How To Stop Controlling The People You Love

(It’s killing your relationships)

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

Usually, I write about people pleasing.

Why we do it, how it started, and how to stop.

Today is a little different perspective, however. Consider it a deeper dive.

As you may already know, people-pleasing is a skill we develop in childhood, as a means of self-preservation. We try to behave the “right” way to please others and control their emotions and reactions to feel safe and to keep the peace (you can read more about that here).

Theoretically, we should evolve out of people-pleasing as we get older because we no longer need to try and control others to feel safe. We’re more independent and have more agency over our own feelings.

Unfortunately, that’s usually not the case. If you grew up people-pleasing there was probably no one teaching you how to manage your feelings.

So, even as adults, we still believe we need to control the emotions and behaviors of others to achieve our desired emotions. We need them to behave or react in the “right way” in order for us to feel happy, loved, or accepted.

And this my friends, is called ‘having a manual’.

When we’re in a relationship with someone we (subconsciously) have a manual for that person with rules about how they need to act and what they need to say in order for us to feel our desired emotions, whether it’s love, appreciation, or respect.  

And we apply those manuals to all of our relationships, friends, partners, parents, or children.

We tell ourselves:
“If my husband remembers my birthday or buys me something I really want, then he loves me. If he doesn’t, then he clearly doesn’t love or understand me.”
“My mom or dad needs to tell me they’re proud of me or that they love me so I can feel appreciated and loved”
“My grown kids need to text me or spend time with me so I can feel appreciated and believe I’m a good parent.”

What do all these examples have in common?

  1. We’re giving control of our feelings over to someone else.
  2. The people we are entrusting our feelings to are living, breathing human beings with free will

That is not a winning formula.

I love my kids unconditionally and with all of my heart, as I’m sure most parents do. 

Now, ask me how many times I’ve let my children down…the times I forgot an important date or something they were supposed to have for school, or didn’t buy the right toy at Christmas or their birthday. My kids are grown adults and I still let them down.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t love them, or value them above anything else!

It just means I’m human. I’ve never been perfect and I will never be.

So why is it we expect other people to be perfect, and to not disappoint us? To say and do everything the right way, otherwise, we can’t feel loved and appreciated? 

The real reason we feel disappointed

Most of us blame our feelings of disappointment on someone else because they didn’t say or do something that they ‘should’ have. 

But that’s not the real cause.

Our disappointment comes from expecting them to act differently than they did.

For not following our manual.  

When I first met my late husband, Craig, what drew me to him was that he was the most easygoing, laid-back person I’d ever met. He could get along with anyone and rarely ever got upset.

After roughly ten years into our marriage, however, it was that same laid-back trait that I started resenting.

I became frustrated that he never had an opinion about what we did. He would always leave it up to me: “Whatever you want to do”, or “Whatever you think”. 

Fast forward twenty-four years into our marriage, fourteen years after his diagnosis of primary progressive MS. By then he was confined to a bed and I had been caring for him for several years. 

As his condition worsened I became more angry and resentful by the day. I felt like he wasn’t “trying hard enough” to care for himself, and that he was leaving all the work and decisions up to me. He was being too laid back. 

My manual for him was that he needed to make more of an effort to care for himself so I wouldn’t feel so overwhelmed.

I blamed my husband for my feelings. I was angry at him, at our situation, and at myself. I felt miserable and I was making everyone else around me miserable as well, including my husband and my kids.

A few months before my husband passed, when I began doing thought work, I finally saw what I was doing.

My husband wasn’t causing my anger and frustration.

It was my thought that he should be acting differently than he was.

That he should somehow be different than he had been in the almost thirty years of our relationship. 

He should have taken control of the situation and been the one to make all the decisions and fight for a longer life.

The realization that I was angry at him for not following my unwritten, unexpressed manual was the most considerable relief I had gotten up to that point. My anger and resentment dissolved almost immediately.

Once I realized my husband was only being the same person he had always been, I could step back and look at our situation more objectively. I could understand he was doing the best he could and that he was only being the same person he had always been. The same person I fell in love with almost thirty years before. 

By letting go of my manual for him, and how he “should” be handling his illness, I could let go of the manual I had for myself, for how I “should” also be handling it. I was able to give both of us grace and let go of my expectations. Each of us was handling the situation the best we could.

Losing my anger and resentment allowed room for the compassion, and also the grief that I had been stuffing down for that whole time.

Who are you holding a manual for?

If you grew up as a people-pleaser you probably have a manual for most of the relationships in your life. Sometimes it’s the only way we know how to connect with other people.

But I’d like to offer that you can let that manual go. It’s not serving you and it’s certainly not helping your relationships.

You will never get your mom to act how she’s never acted, or to (authentically) say what she’s never said.

You will never get your husband to do what he said he would do when he said he would do it if that’s not something he’s ever done.

You will never get your kids to act how you think they should act.

Trying to control our feelings by controlling other people just doesn’t work. Plus it’s exhausting.

Instead, learn to control what is within your power to control.

Look inside yourself. Get curious about why, why do you need someone else to act a certain way?

And what will you get to feel if they do?

Will you get to feel validated? Loved? Accepted?

My dear you don’t need someone else to make you feel that way, these are feelings you can give yourself – you can believe in yourself, you can validate yourself, and you can love and accept yourself.

That’s the work. 

We are the only ones who can fill those buckets inside of ourselves, and it’s an option available to all of us, no matter where we’re starting from.

The more love and acceptance we have within us, the more we can share with those outside of us.

It’s a beautiful thing.

Discover What’s Possible

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