Controlling Pattern

Interpersonal Behavior

Tries to control others directly, bullying, dominating

Competitive. Tries to win at all costs in a conflict or debate. Adversarial.

Doesn’t recognize the importance of other people’s needs, feelings, perceptions, etc. 

Thinks she knows the way things are

Demanding, expects to get her way


Group, Community, Organizational, and Work Behavior

In group: Tries to control or set agenda for the group. Competes with leader for power whether or not this is necessary.

In organization: Competes to get more power, to move up the hierarchy.

In leadership position: Authoritarian

Public speaking and teaching are done from the position of knowing what is right and trying to convince or coerce others


Societal Behavior

Governance: Power broker, dictator, warlord

Adversarial democracy—more concerned with winning than good policy

Nationalistic, ethnic supremacy, tries to assimilate or eliminate other cultures

Organizational behavior: Ruthless competitor

National behavior: Economic control, ultimatums and use of war

Economic domination by competitiveness

In science and technology, goal is to control nature

Natural world is seen as resources to be used as we please


Social Change Behavior

Activist sees movement as right and everyone else as bad or ignorant and therefore needing to be educated and led

Tendency to create a splinter activist group where controlling person leads

Doesn’t practice democratic values within political group or movement, end justifies the means, domination within

Networking and organizing are done in order to gain power



1. Tries to control others in order to protect herself from being controlled or harmed.

2. Tries to get love, acknowledgement, caring, or acceptance that she didn’t get as a child without having to be vulnerable in the process or risking rejection.

3. Control in service of pride. Gaining power can be a way of defending against underlying feelings of deficiency.

4. Tries to control his environment as a way of controlling his inner life. Fear of internal chaos and fragmentation.

5. Control as aspect of entitlement. Other people are extensions of self so it is natural to control them.

6. Controlling the definition of reality in order to defend against self doubt coming from deceptive parent.


Core Issues and Origins

1. Harm issues, especially domination

2. Deficiency issues

3. Chaotic family history, severe neglect or harm issues.

4. Internalized controlling parent



I’m in charge. I know how to get things done. Let’s do it my way.


Underlying Thought

If I control others, then I won’t be harmed and I can get what I need.


Distortions of Perception

Sees self as assertive

Tends to see others as controlling or dangerous

Tends to see situations as chaotic

Sees people who are assertive as controlling or defiant

Sees people who are compliant as healthy


Dimensions Involved



Healthy Capacities Blocked

Cooperation, vulnerability



More common in men

More common in whites, upper classes, developed nations and in privileged groups in general


Activating Conditions

A situation that is threatening to the person, especially one that represents the type of harm the pattern is designed to guard against

Situations where the person is being judged or under someone else’s authority

People who tend to be angry, intrusive, controlling, judgmental, ridiculing

People who might have hidden anger

Situations that bring up needs (see needy pattern).

Chaotic situations.



An entitled person often is controlling, but this is often done in a more subtle way because others are just seen as an extension of the person. Direct controlling can be done when there are clear boundaries between people. The entitled person just expects to get his way, while the controlling person may expect to have to work at being in control.

The indirect pattern can attempt to control people, but not in the direct way of the controlling pattern.

The defiant pattern is also an attempt to prevent harm, but it involves rebellion rather than control.

Assertiveness is a healthy capacity that also involves exerting power, but the assertive person doesn’t expect to get her way and is open to the needs of others.


Related Patterns

Opposite: compliant

Healthy goal: cooperative

Some compliant people become controlling temporarily as they grow.


Dynamics with Other Patterns and Capacities

A controlling person will be attracted to people who are compliant or passive-aggressive. After a while they will become resentful of the controlling person, especially passive-aggressive people will. After a while, the controlling person may become unhappy that the compliant or passive-aggressive has no self. The controlling person may want someone who is stronger even if they can’t tolerate it. 

A passive-aggressive person can drive a controlling person crazy and generate great resentment.

A controlling person will have conflict with people who are defiant, controlling, or passive-aggressive. They will get into power struggles.


How to Relate to Controlling People

Circumventing and Disconfirming: Be cooperative. Don’t be judgmental, angry, controlling, defiant

Protection: Be assertive

Using Their Strength: Put in charge of project with compliant people

Healing response to a controlling person being cooperative: Be cooperative. Make sure they have a positive experience in letting go of their need to control


How to Experiment with Healthy Behavior and Attitude

Ask directly for your needs to be met without demand, allowing vulnerability and the possibility of not getting what you want

Share power with others, including authority figures. 

Take the risk to allow others to have significant influence on what happens

Trust another person to be in charge and help you.

Trust that if you let go of control, the situation will not become chaotic.



Choose people who will not threaten you when you soften your need for control

Choose people who don’t need you to be in charge

Choose people who are competent, so things don’t get out of control if you let down

Choose people who will support your letting go of control




Fear of Chaos

Afraid that if person doesn’t take charge there will be chaos in the situation or inner chaos. Underlying core issue is fear of fragmentation. Can come from a chaotic home situation or a lack of being taken care of and supported.



Tries to control others so they will give him what he wants without his having to become vulnerable or risk rejection. Underlying core issue is insecurity, shame.


Combinations of Controlling Pattern with Other Patterns

Needy: Tries to control others in order to get them to nurture him. Demanding.

Codependent: Tries to care for others in a controlling way, often because of a fear of chaos.

Entitled: Others are controlled because they are seen as an extension of the person and to prevent being exploited

Defiant: The person is rebellious and controlling, both to prevent harm or control

Suspicious: The person becomes controlling when afraid of being betrayed

Isolated: The person becomes controlling when he begins to be close to another person

Charming: Uses charisma and charm to control

Victim: Controls through guilt

Judgmental: Controls by judging what others do as wrong when it isn’t what the controlling person wants, moralistic




Related Technical Concepts

Psychopathic character in bioenergetics

One pole of SASB dimension



May need to control the therapy, tell you what to do, not let you intervene


Countertransference toward Controlling Client

Frustration at not being allowed to do therapy you way you want, getting into power struggles with the client.


Countertransference of Controlling Therapist

Need to control the client, either giving too much advice or too much control of session

Need to have client take your suggestions for experiments or accept your interpretations

Not enough attention paid to client’s process, feeling, needs

Difficulty in allowing group members to take some of the power in running the group


Group Roles/Positions

Assistant group leader or competitive group leader

Norm setter




Forming the Alliance

Therapist may need to allow client to control sessions until he feels safe enough to allow the therapist to have some input. When you sense this stage has been reached, gently and gradually begin intervening more, focusing on the client’s developing an understanding of the pattern (see below).


Circumventing and Disconfirming Pattern

Focus on empathy and types of interpretations that don’t feel threatening to client. Avoid suggestions. 

Avoid interventions that are similar to the way the client was controlled as a child. If client was controlled by parent defining reality, avoid interpretations. If client was supposed to perform, avoid questions.

As with defiant client, preface any questions or suggestions by checking with client if it is OK to explore in this way.

If client shows fear reaction and need to control, back off.


Understanding Needed by Client

Awareness of fear of being controlled or harmed and difficulty in allowing others in exert power. 

Awareness of controlling behavior 

Point out these dynamics non-judgmentally and empathically when they happen in transference and in life or in a group setting. Engage the client in looking at his feelings about being in control, leading toward both understanding and accessing origins.


Accessing Core Issue and Origins

Harm or deficiency issues

Being controlled



Client needs protection from the domination or harm she is re-experiencing. Can come from client or therapist. Best done in role playing.

Sometimes group leader protects a group member from others in group.


Accessing Healthy Capacities

Need for help from others



In his response to the client’s controlling behavior, therapist models how to share power—neither giving in with compliance or fighting back with defiance or being controlling.


Experimenting with Healthy Behavior

Asking directly for needs to be met without demand, allowing vulnerability 

Sharing power with others, including the therapist. Review the client’s presenting problems and point out that he needs to allow you to work with him to get his goals met. Suggest that he try out letting you do your job and see how it feels. Let him decide.


Experimenting with Healthy Attitudes

Trusting another person to be in charge and help.

Trusting that if he lets go of control, the situation will not be chaotic.

These usually can’t be suggested directly by the therapist; it will feel like being controlled.



Client needs appreciation for taking the risk to be vulnerable or share power.

Also needs careful respect for autonomy and safety issues.


Healing Relationship 

Develop relationship of closeness where you are in charge and respectful of client’s autonomy and safety needs, where client trusts you enough to allow you to run the therapy.


Potential Problems

Client takes over group and other members don’t assert themselves

-> Encourage group members to work on their compliance issues so they can confront the controlling client