It was August of 1997. I was 24 years old, extremely motivated, and trying to make a living in sales. A business client had called for an appointment and gave me an address regarding where to meet. When I arrived, I said to myself, “This can’t be right.” The address is a house. I called the number again. The client verified that was the meeting place. According to my notes, there were supposed to be multiple people in this meeting. Again, I said to myself, “Why aren’t there any cars? This doesn’t feel right.” Convincing myself that I needed the business, I went to the door anyway.
I knocked on the door and the client answered. I felt somewhat relieved that he answered the door. I knew him. He had gotten married recently and was very happy when I worked with him a year ago. We had made small talk waiting on the other people to arrive. He recognized my discomfort due to his shaven head and twitching face. He shared he was diagnosed with a brain tumor and it was very serious.
As time started to lapse, I looked at the clock. My fiance was going to start wondering where I was. I had grown even more uncomfortable as time passed. I wondered how much longer it would take for the others to arrive. After declining his offer for a glass of water, he asked if I wanted to see the blueprints for the business. Again, I ignored my instincts. I entered the room to look at the architect table. There was nothing on the table. When I turned to look at the client, he was holding a revolver.
Rather than listening to myself, I ignored my inner voice. As he said “I am not going to kill you or rape you” I turned my head to see the revolver pointed at me. Instantly, I went into hysterics. He closed the door and moved me towards the back of the room.
“Take your clothes off.” He said.
I immediately envisioned myself taking off my clothes and that not being enough for him. I saw images of him asking me to do things I did not want to do and him eventually taking my life. I saw my dead naked body lying on the floor, and my loved ones finding out I was found lifeless and without my clothes in some strange house. I felt if he wanted all that he would have to take my clothes off after I was no longer alive. I said to myself, “My life is not ending this way. I have so many more dreams to fulfill.”
Somehow, I found the power within and decided to reason and plead with him. “Why are you doing this? What about your wife? I am not going to… You can kill me first.”
He replied, “I will cripple you.”
I said, “I don’t care if you kill me or cripple me.”
As he started to explain himself, “It is just that this tumor…” Right then, his twitches in his face and clicks of his head that I had witnessed earlier came back. I continued to plea and refuse to give in to his demands. I noticed that I was emotionally getting to him.
Suddenly, he turned the gun on himself. While frightened he would take his own life in front of me, I saw my window of opportunity to escape. Quickly, I went towards him as he backed himself up towards the door. I grabbed the doorknob with my left hand and was able to wedge it open enough to get my leg in through the opening. Meanwhile, I pushed my right hand towards his face in an attempt to move the gun away from his own mouth. Somehow I was able to get out, grab my bag and keys and run out the door to my car while my whole body was shaking. He did not follow me. I began driving and frantically called 911. They directed me towards a local fire department for safety. I repeated the story multiple times of how I ended up in that house.
In the end, after police had surrounded his house and tried to get him to come out for hours, he ended his own life that night.
I had made multiple very risky decisions that day. I was thankful to be alive. I questioned myself. I worried about what people would think. I thought, “Why was I so gullible? Why did he pick me? Was there something I did that made me seem vulnerable?” I could never even face his wife to see how she handled all of it. I felt sad for her and envisioned him being sorry for what he had done to me. Truth is, I will never really know why or fully understand. Why would anyone choose to sabotage someone else’s life?
Often times, people attempt to control others when they feel powerless in their own lives. The more we feel we have lost control, the more we want to try and control others.
After talking to my sister-in-law who is well versed in mental health, she helped me understand it was not my fault. Being able to talk with someone helped me be able to focus on what could come from the experience. She helped me understand that some brain tumors cause irrational behavior. It was not about me. I was proud of how I had been brave enough to escape. I also learned that I need to listen to my gut instincts.
When sharing my story, some questioned why I didn’t just do what he said. You may even be questioning some of the same things and wonder why I am sharing this story.
While I was not a victim of rape, I felt the extreme case of having someone try to control me by force at a relatively young age. I felt the side effects. My purpose is not to gain pity here. My purpose is to increase awareness and help you prevent being controlled. To teach you how to stop your own ineffective habits of controlling behaviors. There are some lessons to be learned from this story, and others I have experienced in my life as both the victim and the controller.
Through professional help and research, I have learned how to identify signs of controlling behavior, the reasons behind it, how to overcome situations of being controlled and recognize when I am the person doing the controlling. By sharing my findings, may you learn some skills to find freedom from this controlling behavior as well as know where to go for additional resources that go beyond my experience.
Let’s start by helping you identify situations where someone has tried to control you or you have controlled someone else. Can you think of times when someone used force, guilt or fear to get you to do something? How did it make you feel?
For example, as common as someone saying:
“If you can’t do this, then you must not want to be the best and accept mediocrity.”
“I have done so much for you, you mean you can’t even do this for me? Guess I don’t mean enough to you.”
Have you been the person who has tried to force your power over another person by saying things like:
“If you don’t I will…”
“Do …because I said so.”
To help you identify controlling behaviors, Andrea Bonier Ph.D. has as a blog in Psychology Today where she states: “Controlling people often know how to fly under the radar and how to make themselves look good. They can be skilled in manipulating the people they are dating into thinking that their friends and family must be wrong or jealous or overprotective. Controlling people may try to leave trails of “evidence” that they are good partners, and fool you into thinking that they only have your best interests at heart. And they can be adept at making you doubt and second-guess your instincts when your alarm bells do finally go off.”
Here are the 20 signs from Dr. Bonier that indicate your Partner is Controlling:
1) Isolating you from friends and family.
2) Chronic criticism—even if it’s ‘small’ things.
3) Veiled or overt threats, against you or them.
4) Making acceptance/caring/attraction conditional.
5) An overactive scorecard.
6) Using guilt as a tool.
7) Creating a debt you’re beholden to.
8) Spying, snooping or requiring constant disclosure.
9) Overactive jealousy, accusations, or paranoia.
10) Not respecting your need for time alone.
11) Making you “earn” trust or other good treatment.
12) Presuming you guilty until proven innocent.
13) Getting you so tired of arguing that you’ll relent.
14) Making you feel belittled for long-held beliefs.
15) Making you feel you don’t “measure up” or are unworthy of them.
16) Teasing or ridicule that has an uncomfortable undercurrent
17) Sexual interactions that feel upsetting afterward.
18) Inability or unwillingness to ever hear your point of view.
19) Pressuring you toward unhealthy behaviors, like substance abuse.
20) Thwarting your professional or educational goals by making you doubt yourself.
To give you an understanding of the scale of people who may have experienced controlling behaviors, I would like to share data from Hotline.org. In January 2019, nearly half of all women and men in the United States reported that they have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner in their lifetime (48.4% and 48.8%, respectively). This does not include physical abuse. 1.5 million high school students nationwide experience physical abuse from a dating partner in a single year according to Loveisrespect.org. NCADV reports on average 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. On a typical day, 20,000 phone calls are placed to domestic violence hotlines nationwide.
In business, I have witnessed many situations that left me appalled. Once, a manager called in his female subordinate into his office after failing to get me to tell him he was good-looking. He said to her, “Tell me I am incredibly handsome.” She did and he found entertainment in his power to get her to fulfill his demand. He thought he was funny. After she left that company, I ran into her later and she said that was the least of the demeaning requests she had to deal with while working for him. He may not have realized that his humor was only funny to him. There are many other stories of women in sales who have to deal with clients who make inappropriate requests in order for the client to buy their product. I will refrain from sharing the vulgar details. With the “me too” movement, it is no secret.
In a Moneyish article, seven women tell Moneyish how they handled harassment and assault on the job — and what they wish they’d done differently. On October 17, 2017, Meera Jagannathan reports: “About 40% of women report experiencing unwanted sexual attention or coercion at work and nearly 60% say they’ve endured workplace gender harassment, according to a 2016 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission report.” At the time of the article, there were over 52k likes on Alyssa Milano’s Tweet feed based on her request for people to speak up.
When people I know or in the news share their story, they express feelings of shame, not knowing what to do, and inability to express how it made them feel. In many situations, people feel trapped. In work environments, people feel if they report it they will be seen as weak. In cases where women have taken their case to Human Resources, the problem has not always been solved. There are stories of legal services even discouraging women from filing lawsuits as it goes on public record and then deters future employers from hiring them. In 2016 Cynthia Shapiro, a Human Resources expert and author of “Corporate Confidential’ published an article in ABC News Opinion section: What You Need to Know Before Filing a Sexual Harassment Complaint. She wrote, “even though sexual harassment is strictly illegal, many companies tell employees to notify right away because they want to get ahead of, and hopefully squelch, a potentially damaging legal issue for the company.” She goes on to say, “The harsh reality is that many employees who file claims of sexual harassment find themselves discounted, sidelined and even managed out or fired.”
Now that you have seen some statistics to show the massive amount of people who have been a victim of abuse and unwanted sexual attention, imagine how many more people have been impacted by controlling behaviors.
In order to be able to respond to the behavior, you must first seek to understand why the person is trying to control you. To do that, Sarah Newman M.A. MFA Publisher of Psych Central in her blog “Why Would Anyone Want to Control You” says:
“People who can’t control themselves turn to control others. This happens on an emotional level. A person full of insecurities has to exact a positive sense of self from other people because their self-esteem is too low to do it for themselves.”
“People control because they are afraid of being abandoned. They don’t feel secure in their relationships and are often testing to see if they’re about to be betrayed. The paradox is that their behavior creates exactly what they fear the most.”
When you recognize it is about them and not about you, it gives you a power within to figure out the person’s motivations. It stops you from giving in to their demands. In the situation with the person who was suffering from a brain tumor, he had no power over it and therefore possibly wanted to exert power over someone else in hopes it would make him feel better. In the situation of the client needing to hear he was good-looking, it was truly because he was going through a divorce and was not feeling secure in himself. He needed boosts to his ego. In other sexual assault cases, there are obviously more issues involved that I am not prepared to address.
In most cases, once you recognize the root of the problem with someone who you notice is controlling, you can start identifying what will work best. Preston Ni M.S.B.A. lists the following excerpts from his book How to Successfully Handle Aggressive and Controlling People in his blog which I highly recommend and can be found in my resources section:
1. Keep Your Cool and Maintain Composure
2. Keep Your Distance and Keep Your Options Open
3. Depersonalize and Shift from Reactive to Proactive
4. Know Your Fundamental Human Rights
5. Put the Spotlight on Them & Reclaim Your Power
6. In Relatively Mild Situations, Display Superior Composure Through Appropriate Humor
7. In Serious Situations, Set Consequences to Compel Cooperation
Preston says in his blog, “to know how to handle aggressive, intimidating, and controlling people is to truly master the art of communication. As you utilize these skills, you may experience less grief, greater confidence, better relationships, and higher communication prowess.”
In the case of the client who needed to hear he was good-looking, I could have better handled the situation by asking, “why do you need me to say you are good looking to feel like you are?” In instances where someone has tried to demean you, you could say “I do not deserve to be treated this way, is there something bothering you?” If the behavior continues, set a boundary by saying something like, “If you continue to talk to me disrespectfully, I will begin to avoid you.”
In more severe situations that I have witnessed in the counseling sessions where the individual has shown controlling behavior or even abusive behavior, it was common that they handled all the finances and safety was a concern. In these extreme situations, the control seeker has wanted a spouse who does not work so they have financial control over them. The women then stay in abusive relationships because they don’t have the ability to move out financially. If you are in a situation like this, make sure you become informed and are at least aware of account balances, account numbers, and passwords. It is crucial you stay educated. If that is not possible and you are one of those women in a living arrangement where you feel you are in danger call for help. National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-SAFE.
If you are stuck with an extremely controlling person in a business situation and none of the above methods of communication have worked, look at your options rather than suffering and doing things that conflict with your value system. If it is a client, go to your manager and explain the situation and see if there are options for account transfers. If the manager doesn’t support you then report it to your Human Resources office. If your company doesn’t have one or you are afraid of the repercussions, then look for other positions. In my experience, if the manager is someone who cares about you, they will work to help you.
Given not all work environments are healthy where some managers and the leaders at the top work to control their employees and put them down versus providing constructive criticism, you may also feel trapped in your job. You may think it is you. There may also be times where you do need coaching. However, good managers will praise in public and critique in private. If they are saying things that only bring you down in front of your peers and others, that is a sign that the manager may be the problem. Also if what they say isn’t helpful and beats you down more than coaches you to be better, than you may need to examine your situation closer. Your gut will tell you if it is truly you or if others around you are experiencing the same problems. You have choices. First work to address it with the person. For example, you could say in a one on one, yet safe setting, “I know I have some areas where I can improve. When you used the terms “…” what did you really mean by that? Next time could you help me understand exactly how to get better?” If you are in an extreme situation where you are feeling controlled to do inappropriate things please see https://www.eeoc.gov.
On the reverse end, I have learned lessons about my own controlling behavior, which I utilized without realizing it and its consequences. In my counseling lessons at Southbrook Church, Randy Creamer has explained “the more influence you have in a relationship, the less you need to control. And the more control you use, the less influence you probably have.” He made me start listening to how I interact with my daughters. He made me realize there were times I was using guilt as a way to get them to do something or even talk with me. It became obvious that the more I tried to control, the more I pushed them away. When I started to give them the freedom to choose and listened and asked questions instead there was less fighting. I started explaining WHY it was important to do something to get them on board in a positive way. I worked to show unconditional love regardless of their choice. It is sometimes hard. Yet it is critical.
Randy shared how based on his counseling experience and studies if we control our kids, they will learn to accept being controlled as adults. They will not learn to make choices on their own and it can hurt their self-esteem. So instead of forcing decisions on them, teach them to stand up for themselves, learn self-defense, set boundaries and also model the behavior you want for them.
In addition, it is important to teach children to work to understand the person hurting them. Getting them to understand “hurting people hurt people” has helped my daughters remember to be compassionate and to not take things personally. They will now remind me of it when I need to be reminded.
As you start to be more aware of areas where you can improve even if you aren’t extreme, know it isn’t too late to change. I have not always made the best choices, however, I now have techniques I have been practicing that are making differences in my struggles of control. Brene Brown makes a great point in her book I Thought It Was Just Me, but it Isn’t. She says “When we have our self-worth rising on the realization of something that we can’t control, we put our self-worth in jeopardy.”
What do you do when someone doesn’t do what you want? What style do you use with your children? Your spouse? Your employees? If you notice you are controlling as defined above, seek counseling if necessary. Uncover why you feel you need to have power over people.
If you are a manager that struggles with not being able to get their employees to do what is needed, don’t fall back on using forceful, threatening or demeaning remarks. It has negative effects on the person’s morale and kills the person’s desire to want to work for you. While it is important to hold people accountable, it is ineffective in the long run to add demeaning comments that take a strike at the person’s worth. Rather than saying “you are lazy” a more constructive way of motivating someone would be to say, “You are not showing your full potential. You are capable of so much more.”
For those in leadership, are you keeping an eye on how your managers treat those working for you? What about how they treat your business partner representatives? How they treat people is a reflection of your company’s image and could be costly to your business in turnover, your reputation with customers and maybe even lawsuits. Be sure to have your employees do anonymous surveys. Have someone secret shop, play vendor or play undercover boss for the day if you suspect anyone who could threaten your company’s values.
Whether you are the controller or being controlled, help is available. You are worthy of so much more. No one deserves to be treated as beneath another person. You deserve to be treated with respect. Be sure to look yourself in the mirror and reassure yourself of all your incredible traits. Make a list of all your great qualities to reframe your mind and maintain your boundaries. You have the right to have your own value system and maintain your self-worth. Be brave enough to address the problem. If safety is a concern, find support.
For more help with a controlling partner, I recommend Dr. Bonier’s blog: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/friendship-20/201506/20-signs-your-partner-is-controlling
For more help handling Aggressive and Controlling people see Preston’s blog: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/communication-success/201409/how-successfully-handle-aggressive-and-controlling-people:
Southbrook counseling – https://southbrook.org/ministries/
Boundaries By Dr. Henry Cloud & Dr. John Townsend
If you are a victim of Sexual Violence or Trauma, please seek your local counseling services.
Disclaimer: I am not an expert in the best way to handle yourself in a sexual assault situation or when someone is threatening your life. Please see http://www.rainn.org or NSVRC. or http://www.cdc.gov