his mind too closed, for hope of any potential dialogue down the road. Sadly, many Control Freaks close their minds before they allow good thoughts to enter. And ultimately, this causes them to close their hearts to people who would also like to have a place in their life—if only there were room.  _Les Parrott is founder of the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University and the author of The Control Freak. Les is also the co-author (with his wife) of Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts and Love Talk. Visit Dr. Parrott’s website at www. RealRelationships.com._

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