Generally, a controlling person is self-absorbed, insensitive towards others, pushes to get his own way, and manipulates circumstances and people to achieve his own agenda. He cares mainly about himself and sees others as a means to an end. When feeling threatened, he may resort to unethical behavior to destroy his opponent. He does not understand or appreciate freedom and grace.
Controlling others involves breaking them down, destroying their self-worth, degrading them psychologically and emotionally, even resorting to social and physical abuse in some instances. In many cases, the controlling person lacks the capacity to enjoy a mature loving relationship, because his thoughts are consumed with self, and he does not know how to love sacrificially for the benefit of others. He does not know how to love graciously, freely, with an open hand, expecting nothing in return. He gives only to get. He may use the word love, but it’s only as a means to an end, to serve his own selfish program and not the wellbeing of the other person. People are seen as objects to be manipulated, not individuals to be loved.
These are my observations as I’ve dealt with controlling people over the years. I have no one person in mind. A controlling person can be male or female, religious or irreligious, old or young, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, and belong to any ethnic group. A controlling person may fit some or all of characteristics below. I’ve modified the list a few times, and may make corrections in the future.
- The controlling personality operates primarily from a base of power, not reason. This first point is very important to understand, for what follows is based on it. Often, we don’t understand the reasoning behind a controlling person’s behavior, when in fact, there is no consistent reason, because reason is not the base of operations; power is. Reason is employed as it benefits him and advances his power. Remember: rational words only work with rational minds, and the controlling personality is not always rational.
- A controlling person often likes a position of authority (politician, professor, doctor, CEO, pastor, etc.). Being in control of others makes him feel important, powerful and secure (authority is legitimate, but arrogant people abuse their authority and hurt the innocent). The problem with arrogant people is that they rarely see their own faults, but only the faults of others. Their hubris prevents them from being open to genuine discussion about change. A humble person does not abuse their position of authority, but sees themselves as a servant-leader, open to discussion, correction, and willingly makes sacrifices for others (Phil 2:3-4).
- A controlling person often will try to destroy your confidence through subtle criticisms that keep you on the defensive, making you feel self-conscious all the time and walking on eggshells. The gradual chipping away at your self-esteem leaves you deflated, feeling insignificant, and eventually makes you feel like you have no value at all (criticism can be valid, if it is rooted in Scripture and followed with loving correction that builds the other person up). Scripture teaches we are to encourage one another (1 Th 5:11, 14; Heb 3:13), and build each other up (Rom 14:19), but the controlling person prefers only destructive criticism.
- A controlling person will sometimes recruit others to help coerce or control you. Sometimes other people are unsuspecting participants and may not know they are being used to cause harm.
- A controlling person will sometimes use your past, or even your weaknesses against you. This is unfortunate, because in any relationship there must be trust, and this means sharing things about your past and perhaps areas where you may struggle. The controlling person will exploit these areas to his own advantage, either to keep you in his grip, or to assassinate your character with others.
- A controlling person will often refuse to allow you to leave the relationship, demanding you conform to his way of doing things. There’s often no grace or freedom to think or act on your own. His personality leaves little room for your personality.
- If threatened, a controlling person will at times seek to cut off your friends (isolate you), or try to discredit or destroy your reputation in order to keep you under his controlling influence. The general rule is that what he cannot control, he will seek to destroy (psychologically, emotionally, socially, spiritually, and in some cases physically).
- A controlling person is often concerned with his own appearance and with the appearance of those within his grip. This helps him try to control the perception of others beyond his grasp (it’s good to be well dressed, but emphasis should be on loving character more than appearance).
- A controlling person sometimes wants to associate with important people because this adds to his own image of importance. Relationships are a means to an end, and this should always be kept in mind (sometimes we will know socially important people, but it’s wrong to flaunt our relationship with them for personal gain).
- A controlling person will rarely admit he is wrong, even when evidence is provided. This is important because arguing becomes an exercise in futility and frustration (a humble man will readily admit his faults and be open to loving correction).
- A controlling person rarely changes (since this requires humility), so it’s better to quietly leave the relationship if possible (especially if you’re in danger of harm). When leaving a controlling relationship, don’t worry about explaining yourself, as he will most likely not understand your words or actions. He will not be happy with your choice, but he’s not happy anyway, so you might as well be free from the controlling influence and seek more mature relationships.
It is okay, and sometimes best, to avoid the controlling person altogether. However, don’t be rude if/when you encounter him. The Apostle Paul says, “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Rom. 12:17-18). Treat him with grace and love, even though he does not show it to you. Seek to grow and be more than what he is to you. Try to love graciously, freely, with an open hand, expecting nothing in return. For coping skills, please see the related articles below.
Dr. Steven R. Cook
- A Primer on the Doctrine of Separation
- The Characteristics of a Christian Leader
- What Does it Mean to Be a Man?
- Twelve Ways to Deal with a Bad Boss
- Why Believers Show No Grace
- The Value of Suffering
- Mature Christian Love
- Bible Promises that Strengthen our Faith
- Dealing with Fools
- Choosing Righteous Friends
- Choose a Christian Spouse
- Love your Enemies
 This happened to me back in 2002 when I was pastoring a Southern Baptist Church in Central Texas. The head deacon was disturbed that I did not perform traditional altar calls at the end of the church service (they are not biblical) and argued with me for hours, trying to force me to comply (it was a very unpleasant experience). When I politely refused, he quietly and quickly spread lies within the congregation and engaged in character assassination. After winning over many unsuspecting church members, he inspired a coup d’etat, and within a few days I was unjustly and forcefully voted out of the church. The control-freak won and the church lost its pastor and a third of the members walked out of the morning service. I was deeply hurt by the matter and still bear scars. Over the years I’ve had other—less traumatic—experiences with controlling church leaders.