Many of us picture the typical schoolyard bully when we think of a controlling person. We might imagine someone who aggressively commands others to do what they want.
But there are many more subtle signs you may not be aware of, and this kind of behavior isn’t only limited to romantic relationships. Controlling people show up in all areas of life — co-workers, bosses, friends, family, and even strangers.
If you end up feeling small, embarrassed, or humiliated whenever you come in contact with them, it may be time to step back and re-evaluate who you’re spending time with.
Here’s a look at 12 signs that might suggest someone has a controlling personality.
You’re blamed for minor things you have nothing to do with. If something goes wrong, they take on the role of victim and make you believe you’re responsible for things beyond your control.
You might hear “it’s all your fault” or “you shouldn’t have done this” come up in conversation.
A controlling person will attempt to undermine your confidence by making jabs at you in private or public.
Here are a few examples of these methods:
- exaggerating your flaws at work (always pointing out typos in an email, for example)
- never acknowledging when you do something right
- becoming irrationally angry if you don’t answer your phone right away
- making mean jokes about you in front of others
- criticizing the way you dress or speak
Demanding your attention constantly and gradually isolating you from friends and family is a method of control. They’ll try to keep you all to themselves by complaining about how often you hang out with certain friends or family members.
But it’s not always this obvious. They may just glare at you when you’re on the phone with loved ones or groan when you go to spend time with family.
They always expect something in return and make you feel guilty if you don’t do what they want. They keep tabs on every little favor.
If they paid for your dinner one night or let you crash at their place, for example, they’ll bring it up repeatedly. They might also go out of their way to appear overly generous as a way to keep you indebted to them.
They underplay your experience by lying or accusing you of being overly sensitive. If you’re upset about something they told you last week, they’ll deny ever having said it and that it’s all in your mind. You start second-guessing yourself all the time.
Say you suspect a close friend of spreading false rumors about you. In response, they’ll say you’re imagining things or blame someone else, despite any evidence you might have.
If you had a big win at work, a controlling person might immediately change the subject and sulk about something that upset them that day to regain your attention.
They may also sabotage your relationships with others as a way to have a leg up on you. For example, they might take screen shots of your private texts without permission and send them to others.
Someone exerting excessive control may constantly act superior and try to undermine your reputation. At work, this can look like a co-worker who always interrupts you during a meeting to state their own opinion or a boss who disdainfully talks down to you in front of your peers.
They may also make veiled threats in the way of jokes: “If you don’t turn this in by tomorrow, I’ll start clearing out your desk. Just kidding!”
They show drastic mood changes — one moment they’re buying you gifts and lavishing you with praise, and the next, they’re acting like a bully.
You end up feeling like you’re walking on eggshells and never know where you stand with them. They also won’t take responsibility or say “sorry” when they’ve upset you.
A controlling person often won’t accept healthy boundaries and will try to persuade or pressure you into changing your mind.
If you’ve said you can’t meet up this weekend, they’ll show up uninvited to your house. Or they’ll refuse to let you leave a party early even after saying you feel sick.
They always want your undivided attention and become upset when you make plans with others.
- speak badly or making negative comments about you and your friends
- interrogate you about where you go or who you see
- pout every time you plan to go out with someone new
They’ll try to mold you to suit their own interests by pressuring you to make changes to your appearance or the way you dress. They may throw out your favorite pair of jeans when you’re at work or refuse to leave the house unless you’re dressed a certain way.
If you find yourself relating to the above signs, take a moment to be honest with yourself about the situation and assess whether these controlling patterns have become abusive.
Ask yourself if the person is controlling your freedom and autonomy. Do you feel trapped, dominated, and fearful all the time? Are you concerned for your safety?
All of these are clear red flags that the behavior has turned into coercive control, a form of domestic violence.
Feeling free to be yourself is one of the most important aspects of your identity and self-worth. No romantic relationship, friendship, or working relationship should make you feel small or unsafe.
Remember, no matter what they’ve told you, none of this is your fault and you deserve better than to live life this way.
If you’d like to learn more about recognizing these patterns of controlling behavior or if you’d like to talk to a professional to get help if you’re in an abusive relationship, check out the following resources:
- National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24 hours a day and provides services by phone (800-799-7233) to help you assess your level of safety and guide you into taking next steps.
- Pathways to Safety International offers professional counseling and legal advocacy.
- Break the Cycle helps young people (ages 12 to 24) learn the signs of unhealthy relationships and provides the tools and resources to navigate safe options.
Cindy Lamothe is a freelance journalist based in Guatemala. She writes often about the intersections between health, wellness, and the science of human behavior. She’s written for The Atlantic, New York Magazine, Teen Vogue, Quartz, The Washington Post, and many more. Find her at cindylamothe.com.