06/02/2010 11:52 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Stay Mindful When Others Crave Control

"Takes one to know one," goes the old saying. This is especially so with control freaks -- not just because we recognize familiar patterns in others, but also because their desire for control often clashes with our own. The good news is that their behaviors (unpleasant though they may be) foster opportunities for our own personal growth.

As discussed in my last posting "Mindfulness for Control Freaks," having control freak tendencies is neither good nor bad. We are what we are, and it's no problem. That is, unless we realize that our mental and emotional habits aren't constructive. If so, we can change. But what about when we have to live or work with people whose controlling behaviors impose on us? It's a good question -- in fact, a question that several HP readers posed.

One answer (really, only part of the larger answer) is relatively simple: cultivate and apply mindfulness when dealing with control freaks. This means focusing your mind on noticing what's happening, as it's happening. In this case, you work on recognizing when you notice someone else's controlling behaviors (especially if those behaviors bother you), take a breath to calm your mind -- and buy some time -- and then return your attention to what's happening within you, and with the other person. Staying present is the key to responding with skill.

Control freak behaviors generally are (typically) only relevant if they upset you. As a teacher once told me, "imagine that you're a slick, shiny steel ball, so that whenever someone throws something sticky at you, it just slides off." Point taken. Imagining myself just as he described taught me something really powerful -- gooey stuff isn't gooey when it can't stick to my surface. Put simply, someone else's controlling behaviors don't control unless they elicit a response.

In other words, if you choose to disengage, someone else's control freak behaviors can't have power over you.

Okay, enough philosophizing ... here are some examples:

  • Let's say you have a colleague who tends to complicate every situation. As soon as you resolve something, he raises a new issue to keep him calling the shots. Maybe he sends you email after email alerting you to these issues and it drives you nuts. He's way too controlling, right? Well, maybe. He does what he does, so the question is, "what are you going to do?"
  • Every time I get one of those emails, I remember to take a breath and consciously refrain from hitting "reply" immediately. I'm not trying to be obnoxious (or insubordinate) rather I'm purposefully creating a short gap in time that enables my thinking brain to catch up with my feeling brain. As a result, I can assess what needs to be done and respond much more constructively. If the newest issue needs attention, I deal with it -- but only once I'm feeling like a shiny steel ball again (and less like a sticky, gooey surface, myself). If nothing needs doing, I send a polite email back to him, simply acknowledging my receipt of the earlier message. That's it -- just an acknowledgement that won't perpetuate a virtual tug-of-war. This strategy seems to result in fewer power games and much less angst.


  • Let's say you're related to someone who always wants to know what you're doing -- or who wants you to know what she's doing, blow-by-blow, day-by-day. You're exhausted. You feel like her behavior invades your privacy and insults your autonomy. Right, except, whenever those feelings flare, her control increases.
  • Again, take a breath before you respond when she asks, "So, what are you up to, now?" Remember, you don't need to provide details, although being polite keeps things less complicated. Try saying, "I've got a busy day" or "Stuff" or "Just relaxing" and that's it. When she asks for details, switch the subject, again and again. Seriously, you don't have to play catch if you don't want to -- just change the game. In time, you'll deflect the inquiries more and more effectively and the questions won't bother you so much (and might even eventually subside).

Whether dealing with control freaks or not, the bottom line is this: mindfulness improves focus and mental calmness; it also strengthens resilience and supports managing emotions. Practice is important, as is starting simple. Applying mindfulness to control freaks can be very effective, but developing the skill to do so takes time.

Mindful breathing is a good place to start. After all, it involves the three core steps of focusing on what's happening, noticing your distraction and refocusing -- all of which prime you to respond skillfully. Most likely, the control freaks aren't going anywhere, so you have time to practice staying present. And remember, it all comes back to the breath.