In psychology-related slang, the term control freak describes a person who attempts to dictate how everything is done around them. The phrase was first used in the 1970s, an era when stress was laid on the principle of ‘doing one’s own thing’ and letting others do the same.
In the study of personality psychology, certain personality disorders display characteristics involving the need to gain compliance or control over others:
- Those with antisocial personality disorder tend to display a glibness and grandiose sense of self-worth. Due to their shallow affect and lack of remorse or empathy, they are well suited to con and/or manipulate others into complying with their wishes.
- Those with histrionic personality disorder need to be the center of attention; and in turn, draw people in so they may use (and eventually dispose of) their relationship.
- Those with narcissistic personality disorder have an inflated self-importance, hypersensitivity to criticism and a sense of entitlement that compels them to persuade others to comply with their requests.
To maintain their self-esteem, and protect their vulnerable selves, narcissists need to control others’ behavior – particularly that of their children seen as extensions of themselves.
Control freaks are often perfectionists defending themselves against their own inner vulnerabilities in the belief that if they are not in total control they risk exposing themselves once more to childhood angst. Such persons manipulate and pressure others to change so as to avoid having to change themselves, and use power over others to escape an inner emptiness. When a control freak’s pattern is broken, the controller is left with a terrible feeling of powerlessness but feeling their pain and fear brings them back to themselves.
Control freaks appear to have some similarities to codependents, in the sense that the latters’ fear of abandonment leads to attempts to control those they are dependent on. Recovery for them entails recognizing that being a control freak helped paradoxically preserve codependency itself.
In terms of personality-type theory, control freaks are very much the Type A personality, driven by the need to dominate and control. An obsessive need to control others is also associated with antisocial personality disorder.
In the corporate world, control freaks tend to publicly admonish their inferiors, especially during meetings. More positively, the term can also refer to someone with a limited number of things that they want done a specific way; professor of clinical psychology Les Parrott wrote that “Control Freaks are people who care more than you do about something and won’t stop at being pushy to get their way”. There may be a fine line between being a detail-oriented manager, who likes to have things done ‘right’, and being a (destructive) control freak. Control freaks are usually a cause of micromanagement.
In some cases, the control freak sees their constant intervention as beneficial or even necessary. This can be caused by feelings of separation or departure from a loved one; or by the belief that others are incapable of handling matters properly, or the fear that things will go wrong if they do not attend to every detail. In other cases, they may simply enjoy the feeling of power it gives them so much that they automatically try to gain control of everything and everyone around them.
Wellington v. Napoleon
Wellington as military commander was undoubtedly a hands-on micromanager, trusting his subordinates as little as possible, and showing many of the characteristics of the modern day control freak. In 1811 he wrote that “I am obliged to be everywhere and if absent from any operation, something goes wrong … success can only be attained by attention to the most minute details”.
By contrast, Napoleon gave his marshals much more tactical freedom. At the critical meeting of the two generals at the Battle of Waterloo — where Wellington’s close supervision contrasted strongly with the effective delegation of operational management by Napoleon to Marshall Ney — it was at least arguably Wellington’s control mania that played the decisive role in the Allied victory, justifying his claim the following day that “I don’t think it would have been done if I had not been there”.
A series of three documentary programs on BBC2 in the UK in January 2013 called Queen Victoria’s Children argued that Queen Victoria was a pathological control freak by the way she controlled the welfare of all her children.
Steve Jobs and closed systems
Steve Jobs was a perfectionist who favored the closed system of control over all aspects of a product from start to finish — what he termed the integrated over the fragmented approach. As Steve Wozniak, his long-term collaborator and occasional critic, put it: “Apple gets you into their playpen and keeps you there”. The triumph of the Windows PC over the Mac was a blow for that philosophy, a situation that was then reversed by the successes of the iPod, iPhone, and iPad – only for the Android challenge to reopen the debate.