What to Do When Someone Tries to Control You

Friends, partner, family, co-workers... There's always someone who seeks to exercise control over you. How can you to prevent this from happening? How can you defend yourself and set clear boundaries? Find out here.
What to Do When Someone Tries to Control You
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

When someone tries to control you, you usually feel like you’re being attacked. That’s because whoever seeks to dominate you isn’t only disrespecting you, they’re also attacking your rights, values, and ability to make your own decisions. Sadly, this happens every day in different environments: at work, and with families and partners, for example.

These kinds of dynamics are extremely complex and subtle. After all, it’s difficult to imagine that someone you consider a friend could be a stalker. It’s difficult because, when you like someone, you’re more tolerant of them. You give in to certain demands, agree to certain favors, and might even sanction conduct that’s both illogical and harmful.

Until one day you realize.

Indeed, the moment comes when you open your eyes and you’re aware that someone’s trying to manipulate you as if you were a puppet. Some use fear to do it, but others use the closeness and supposed affection they have for you. Whatever method they use, you must always be clear that those who seek to control you don’t love you, but simply seek to satisfy their own purposes.

Curious as it may be, it isn’t so easy to realize that someone is trying to control you. It takes time to recognize because you find it hard to believe that it’s happening.

Couple arguing in the street about when someone tries to control you
When someone wants to control you, they seek to change you, to make you act and be as they expect.

Strategies to help when someone tries to control you

Patricia Evans is a renowned specialist in interpersonal communication. She’s also the author of several bestsellers, such as The Verbally Abusive Relationship (1992) and Controlling People (2003). 

In her latest work, Evans claims that those who seek to dominate you want to alter your reality. Therefore, they distort it, making you doubt yourself. She states that dealing with these figures is almost like breaking a spell. It involves recognizing what they’re doing to you and, then, making it clear to them that you won’t play their game, and won’t allow yourself to be defeated by their Machiavellian tricks.

Let’s take a look at the ‘spell-breaking’ strategies that can help.

Direct confrontations with the controllers don’t help much. In those circumstances, they always win. It’s better to stop giving them your attention and make them see that their importance in your life is increasingly reduced.

Identify the controller: they may be close by and you don’t realize it

You don’t always recognize the controlling person. That’s because they apply subtle, devious, and covert strategies under the guise of good intentions, false camaraderie, and even double-edged affection.

Almost without you noticing, these actions end up taking hold of you like the roots of a tree running underground. You must ensure you see it coming. Here are some indicators:

  • They ask you for favors and assume that you’ll fulfill them because of the relationship you have with them.
  • They’ll make you believe that they’re the most important people in your life. They’ll claim that they’re the ones who care the most about you, and who want the best for you at all times. However, a study conducted by the Federal University of the South (Russia) indicates that behind a controlling personality, lies a figure who’s dependent on the person they’re controlling.
  • They’re adept at criticizing what you do, say, or want. That said, they do it in a kind and paternalistic way.
  • They respond dramatically when you deny them something.
  • They seek to make you feel guilty about insignificant matters. Like not responding quickly to their messages, not paying enough attention to them, etc.
  • Their thinking is inflexible and dichotomous. They believe you’re either with them or against them and there’s never any middle ground. Nor do they accept any other perspectives other than their own.
  • Their moods constantly change. At times they’re incredibly friendly and suddenly they’re distant. Furthermore, they try to make you believe that you’re the cause of their well-being or discomfort.
  • They lie. When someone tries to control you, lying is always their best resource.

Respond indirectly

The person skilled in control techniques is also usually skilled in direct confrontations. Therefore, it won’t do much good if you tell them “I want you to stop controlling me, you have no right to act this way”. In fact, you’ll always lose in a face-to-face confrontation with them. So, what can you do?

The best response is indirect action, the kind that they don’t expect:

  • Ignore and apply silence as a shield. Not paying attention to them invalidates them. Avoiding them, slipping away, not responding, and withdrawing from them in your daily life is the best strategy.
  • Distraction techniques. Controllers are masters of speech, of those moralizing talks with which they remind you how badly you do this or that. In those situations, change the subject and talk about another totally unrelated topic.
  • Indirect assertiveness. It often doesn’t do much good to warn the controller in advance of your boundaries. They only end up violating them. If they complain about your indifference toward them, be assertive by reminding them of those they’ve crossed already.

Ask them questions that encourage them to reason about their behavior

When someone tries to control you, don’t resort to anger or protest: ask them questions. The goal of this strategy is to make them question themselves. Also, make them see that you know what their game is and that you’re no longer willing to play it.

Your questions should be direct and concise and include concrete examples of your behavior. For example, “Why do you take it for granted that I’m going to do you a favor? What makes you think that I have to agree to everything you ask of me?

In life, you have to know when to leave and when to run and leave behind something that hurts. Whoever seeks to control you doesn’t appreciate your well-being or your happiness.

Colleagues talking at work
If you can’t get away from people who seek to control you, set clear boundaries.

Free yourself from guilt, you have the right to break the bonds that hurt

Society and the way in which we’re educated tend to make us liable to feel guilty. Guilt for not being and acting as others want. Guilt for prioritizing ourselves and not taking into account the needs of others. Guilt for not taking care of those relatives, friends, or partners who do so much for us (even if they don’t like us).

You must understand that, in terms of your own psychological well-being, there’s no middle ground. Either the people around you treat you well, or you must leave them behind. Keep your distance. Cut your ties. When someone tries to control you, analyze what’s binding you to them. If you can leave that relationship, do so.

Finally, if for some reason, you’re forced to share certain areas of your life with these kinds of people, try to keep contact to a minimum. Do it without feeling guilty and be proud that you’ve put yourself first.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Evans, Patricia (2003) Controlling People: How to Recognize, Understand, and Deal With People Who Try to Control You
  • Marken, R. S., & Carey, T. A. (2015). Controlling People: The paradoxical nature of being human. Brisbane: Australian Academic Press.
  • Shkurko TA. (2013). Socio-psychological analysis of controlling personality. DOI: 10.1016/j.sbspro.2013.08.625
  • Stafford M, et al. (2015). Parent–child relationships and offspring’s positive mental wellbeing from adolescence to early older age. DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2015.1081971

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.