You’re beginning to make plans for your family Christmas gathering. You are somewhat surprised as you notice mixed feelings of eager anticipation as well as concern. Your thoughts quickly turn to the Control Freak in the family.
The Control Freak — and I mean no disrespect by the term — is the one or two people in the family that insist on things being a certain way. They tend to be CrazyMakers who turn your words around to suit their purposes. They push their agenda to the exclusion of yours. You know who I’m talking about.
Your sister has always had the family gathering at her home, and expects it will be held there again, without even checking out the feelings of others on the matter. Not only does she insist that the gathering be at her home, but she also dictates whether there will be gifts, what the cost will be of those gifts, and how they will be dispersed.
Your brother-in-law is a competitive football enthusiast, and insists that the family watch one or more of the myriad games being played during the festivities. No matter that not everyone is into the cutthroat contests—“it’s the season for football.”
Your mother, though elderly, still has a powerful voice. She demands that certain items be on the menu, even though many have voiced their dislike for said items. No matter — “it’s traditional!”
Your family members may mean well. Control Freaks aren’t necessarily troubled people—they just have agendas. They know how they want things to be, and being self-absorbed, expect others to simply go along with their game plan.
You’re aware of your family’s feelings. You know going against them is like pushing water upstream. In the past you’ve simply grimaced, complained to your mate, and gone along with things. It’s time to make decisions again about what to do with your feelings of resentment.
I received this email from a woman preparing for the holidays:
Dear Dr. David. I get anxious when I think about the holidays. There is often so much tension, with so many people wanting their way. I have several Control Freaks in my family, and it seems like I have two bad choices: one is to simply go along with their plans and feel resentful. The other is to buck the system, and receive their wrath. I choose to go along with things, but don’t feel good about it. Can you help me see some other ways of doing things?
As a matter of fact, yes I can. While we’re getting close to Christmas, and your concerns are in regards to family gatherings, these principles apply to any situation.
There are several things to keep in mind when dealing with a Control Freak, the most important of which is to remember that you have choices. You never have to be mesmerized or paralyzed into inaction. You’re a grownup and deserve to have a voice in how you spend your holiday. Here are a few more ideas to consider:
First, remind yourself that their behavior is not personal. Their behavior is not about you. They are simply trying to protect themselves. They have been compulsive—agenda driven-- for a long time and is not a product of your relationship.
Second, understand that the Control Freak is feeling anxious—that is their primary motivation for exerting so much control. If you can talk to them about their anxiety, helping them to talk about the origins of their fears, they will often calm down. Seek to understand why they feel things have to go the way they do.
Third, speak from your “most vulnerable self,” and help them to do the same. Help them to speak in “I” language, asking specifically for what they need. Helping them get focused on the major things will help dilute the minor ones. Let them know what you would like to have happen. Assert yourself, speaking emphatically about those issues you feel strongly about.
Fourth, practice letting them know you hear and understand their needs. Reassure them that they are being heard—something very important to them. Practice using techniques such as paraphrasing, to help them feel heard. Don’t feel, however, that you must agree with them—you only need to reassure them that you understand their feelings.
Fifth, stay calm. Controllers tend to be anxious and if you’re not careful you can become agitated and anxious with them. Try to be a calming influence, letting them know you will be able to solve the present problem.
Sixth, choose to give them some of the control, but maintain some control for yourself. Choose your battles. There are some issues where it is better to let them have their way. Avoid power struggles where both lose, and seek areas of agreement. Don’t defend your position, or debate with them about theirs.
Finally, make requests from them as well. Let them know that you have your boundaries and insist on respect for them. Practice relating in such a way that you acknowledge their strong needs, but want your needs acknowledged and respected as well.
Tell us how you’ve worked with Control Freaks in your family. How have they made your holidays more challenging?