14 Signs You May Have A Controlling Personality

Chaos: it's all around us. It's the energy that moves our universe with its counterpart — order and control. Whether it's the controls we place upon ourselves or those around us, both attempt to place constraints and regulate the things out of our power. We all do this to some extent. However, control becomes an issue when it violates our own boundaries and that of others.

Psychotherapist Dr. David Maloney defines a controlling personality type as one that attempts to limit other people, various situations, and even their own lives, which can devolve into unhealthy behaviors we might not even be aware of.

It's not just a reaction to the world. Rather, when a person is controlling, it becomes a pattern of behavior that can have adverse effects on relationships, careers, and family life. As such, exploring the intricacies of these issues can be the first stepping stone in finding a better way to navigate the chaos, both within and without. Now, let's break down some signs that you might have a controlling personality.

You minimize or deny accusations of bad behavior

People minimize their behavior because facing their wrongdoing means admitting there is a fault with them. According to a 2019 study published in the Journal of Forensic Practice, we have evolved to protect the unconscious self against threats, which makes sense when you really think about it. However, by perceiving our failures, we become a threat to our own self-image. In the same vein, acknowledging responsibility for fault means we may feel that we lower our social status in the eyes of others. So, denial and minimization can also be a mechanism to avoid isolation and to maintain control over how others see us and how we see ourselves.

The APA explains this is a process of cognitive distortion. Everyone does this to a certain extent to filter out negative emotions that make us upset, embarrassed, or uncomfortable. Professional counselor Dr. Grande recommends looking at how we respond to these feelings, allowing us to work through them and reduce minimizing or denying behavior that comes from a distorted way of thinking.

It's always the other person's fault

Why do those with controlling personalities struggle to accept accountability? Relating to control, in particular, transgressors may feel their apology would not be enough to elicit forgiveness. The act of asking for forgiveness in and of itself means giving someone else the power to pass judgment over us. This, at its heart, is about surrendering control of the future relationship to that person.

Similarly, a person's self-image can hold a crucial influence on why some people fail to take accountability. Self-image, in psychology, is like an internal mirror, compromising everything we think about ourselves — from our identities to our consciousness as social beings in the world.

In a 2021 paper published in Personality and Individual Differences, social psychologists argue the more we try to protect our self-image from what we perceive as outside threats, the less willing we will be to hold ourselves accountable for our mistakes. While, of course, it's difficult to face our inner demons, ultimately, to paraphrase Carl Jung: "Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life, and you will call it fate." Likewise, accountability only remains outside our control until we face the reality of who we are.

You can't let the little things go

The idea of letting something go — whether it's an argument, a perceived fault in others, or a perfectionist mindset — is intrinsically related to control. This might be control over specific outcomes, relationships, or deeper issues concerning how we navigate life.

People may find themselves stuck in a negative train of thought, unable to shake off small moments which have since been forgotten by everyone else. It's important to remember that letting go doesn't mean we are disregarding or devaluing the issue at hand, but rather accepting it for what it is and allowing ourselves the space to move forward.

Therapist Emma McAdam explains that when this happens, we can employ a technique called cognitive defusion. Here, we become more aware of our thought processes, looking at our thoughts as they appear without committing to them. This can be helpful to challenge our beliefs and assumptions about the situation, recognize the difference between our thoughts and reality, and focus on the positive aspects we can control.

You withdraw affection when things don't go your way

Withholding affection is not necessarily done with the intent to hurt the other party. Still, it can end up as a form of punishment we employ against others when we don't know how to communicate our boundaries effectively. It can also be an intentional strategy to signal when we don't like a certain behavior, attitude, or situation. In the latter case, it's essential to realize how this dynamic devolves into a coercive way of getting what we want.

A 2016 study in the journal Emotion determined that withholding affection can lead to a decrease in relationship satisfaction, increased negative emotions, and psychological distress for both parties. It can create a sense of insecurity and mistrust, signaling deeper issues in the relationship, such as communication problems, unresolved conflicts, and a lack of understanding of each other's needs.

This erosion of trust can be challenging to repair and permanently damage relationships. Psychologists have noted that withdrawal can be a symptom of issues regulating emotions. This is why it's essential to seek help from a licensed mental health counselor in such cases. A professional can provide a safe space to explore the root causes of withholding affection, such as fear, insecurity, and a need for control, and learn healthier coping and communication strategies.

It's your way or the highway

At the root of cooperation is a flexible and reflective thinking style. Conversely, controlling personalities may have a rigid or unyielding need to have things done their way. This means they don't allow other modes of processing, understanding, or judging to interfere with their decisions.

While it's not a bad thing to be an independent thinker, a my-way-or-the-highway mentality assumes their method or thinking is better no matter the situation. This, pointed out by psychologists in research published in Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, can be a harmful and controlling narcissistic trait. Moreover, they show that this controlling mentality actually hampers progress. Looking at groups with the most narcissistic traits, they found they often devolved into conflicts over direction and were less coordinated, which factored into how long it took for them to complete a project.

Ironically, while controlling people may believe their way will get the work done faster or more efficiently, those with a more flexible approach to teamwork perform better. This may be an important lesson for those hesitant to try different approaches other than their own.

You lack trust in others

Trust and control have a symbiotic relationship. You must trust others to give them control. But paradoxically, you must give over control to know whether you can trust them. In a 2022 paper on the role of trust and control, researchers stipulated that part of the dilemma of abdicating control comes from the perceived risk of trusting others (via PsyArXiv). Most compelling in this research is the idea that the degree to which we trust others is strongly mediated by how much control we perceive that we have over a given situation. For instance, the more controlling people are, the less likely they are to trust others. However, this was not necessarily because they believed that the other person was untrustworthy. Rather, they perceived the act of trust itself as a risk.

Of course, there are times when putting our trust in a third party should be a legitimate concern. It is good to have boundaries. However, if our walls are so high as to never allow anyone through — as to never trust anyone — the world would be a very isolated and lonely place.

You have to be in control of the narrative

Who better than us to tell the story of our lives? But, as you know, our stories often intertangle with others in myriad ways. This begs the question, who gets control over the narrative, and just whose story is it?

Narrative identity, as described in a 2019 issue of the Journal of Research in Personality, is the way we internalize and structure our lives so that they make sense. The problem comes when our narratives of self conflict with other people's interpretation of us and how we respond to these counter-viewpoints.

Recent research published in the journal Emotion reveals that those with a fractured or incoherent sense of self are more likely to find it difficult to connect with others and regulate emotions. These factors, in particular, can significantly affect our overall sense of mental well-being. Conversely, there is a lot of solid evidence, such as that published in Heliyon, that when we internally see and live in alignment with our authentic selves, we are likely to be much happier, more well-adapted, and have better relationships with others.

You have insecurity or jealousy issues

Jealousy and insecurity are often interpreted as linked in personality psychology. Psychologists in the book "The Emerging Field of Personal Relationships" have observed that both jealousy and insecurity result from a view of the world as something outside of our control.

Typically this makes controlling people more anxious about their relationships. They tend to have a negative view of the world and themselves, seeing it as full of threats (for example, their partner finding another love interest), which makes them feel insecure. Thus, jealousy can be a way to go on the defensive; in an attempt to control their anxiety, they become rigid in their thinking style, more self-deprecating, and potentially even more possessive.

The solution to these issues is self-reflection and communication. Self-reflection can be a way to reappraise the way we think about jealousy. If our anxiety and insecurities make us jealous, we need to start tackling the negative thought process that encourages this thinking. This might mean dealing with our own self-esteem issues or talking with our significant other more openly about our anxieties and worries.

You interfere in other people's choices and personal lives

Interestingly, research shows there are various reasons why controlling people interfere in the lives of others. From a behavioral science perspective, a 2013 paper published in Procedia explains control can be a form of protection that helps us to navigate our social world. The world is full of uncertainty and confusion, making it hard to foresee events and respond appropriately. Control over others, conversely, can be a way to manage this uncertainty.

However, while some forms of meddling are subconscious or unintended, others are not. As a 2021 study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships illustrates, exerting control over other people's decisions correlates with a narcissistic, psychopathic, or sadistic disposition. There are no quick fixes for either of these rationales, but realizing that your actions are problematic can be the first step toward change. And along with professional support, you can work to understand and manage these behaviors more effectively.

You feel anxiety when separated from your partner

One easy way of avoiding having to put your trust in others is never to leave their side. A simple explanation for this is separation anxiety, which refers to an intense fear of being away from loved ones. A 2020 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health explains that this fear can stem from attachment issues and result in behaviors that try to control the decisions and outcomes of those close to them.

A person's attachment style, according to the APA, develops in childhood through the relationship they have with their parents. If a parent is inconsistent in showing love, the child may grow up overly concerned about rejection and abandonment, leading to hypervigilance over their partner's actions. And in intimate relationships, this anxiety can become even stronger.

While it's natural to want to be close to our loved ones, constantly being together can signal a lack of trust and respect for our partner's decisions. To maintain healthy relationships, it's important to recognize signs of unhealthy attachment and seek help if necessary.

You can be overly critical of yourself and others

Another way of thinking about control is the perfectionist mindset. The APA says perfectionism is "the tendency to demand of others or of oneself an extremely high or even flawless level of performance." People with this personality type are likely to have high levels of self-criticism and a tendency to be overly critical of others. According to research conducted in 2019 by the Public Library of Science, this stems from their need to maintain a sense of control and order in their lives. 

In this sense, perfectionist tendencies can be a way to cover feelings of anxiety over what we are lacking or prevent others from acting in ways we can't predict. Controlling people criticize others and themselves to 'correct' what they perceive as behavior that deviates from their expectations. And this may become a source of conflict in relationships.

A 2019 study in the Personality and Social Psychology Review points to the idea that perfectionism often coincides with neurotic traits, such as hostility, passive aggression, and affection withdrawal. And as a result, other scientists from a 2021 article in the European Journal of Personality correctly predicted that those high in these traits and their partners ultimately felt less satisfied in their relationships. For people with these issues, it is worth exploring the underlying causes of their need for control and learning to identify and challenge negative thought patterns. This needs to start by practicing self-compassion, such as mindfulness, self-kindness, and trying to be more open-minded.

You're quick to anger

Anger can be a tool for processing other emotions. You might be thinking — isn't anger an emotion in and of itself? Behavioral therapists in the 2019 Anger Management Manual have actually identified that anger can be a secondary response to our real feelings. This may happen when the underlying pain, whether this is insecurity, humiliation, or guilt, is too difficult to process or makes us feel vulnerable.

Being vulnerable means putting yourself at risk, and for those with control issues, it can be easier to get angry than to face the uncertainties within ourselves. In older research, namely a 2010 paper issued by Trends in Cognitive Sciences, some have argued that the need to feel in control is a compulsory aspect of human biological and psychological well-being. When we make a decision that achieves the desired outcome, we feel in control.

In contrast, when we don't feel as though we have control over the environment, as is often the case with controlling people, we respond by attempting to regain power by whatever means necessary — anger being one such outcome. The first course of action for anger management is to put an anger control plan in place. This can help you to identify the underlying trigger for your anger and provide you with strategies to manage your response in a more healthy way.

You struggle to compromise

Compromise requires a flexible thinking style to adapt and adjust to different or new situations. As such, when we have a rigid mindset, this makes compromise difficult. Therapist Emily Hemendinger suggests inflexibility relates to underlying avoidant tendencies, including the fear of mistakes, criticism, and the need for control over specific outcomes. Like the other issues we discussed, resistance to compromise can be a self-defense mechanism. It allows us to protect our inner world and gain some power over the world around us by forcing others to do things in a certain way.

However, a 2021 paper published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology describes this as a "maladaptive coping" method, where we relieve anxiety or stress in unproductive and unhealthy ways. A better strategy is a technique called cognitive reappraisal. It is a way of regulating the negative emotions associated with change and new situations.

With cognitive reappraisal, we consciously mediate our interpretation of events to minimize our perceived trauma of that experience. For instance, when we think about compromising — our first thoughts might be: This is going to be difficult, we won't get it done right, etc. This leads to anxiety and apprehension about the event before it has even occurred. Instead, with cognitive reappraisal, we would reframe our idea of compromise. For instance, even if it goes wrong, it will be a good learning opportunity; we may learn something new by seeing what the other person has to offer, and so on.

You have difficulties expressing or feeling empathy

A lack of empathy does not necessarily mean a person will be controlling, but being overly controlling can be a sign of apathy toward others. This is particularly true for narcissistic individuals who view their goals or worldview as more important than others. Narcissism is typically understood as a trait related to those with inflated feelings of self-importance, superiority, and entitlement. However, in a 2021 piece in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, researchers argued that narcissistic tendencies could surprisingly disguise low self-esteem.

As we conceal feelings of low self-worth, we create a chasm between who we really are and who we think we should be. It is here that we can identify why controlling people, who tend to be high in narcissistic traits, can struggle to feel empathy. Studies, such as one in the journal Emotion, on the psychology of emotion outline this is because the more fractured and unstable our sense of self is, the less able we are to connect with the emotions and feelings of others. When we don't have a real sense of who we are, taking on other people's emotions can harm our psyche. We avoid this by cutting off the part of ourselves that can relate to those feelings, responding with a lack of empathy.

Cultivating empathy requires self-awareness. In other words, we must concentrate on self-development — understanding why we do the things that we do. This can help not only to improve your mental well-being, but it can also be a way to bridge the gap between yourself and others.