Controlling Others Means You’ve Lost Control

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Let’s try an exercise. Have you done any of these things in the past month?

  • Assumed someone needed help without asking.
  • Completed a task your child could do themselves.
  • Lectured your parents about not leaving the house.
  • Told your partner how or when to do their work.
  • Took on someone’s work because you could do it faster.
  • Argued with strangers on the internet.

If you answered yes, you might be making yourself overly responsible for others. Some people call it “controlling”; therapists call it “overfunctioning.” And as a therapist, I’ve been seeing it a lot lately. Anxiety has many different flavors, but overfunctioning is one common reaction to distress. And for many of us, the temptation to take charge — to shoo apart the people standing too close together on the sidewalk or make your spouse count out loud as they wash their hands — is stronger than ever right now.

In the short term, overfunctioning can be very effective. We wouldn’t boss people around, dispense unsolicited advice, or micromanage the group project if taking charge didn’t do anything to calm our nerves.

But like I tell my therapy clients, overfunctioning only works until it doesn’t. If anything, the past month has proven how little power we have over how people behave. We can’t control whether people choose to social distance or how our kids feel about virtual learning, yet we still feel responsible for shaping how people act and what they think. And we grow increasingly frustrated when they don’t comply. Here’s why overfunctioning hurts more than it helps — and what to do when you recognize yourself doing it.

Overfunctioning keeps people from growing

A funny thing happens when you treat people like they’re not capable: Eventually, they start to act like it. Your partner’s first several attempts at coming up with a pantry meal may have been disastrous, but taking over dinner prep seven nights a week doesn’t give them any room to get their bearings.

Instead, it communicates that you don’t trust them to manage the task at hand, which can have one of two effects: You’re either stirring up conflict or creating a house or office full of people who are more than willing to step back while you run the show.

The motivation matters here. There’s nothing wrong with helping a family member or co-worker or letting someone know when you disagree with them. But you should consider whether intervening is more about calming yourself down than actually helping someone.

Overfunctioning hurts your relationships

The discord isn’t just a short-term thing. Over time, your overfunctioning can lead you into traps that are difficult to climb out of. You might start to resent the unequal division of labor in your marriage or feel more burdened than replenished by your friendships. You might work yourself straight into burnout.

But there are plenty of ways to be a resource to the people in your life without taking over. You can ask good questions that help them do their best thinking or let them know that you think they’re capable and resilient. You can project an aura of calm when they’re frustrated or afraid. And perhaps most important, you can ask them what their needs are, instead of assuming you already know.

Overfunctioning leads to self-neglect

Overfunctioners are notorious for shoving aside their own physical and mental needs. They’ll skip a workout to mediate a work conflict that has nothing to do with them. If they do manage to schedule a therapy appointment, they’ll often spend the whole time talking about someone else.

Self-neglect leads to exhaustion and more anxiety, which helps no one — certainly not you, and not the people you’re trying to be there for, either. But breaking out of an overfunctioning habit is uncomfortable. It means setting boundaries and saying no, and it means dealing with the consequences. It means tolerating a little bit of your own anxiety about other people’s disapproval as you remember how to prioritize taking care of yourself.

To get there, make the details of your overfunctioning concrete. Write a list of the ways you’re overstepping boundaries or shouldering too much responsibility. For each one, imagine what a healthier response might look like. Think through the ways shifting to that response might be awkward or unpleasant for you so you’re mentally prepared.

But don’t be too hard on yourself if you revert to overfunctioning when you feel anxious. We’re all trying our best, and sometimes we can’t help but slip back into those automatic behaviors that calm us down. When I overfunction, I try to remind myself that there’s usually a better way to help the people I love. And then I take some time to consider the difference between help that overpowers and help that allows people to become their best selves.

Kathleen Smith is a therapist and author of the book Everything Isn’t Terrible: Conquer Your Insecurities, Interrupt Your Anxiety, and Finally Calm Down.

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