Back in my younger and more foolish days, I was briefly engaged to a woman we’ll call Clarisse.  I thought I’d hit the girlfriend jackpot when we started dating.  She was smart, funny, sexy, and independent. We moved in together within weeks.  It was great … at first.

Over the next several months, I noticed a pattern: in every social situation – jobs, classes, etc. – Clarisse would make a new friend.  She’d go on and on about how awesome the new friend was. But time after time, the awesome friend became an enemy practically overnight.  It was like someone flipped a switch.

It was, of course, always the former friend’s fault.  To hear Clarisse tell it, the once-awesome person had become mean.  (She was fond of using the word “hateful.”)  And it wasn’t just about actual behavior.  Clarisse seemed to believe she had some kind of magical mind-reading powers.  She would decide she knew what the former friend was thinking or intending — and then she’d get angry about it.  In fact, after Clarisse decided a former friend was now a Very Bad Person, she assigned ignoble intentions to anything that person did.  If one of her former friends ever ran into a burning building to save a baby, I’m pretty sure Clarisse would have explained it was just a P.R. stunt.

More than once, I pointed out that these were people who seemed to get along just fine with everyone else, so perhaps Clarisse should ask herself if she was the instigator of the conflicts.

No, no, no, that couldn’t be it.  She was a good person, a fun person, a highly perceptive person.  In fact, she was such a good person, she was always trying to help her friends and co-workers by offering advice on what they ought to do, how they ought to live, etc.  If they ignored the advice, she became ever more insistent on offering it.  And then, wouldn’t you know it, these people she was merely trying to help became mean and nasty.

She couldn’t seem to grasp a simple concept: if you don’t allow people to say No to you nicely, you’ll eventually get a NO! that’s not very nice at all.  Most of us learn this in childhood.  But some people never learn it.  So throughout life, they are shocked – SHOCKED! – when their non-stop efforts to improve someone else’s life ends with that someone telling them to f@#$ off.

Naturally, our relationship didn’t last.  Seeing what happened with her friends, I used to wonder when Clarisse would finally turn on me.  It took just over a year.  She became increasingly persistent in telling me how to live, how to dress, how to eat, etc. — and she never let me say No nicely.  So eventually I wasn’t nice.  She then informed me that I was a cold, rigid, inflexible person.

I was reasonably sure Clarisse’s definition of rigid and inflexible was refuses to give in and do exactly what I demand.  I was also reasonably sure she was in need of therapy.  But just in case I was the crazy one and unaware of it, I called a long-time friend I could trust to be honest.

“Am I rigid and inflexible?”


“It’s okay to tell me if I am.  Am I rigid and inflexible?”

“I can’t imagine anyone applying those words to you, no.”

After concluding that a life with Clarisse wouldn’t be pleasant, I moved out.  At that point, the same long-time friend (who’d wisely kept his mouth shut before the breakup, but admitted he was glad to see it happen) suggested I read a book titled Control Freaks to arm myself against ever choosing the same kind of partner again.

I won’t try to recount the whole book.  After all, I read it more than 20 years ago.  But here are some descriptions of the Control Freak personality I cribbed and condensed from articles online:

They invest a lot of time and energy trying to convince other people to change.

Control freaks believe they know what is best for everyone and try to convince other people to do things differently. Whether they lecture, become aggressive, or manipulate things behind the scenes, they want to make other people act a certain way. When you do not submit to what they are “encouraging” you to do, there is often a display of emotional behavior.

They’re judgmental and lack compassion.

Control freaks hold opinions on everything from how other people should hold their forks to how they should live their entire lives.  They believe they have the correct answer for everything, and often come across as sanctimonious. Since control freaks believe their own success stems solely from their own efforts, they also lack compassion for those who struggle. They view any failures by others as a sign of laziness or stupidity.

They’re uncomfortable with ambiguity.

Control freaks often see things in black-and-white, all-or-nothing terms.  Their way is the correct way, period.  Their ideas are the best ideas, period.  Other people are either good or bad, either with them or against them.

They have trouble maintaining relationships because they don’t respect boundaries.

Control freaks repel people with their demands and unsolicited advice. They offer “constructive criticism” as a veiled attempt to advance their own agendas. They will not take “no” for an answer.  Consequently, they struggle to maintain healthy personal and professional relationships.

The book, of course, went into much more detail, but you get the idea: the only way to avoid conflict with a control freak is to say, in effect, “Yes, I can see that you are a vastly superior person who has the correct answer for everything, so I will agree to adopt all your beliefs, to like whomever and whatever you like, to dislike whomever and whatever you dislike, and to do everything you believe I should do.  Thank you so very much for making me the beneficiary of your awesome insights on how I should go about my life.”

The book described Clarisse to a T.  Unfortunately, it also describes millions of other people in the world. You can’t go through life without bumping into your share of control freaks.  The collisions won’t be pleasant.  But if you learn to spot the control-freak personality, at least you’ll understand what happened when someone who seemed to like and respect you (or perhaps even love you) suddenly decides you’re a Very Bad Person the first time you disagree or don’t go along with his plan.  You’ll also understand behavior that appears to be inconsistent and illogical.

For example, many control freaks consider themselves freedom-loving libertarians.  They certainly don’t want people in a position of authority telling them how to live.  (Neither do I, by the way).  But while true libertarians are content with minding their own business, control freaks believe it’s their job to mind your business as well – for your own good, of course.  A quote from Oscar Wilde sums up the attitude nicely:

Selfishness is not living your life as you wish to live it.  Selfishness is wanting others to live their lives as you wish them to.

Control freaks are the embodiment of that quote.  Some years after my Clarisse experience, a woman I knew through work told me she and her father hadn’t talked in years.  Dear ol’ dad was a fiercely independent guy, she explained.  He came from a long line of doctors, and his parents had made it clear he was going to become a doctor as well.  He refused.  They disowned him.  He worked odd jobs and saved his money.  He used the money to start his own business, worked like a dog, and became a financial success.

When my co-worker friend was planning her own future, dear ol’ dad told her she was going to get a business degree, then run his business with him, then take over when he retired.  She tried majoring in business and hated it.  She changed her major to art, her true passion.  So guess what?  Dear ol’ dad cut her off financially and stopped talking to her.

She worked menial jobs and finished putting herself through college.  She got her art degree.  She got a job.  She traveled.  She and a friend hiked the Appalachian Trail.  She lived the life she wanted to live.  She assumed her father was secretly proud of her – after all, she’d asserted her independence and gone her own way, followed her own dreams, just like him.

But nope.  The old man still wouldn’t talk to her.  She didn’t understand.  She thought she’d earned the respect of an independent soul like himself.

“Your father’s not an independent soul,” I replied.  “He’s a control freak.”

“A what?”

I gave a brief description of the type.  I recounted a typical story from the book: a guy with a reputation for being a maverick who doesn’t follow the rules and doesn’t kowtow to authority is promoted to management in a large company.  His fellow employees rejoice.  With his independent spirit, he’s going to be an awesome boss!  He’s going to listen to their ideas.  Things are finally going to change around here.

Then it turns out he’s the most authoritarian boss they’ve ever had.  It’s his way or the highway.  They don’t understand what the hell happened to him.

Nothing happened to him.  He’s still the same guy.  He was a maverick who defied authority because, as a control freak, he hates living by other people’s rules – after all, they’re idiots who (unlike him) don’t understand how everything should be done.  But once he’s in a position of authority, he tolerates no dissent – after all, he’s the only guy who understands how everything should be done.

Her father didn’t follow the path his parents planned for him because control freaks don’t let other people tell them what to do, and that’s fine.  But then they absolutely, positively expect everyone else to follow their plans and give in to their demands.  That’s not fine.  The behavior seems illogical and inconsistent, but it isn’t.  The control freak has a very consistent need for control … over his own decisions, and also over yours.

She was nodding in agreement as I explained.  Now it all made sense.

When you defy the control freak (which you will eventually do, unless you have no spine), there will be hell to pay.  Enraged that he can’t control you, the control freak will become obsessed with controlling how others see you.  Turning others against you is, after all, the punishment you deserve for refusing to bend to his will.  You can expect the control freak to put a lot of effort into trashing you.

In the era of social media, the trashing may even be public.  In fact, there’s nothing the control freak enjoys more than manipulating you into spending half your life defending yourself against his public attacks – thus proving he still exerts some control over you.  Once you understand the game, you’ll also understand that the smart move is to simply laugh at the ham-handed tactics and move on.

When my wife and I first moved to Los Angeles, we joined a local theater group.  The owner, a wannabee screenwriter named Chris, seemed like a great guy, encouraging members of the group to put on original plays and comedy sketches.

But the “great guy,” while highly intelligent and creative, had a screw loose.  He was like a male version of Clarisse.  For reasons nobody could grasp, he’d suddenly decide a certain actor or actress was a Very Bad Person. Then he’d kick the actor out of the theater group – sometimes within days of the premiere of a play in which the actor had a major role.  Then he’d tell the rest of us, “I don’t want to see any of you hanging around with the Very Bad Person.  He is not allowed to attend any shows here, either.”

The Control Freaks book and various articles on dealing with control freaks all offer pretty much the same basic advice:  maintain your boundaries and your right to say No. If at all possible, get away from the control freak and keep your distance.

So after we grew tired of dealing with the never-ending series of dramas created by Chris (who we now called The Drama Queen), a bunch of us got together and formed our own theater group.  We set up a web site that included a message-board plugin so we could share announcements and keep in touch.

This was before Facebook, and the message board had no logins and no security.  The admin could delete a message after the fact, but there was no way to hold messages for approval and no way to identify who actually left the message.  Anyone who found the message board online could leave an anonymous post.

Sure enough, The Drama Queen found the message board and started leaving insulting messages.  (In one message, he informed us he’d placed spies within our group – a sure indicator of a control freak with an unhealthy obsession.)  One of our members, an actor named James, kept replying to his taunts.  The message board became polluted with their mutual hatred.

I called James and read him the riot act.  He started out attempting to justify his replies.  Why, we can’t just let Chris get away with these insults, someone needs to stand up to him, what if other people are reading what he writes and we don’t respond, blah-blah-blah.

“Let me explain it to you this way,” I said.  “We left Chris to get away from his bat-shit-crazy behavior and all the emotional drama he likes to create.  Now you’re letting him recreate that emotional drama in our own space.  Every time Chris wants to start a fight and you jump in to fight with him, you’re proving to him that he still has the power to control your emotions and your behavior.  That’s exactly what he wants.  Since you can’t stand the guy, why the hell would give exactly him what he wants?”

After a moment of silence, James replied, “Wow.  You’re right.  I’m sorry.”

“Good.  If you really want to get back at Chris, wait for him to put up another insulting message, and then ignore it. Prove to him you don’t give a rat’s ass what he says about us or what he thinks of us.  Prove to him that you don’t consider him important enough to be bothered with a reply.  That will really drive him nuts.”

That’s how you have to handle control freaks.  Maintain your boundaries.  Don’t give in just because the control freak tries over and over to wear you down.  You can explain why you’re not giving in, but don’t expect the control freak to take No for an answer.  They almost never do.

And when your failure to give in prompts the control freak to decide you’re a Very Bad Person and begin trashing you publicly, don’t get sucked into the battle.  Goading you into a battle is just another attempt to control you.

Smile, walk away from The Drama Queen, keep your distance, refuse to engage, and spend your time on what actually matters.  Yes, refusing to engage will probably cause the control freak to become even nuttier.  But that’s his problem, not yours.

22 Responses to “Control Freaks and How to Deal With Them”
  1. Hmmm… you wouldn’t be thinking of a certain person with the initials RN, would you?

  2. Chris Houck says:

    This was my mother, only she was worse. Good writing, thank you for posting it.

    • Tom Naughton says:

      Sorry to hear you had to deal with that. The irony is that Clarisse couldn’t stand her mother — because her mother was a major control freak.

  3. Jogo says:

    I think I just heard a head explode somewhere in California. I once had the ‘pleasure’ of dealing with a control freak who I had the following exchange with. Just for laughs I said, “You know, you contradict everything I say.” Right on time he said, “NO I DON’T.” He had no idea why I burst out laughing. Nor ever will. I’m highly looking forward to the ‘no I don’t’ in this case.

    • Tom Naughton says:

      Good grief, it’s like the Monty Python sketch about The Argument Clinic.

      “This isn’t an argument!”

      “Yes it is.”

      “No it isn’t! An argument is a series of propositions leading to a conclusion. It isn’t just saying ‘Yes it is’ and ‘No it isn’t.'”

      “Yes it is.”

      “No it isn’t!”

  4. Tom Naughton says:

    And in the “you can’t make this stuff up category,” someone who thinks I may have been referring to him just engaged in exactly the behavior I described. He’s NOT a control freak, ya see. He’s just trying to make me feel ashamed of myself because the real issue is my resistance … uh, to something or another … I don’t know, but whatever it is I’m resisting, he can read my mind and understands my true (ignoble) intentions, and knows how I ought to be behaving … oh, and now he’s going to tear me apart online, so I’d best prepare for battle.

    But he doesn’t have control issues.

    Laugh-out-loud funny.

    Lesson for you youngsters out there: If you think someone has applied a negative label to you, it’s not a good idea to rush in and provide evidence.

  5. Bob Johnston says:

    It sounds like you used to date my sister.

  6. Mitzi says:

    Hey Tom, the best way I’ve found to shut down the control freaks in my life is to simply respond to what ever they say with “you’re right about that” shuts them down. What more is there for them to say? Oh, believe me, it’s hard at first, but it easier with practice.

    • Tom Naughton says:

      I have, in fact, told my daughters if people try to goad them by insulting them, just smile and say, “Uh-huh, that’s true.”

      Unfortunately, it’s a different situation when the control freak is demanding you follow their plans for your life.

  7. Anna says:

    Sounds an awful lot like narcissistic personality disorder. Or Scientology.

  8. Ben Wagenmaker says:

    * slow clap *

  9. Ben Wagenmaker says:

    This is such a well-written and timely post. I couldn’t agree more. There’s so much noise out there, and sometimes we need to be reminded that we can (and should) just tune it out and focus on what’s important. 🙂

    • Tom Naughton says:

      I learned way back in college, when I wrote a humor column for the campus newspaper, that any time you put your work before the public, you’re going to draw some loons who criticize everything you do. There’s no point inwasting valuable time trying to change their minds. Their minds can’t be changed. The better use of your time is to get going on your next project.

  10. Josh says:

    Gosh! Tom! We have something in common. I think I dated Clarisse’s sister!
    Or I am one of the most selfish, horrible, duplicitous persons ever to walk the face of the Earth.

    • Tom Naughton says:

      If you refused to bend to her will, you are no doubt a cold, inflexible person.

      Sorry for the slow response. I let this blog lie dormant for so long, I can’t upgrade to the current version of WordPress myself, so I’m having it done by my provider. It’ll be locked down at times until they’re done.

  11. Jack LaBear says:

    Have you looked into how this relates to Narcissistic Personality Disorder?
    It sounds like a variation.
    The underlying problem is a profound feeling of being a bad person. A new friend is first idealized, then devalued and rejected.
    The recommended way of dealing with an NPD person is also simply to not interact with them. The only way to not lose is not to play.
    The nature of the disorder makes it untreatable according to the psychology community because admitting they have a problem triggers those feelings of badness aggravating the self defeating behavior.

  12. Cord says:

    Huh. This post was from 2017! Until I saw that I thought you were addressing the current political climate.

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