Control freaks 101

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When I get up, brush my teeth, and look in the mirror – there she is. The control freak. Just staring back at me, probably criticizing my technique.

QuestionnaireDo you know a control freak? Related to one? Maybe there’s one in your bathroom mirror, too? Well, there’s good news and bad news and then more good news. First, the good: Control freaks are not all created equal. There’s a wide range of control freakishness, and I’d bet most of us are on the benign end of that range.

That’s where you’ll find the standard, harmless control freak who doesn’t like how Aunt Linda is cutting those onions. That’s not how a control freak would cut the onions, and clearly there’s a better way to do it. But she squashes her urge to correct Aunt Linda or shoo her into the other room.

On the other end of that spectrum is a person who’s so controlling and domineering that it’s abusive and sometimes dangerous. Obviously, the spectrum is wider than we can cover in one newspaper column, but it’s important to know the difference.

In my family, I get teased sometimes for being a bit control freaky. My kids joke that I’ve used the phrase “because I gave birth to you, that’s why!” more times than they can count. My husband Tom also says I can be picky about things. (He may have described it in stronger terms, but he’s not in control of writing this column, is he?)

Here’s an example: He took the dogs out the other day because I was tired, cold and didn’t want to budge from the sofa. When he came back in with three dogs trailing behind, I asked him if they’d “done their business.”

Him: “I don’t know. It’s not like I watch to see if they poop. That would be weird.”

Me (inside my head): He didn’t do it right. Now we don’t know if they really went or if they’ll need to go out again.

Him (sensing my unease):Do you actually watch to make sure they go?”

Me: “No comment.”

The truth? Yes, I pay attention and make mental note of which dog did or didn’t produce results, so to speak. And if one of them runs to the side of the yard behind a blind corner where I can’t see, it irritates me because it feels like they’re withholding information.

That brings us to the bad news about control freaks. We’re a little weird. We’re more keyed up than the average bear, and we exhaust ourselves (and sometimes others) with all those extra mental gymnastics. It’s also really hard to stop, even when we want to.

The other unsettling news is that behind the face of most control freaks is a fraidy cat. (And I say that as the unofficial Queen of the Fraidy Cats.) When we crave control, it’s usually because we’re waist-deep in fear about all the things in life we can’t control – and that’s a long list. Sometimes we control freaks overcompensate for that helpless feeling by trying to control other, often irrelevant, things.

When I’m feeling particularly anxious, there’s a good chance I’ll suddenly clean out a messy closet. Closets are controllable. Keeping the people I love safe and healthy in an unpredictable world? Not so controllable.

But now back to the good news. Control freaks don’t have to be freaks for life. We can get better, especially if we figure out what fuels our often-overactive need for control and then learn to manage it.

I’m a big believer in the life-changing help that a qualified, talented therapist can provide. (I’m convinced that every single person should be assigned a therapist at birth simply because being a human is hard.) The more we understand ourselves, the more we can be a positive part of a family and a community.

Other things may help, too. Exercise, prayer, enough sleep, the right medication (when a doctor says it’s needed), good friends, meditation, family, and pets are all good ways to help tame your inner control freak. It’s not a quick fix, but it’s work worth doing.

There are plenty of things we can’t control. But being willing to do things that help improve the person staring back at us from the bathroom mirror? That, my friends, we can do.

Gwen Rockwood is a syndicated freelance columnist. Email her at Her book is available on Amazon.

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