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The Relationship Café

Holidays and the Control Freak

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? 


Print      Email to a Friend    posted on Tuesday, December 04, 2007 5:25 PM

Comments on this post

# RE: Holidays and the Control Freak

the only thing that really helps me is to let go. i try to balance out the situation, but i also have learned not to let their need to feel in control ruin the holiday by trying to yank the control back. then it just becomes a tug of war game. sometimes you just have to let it go.
Left by carebear05 on Dec 05, 2007 8:27 AM

# RE: Holidays and the Control Freak

What do I do with the control freaks? I give in! It never seems to be worth the effort to fight them. Am I wrong?
Left by daisy2803 on Dec 05, 2007 9:25 AM

# RE: Holidays and the Control Freak

My mother-in-law insults me constantly but no one can tell because she's so subtle. She's always making suggestions for how I can do things better. I can't seem to set the table right or make dinner correctly. We're hosting Christmas dinner this year and truthfully, I'm dreading it. Help!
Left by graceadkins on Dec 05, 2007 10:07 AM

# RE: Holidays and the Control Freak

I was very excited to host Christmas this year at our house. Then I found out that apparently, my inlaws MUST eat the exact same meal for Christmas every year. I wanted to start some new traditions this year (including a few new menu items), how do I do that without offending the inlaws?
Left by yougotmail on Dec 05, 2007 10:47 AM

# RE: Holidays and the Control Freak

Great posts. Let's see what we've got so far:
One, don't, don't, never, never, get into a power struggle with a controlling person. You might "win" at making a point, but you'll lose with a headache, upset stomach and bad feelings. We want to avoid defending, or debating, with a Control Freak. It's okay to disagree, by the way, and not feel guilty.
Second, we're all saying there are times when it's best to practice "letting go." Is it really worth it?
Third, we set healthy limits. If Christmas meal is at our house, we get to decide what's being served. We can start new traditions, and others will/ must decide what is best for them. Make your decision, then let go of the outcome.

Good stuff. Keep the suggestions coming. What are you doing to cope with power-hungry, inflexible people?
Dr. David
Left by DrDavidHawkins on Dec 06, 2007 4:48 PM

# RE: Holidays and the Control Freak

I told my sister that I would like to have Christmas dinner in my home, which we just bought this year. Since that, she has told me twice that she would like to have it at her home (as she does nearly every year), and I gently reminded her that I would still like to have it in my new home. I felt like confronting her and saying that I don't like how she gets angry with her guests (my main reason for wanting to host the dinner), but I am glad that I didn't because she has finally relented, and our Christmas (and relationship) will be much more peaceful this way.
Left by bennetli on Dec 07, 2007 5:05 PM

# RE: Holidays and the Control Freak

Simply tell her Bah Humbug! Let her know that they have a better Christmas Buffet Dinner at the Double Tree luxurious hotel up the road where you will be checking in promptly to avoid her incessant complaining and terrible cooking. Yes Sir take control immediately and don't let anyone ruin your idea of a perfect Christmas celebration. Goodbye Ms. Bad Christmas Manners.
Left by scubareefdive on Dec 15, 2007 2:27 PM