Deconstructing the term «control freak»

Control freaks. You may have called people like this. Or you may have been called one yourself. Maybe you got angry. Or, on the contrary, you felt like being a control freak is a feature, because who would notice all these little details that are not exactly perfect if not you? This post is an attempt to deconstruct the term.

Etymological considerations

Control - from latin contra- rotulus - refers to the copy of an account register as a means of verification of the original register. So control is about keeping track, not making mistakes, i.e. it's about doing a perfect calculation. The meaning of control in our society is linked to authority, or to policing — like in crowd control. What English calls an inspector, is a Kontrolleur in German or contrôleur in French. The word is also linked to manufacturing, as in quality control. We also talk about being in control, which is linked to the desire of being autonomous, to be able to act on one's own account. Being in control can also designate a need to preserve one's own integrity: if I have integrity (in the sense of feeling whole), I can self-determine, which is the most fundamental requirement for having one's own identity.

Freak - refers to someone who does not fit the norm. Calling someone a freak is per se problematic, because it blames a person for being atypical, abnormal. Freak is a word that, while pointing a finger at difference, at the same time denies people the right to be different and diverse. People can reappropriate such words to make it clear that not fitting the norm is a wanted expression of their diversity — we can see that if we follow the history of the word queer for an example.

Types of control freaking

To me, being a control freak is mostly a feature, if it's about controlling my own life and my own effectiveness. Control freaking becomes troublesome when it's about controlling other people's effectiveness. And it becomes highly problematic when it's about controlling other people's lives.

Controlling one's own life

Having control over one's own life is a basic human need. In particular people who are part of minorities, people who face discrimination and oppression every day have an increased need for self-determination, and the need to see their existence and their identity acknowledged and accepted by the rest of the world. Too often do we experience that other people (generally the ones with privilege, or not facing the same oppression) try to own the narrative over our lives (1)(2). Calling this control freakish is missing the point, and is probably a sign of looking at it from a perspective of privilege.

Controlling one's own effectiveness

People produce things. People write code, make ceramics, or write texts, for example. People have a need to control their own effectiveness: they set up routines, product tests, documentation. This type of control is a feature, and can help to release better software, better texts, or perfectly burnt clay pots — ultimately controlling one's own effectiveness helps to learn from one's mistakes and to improve routines over time.

The grey zone

The grey zone describes the zone in between wanting to control one's own effectiveness and wanting to control other people's effectiveness. Here we could situate the type of control freak who does not delegate tasks to others for fear of seeing them done differently then they had expected them to be done. This can be harmful particularly to the person who does not delegate: they can get overworked or burnt out. This type of control freakism might be linked to perfectionism.

Controlling other people's effectiveness

When we work with other people, our own effectiveness might get in the way of other people's effectiveness, or vice versa. Indeed, it happens - not only in work contexts - that people find themselves in setups in which mutual responsibilities and autonomies conflict with one another because one person is dependent on the other for making decisions or moving things forward as they see fit. (There is generally a relation of dependency between two conflicting parties that is worth looking at (3).) Add to this the fact that, when delegating a task, some people have a hard time also delegating the responsibility and autonomy needed to resolve the task. They lack trust that another person can also do the work, or want that person to do the work exactly in the same way they would do it. (In some cases this can be related to Founder's Syndrome and can result in organizations staying stuck with one or a small group of founders holding knowledge and power, and preventing the organization from growing. Page 11 in the booklet "Working with conflict in our groups" describes how such an informal hierarchy can come into being in grassroot groups.)

The (perfectly valid) need behind this type of control freaking could be to make sure that a group of people builds a successful product, releases a fact-checked documentary, or creates a publication without mistakes. But controlling other people's effectiveness as a strategy to satisfy this need can create a non-cooperative climate in which people do not meet each other on eye level, but are dependent on each other, experience a lack autonomy, a break of boundaries, or sometimes feel authority to be overexerted.

Acknowledging the need to build a good product, it is possible to create the appropriate strategies to guarantee that the involved people can meet each other on eye level: for example by clearly defining and documenting role-responsibility-accountability along with appropriate decision making processes, or by distributing leadership (← you should totally click on that link!), by looking at inclusive leadership models, by learning from past mistakes, by instating feedback cycles, by making boundaries between the direction of an organization and the day-to-day work clear.

An organization I work with has the rule that people can make decisions for themselves if the decision only affects their work, while decisions that affect a team should be made with the team, and decisions that affect the organization as a whole need to be made at the organizational level. They call that a no-brainer, but in organizations with traditional hierarchies, or in grown grassroot environments that have never clearly defined and assigned responsibilities and accountabilities (aka "functional roles") this is not so obvious at all.

Controlling someone else's life

This type of control freak does not only desire to control their own life but for a reason or another wants to know and control what other people do, think (especially about the control freak), decide, or how they live. In some cases, this type of control freak might even want to force upon others things they should do as a way to be accepted by the control freak. It's what we call narcissism, harassment, abuse. It is unacceptable.


In summary, the distinctions I came up with in this post describe the boundaries along which control freakism takes hold of someone else's effectiveness or life — and ultimately prevents them from self-determining. In German we have the word übergriffig which describes that someone is infringing someone else's boundaries — they are over - grabbing, seizing, grasping, taking hold of.

Which type of control freak are you, if any?

(1) Like when a West-Berliner in a round of 15 East Germans arrogantly talks about the time when the wall came down and tells the story that he could not go shopping between Thursdays and Sundays because the East Germans bought too many products in the supermarkets — while this event marked an unimaginable rift in the biographies of 17 million East Germans, 15 of whom are sitting right in front of him. Thirty years after 1989, many of us are finally starting to question this publicly (← links in German language).

(2) Women experience it similary regularly, see Men Explain Things to me, a book by Rebecca Solnit.

(3) By the way, rather than having "recruited the wrong person" conflict may intrinsically arise as part of certain work relationships, simply due to the inter-dependencies of roles or workers, like in a delivery chain.