How to Know if You’re a Controlling Person

Donald Miller

If you’d have told me a month ago I had codependent tendencies, I’d never have believed you.

I don’t like it when people try to control me (especially indirectly through manipulation) and I’d have sworn I don’t do a thing to try to control others. But it turns out that isn’t true. For all I know, I might even be manipulating you right now. Raise your hand if you think I’m trying to control you. (I see that hand. Now put it down. Now scratch your nose.)

I realized I was a controlling person not long ago when a therapist caught me in the act. I was wondering out loud why a friend was doing what she was doing and the thearpist questioned why I was trying to get inside somebody else’s head.

“What does it matter why people do what they do? Are you trying to predict behavior to gain a sense of security?”

It was a terrific observation. Trying to figure out why people are doing what they are doing is a preface to trying to control or influence them indirectly. If I really wanted to know why they were doing what they were doing, I could just ask. But I didn’t want to ask because it was none of my business. They had a right to think and do as they wished.

Turns out controlling tendencies can hide anywhere.

And most of the time (if not all the time) we don’t know we’re doing it.

The therapist went on to explain how relationships should work. She put three large couch pillows on the floor and stood on one of the outside cushions. She then had me stand on the other outside cushion so there was an empty cushion between us.

*Photo Credit: BillDamon, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: BillDamon, Creative Commons

“This is my pillow” she said, “and that is yours. This is my life and that is yours. The pillow in the middle represents our relationship. So, my responsibility is all about the pillow I’m standing on and yours is about yours. Together, we are responsible for the relationship. But at no point should I be stepping on your pillow.”

What she meant by that was this:

I can’t change anybody. I can’t force them or guilt them or shame them into doing anything. All I can do is stay on my pillow and ask myself whether or not I like the relationship. If I don’t, I can tell the other person what I want in a relationship and see if they want the same thing. If not, I move on, and so do they.

In marriage, of course, it’s much harder. You can’t just walk away. But in business relationships and friendships, and even in dating, the model works quite well.

I found the metaphor freeing, actually. No more wishing people would change or explaining “if they only did it this way we would be better friends.” Instead, I just say “this relationship doesn’t work” and there’s nothing I can do about it. If I’ve explained what I want in a relationship but the other person isn’t on board, no harm no foul.

It’s difficult in some relationships, I know, because sometimes you have to watch people destroy their lives, but that’s just the point. Their lives are theirs to destroy.

I found the principle to be true in business, too.

When somebody tries to sell a little too hard, they are on my pillow so I back off or set better boundaries. It’s also a great way to find and enter into relationships with clients. If they want what you’re selling, great, and if not, that’s also great. Business relationships work better when they’re natural and not forced and everybody stays on their pillow.

And in my spiritual life it’s the same. If somebody is giving me a guilt trip, they’re on my pillow. I believe much of evangelicalism is influenced by leaders who don’t realize they are standing all over their congregation’s pillows. Some leaders feel incredibly insecure unless they are managing the lives of everybody around them. Make no mistake, this isn’t strength, it’s incredible weakness. Just tell the truth, explain the consequences, and let people make their own decisions.

Here are a few ways to know whether you might be a controlling person:

1 You imagine a life in which somebody else was different, and indirectly try to affect their change.
1 You get angry when things aren’t going your way and you let people know it.
1 You can only be surrounded by people who are submissive to you.
1 You give the silent treatment to people you are angry with.
1 You are often tempted to show somebody the errors they don’t see in themselves.

What ways do you tend to step on other people’s pillows? Do you shame people (I’m guilty of that) or give them the silent treatment? How do you try to influence others without being direct or when their lives are none of your business?

Donald Miller

Donald Miller

Donald Miller is a student of story. He helps people live a better story at Storyline through this blog and the Storyline Conference. He helps leaders grow their businesses at StoryBrand, where they get an entire marketing education in 2 days at his Workshop. Donald lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with his wife, Betsy, and their chocolate lab, Lucy. For regular updates, follow Don on Twitter (@donaldmiller) and Instagram. To read more of his posts on the Storyline Blog, click here.

  • Pingback: around the web…February 2014 » Habits for a Happy Home()

  • Pingback: Letting Go of Control – Cory Eighan()

  • Pingback: Their lives are theirs to destroy. - SoberRecovery : Alcoholism Drug Addiction Help and Information()

  • sincerely

    Good short and sweet to the point article. However, it would be nice to find out how to deal with being a controlling person. It isn’t that easy.

  • Matthew McDonald

    This article helped me a lot and those five ways describe me perfectly. I am a controlling person and best to be single forever since that is not how life works.

  • Paul Tarpey

    I think a lot of the article is valid but overally simplifies peoples’ lives in quite damaging way and is almost controlling in its own way. I think this ‘everyone is an island’ approach to removing bullying behaviour is starting to do the opposite. Healthy influences and close connections are main part of who anyone is and its narcissistic to think differently. Wondering why someone is behaving how they are, could be genuine worry about their welfare, or how they are effecting you. ‘Just get rid’ is a pretty dangerous idea. Spotting bullies and genuine controllers should be about people who have no real concern for the people in their lives. Focus should stay on that.

  • Pam Richards Watts

    After 20 years of parenting, we have found ourselves in the most agonizing parenting crucible so far–through which I discovered I was a deeply controlling parent. I’ve since changed my computer password (sh!) to “I surrender all” as a reminder of the kind of parent–and person–I want to be.

    Thank you for addressing this issue so powerfully.

    On a side note, I can’t thank you enough for all I have learned from your words and wisdom courtesy of Author Launch. I have since read “Blue Like Jazz” cover-to-cover, and it is easily the most quotable book I own. The line about “skipping through life vs being dragged through it” is priceless.
    My crucible kid is a “dragger” without a doubt–but perhaps it’s not my job to haul him into life as *I* envision it.

    Thank you, Donald!