Some people try to control us. Some people try to control us for altruistic reasons, and others for darker reasons. Either way, though, I think most of us would prefer not to be controlled by another person. But it can be hard to tell when someone subtly tries to control you. One thing I learned many years ago, though, is that if someone doesn’t listen to you when you say “no,” they are trying to control you — whether they realize it or not.
Watch Out for Controlling People Who Don’t Listen to ‘No’
I’ve been around controlling people. I hated it. And I’ve been around people who controlled me before, and I hated that too. What I learned, though, is the most effective control is subversive. Yes, an abusive person may outright try to control your every move, but most people aren’t that forthright. Most people try to manipulate you into doing what you don’t want to do. And these are the people to look out for because:
- They aren’t even aware they are trying to control you (yes, this is possible).
- Their attempts at control are hidden through manipulation and thus are more dangerous.
- They are actually abusive people who are ramping up their control.
When You Say ‘No,’ Controlling People Don’t Listen to You
Saying “no” means you’re asserting a boundary. Boundaries are healthy between adults. You get to claim the boundaries that make sense for you. And people who care about you need to learn to respect those boundaries. Period.
But sometimes people don’t respect your “no” and don’t respect your boundaries. This means they are trying to control you. I know that might seem like a blanket statement that can’t possibly be true, but let’s consider some examples:
- You say “no” to a drink at a party. Your friend says, “What’s the big deal? Don’t you want to have fun?”
- You say “no” to going out to a movie with friends. Your friend says, “You missed it last time. We’ll buy your ticket and see you at 6:00 p.m.”
- You say “no” to a family dinner. Your mother says, “After everything I’ve done for you, the least you can do is show up for dinner.”
- You say “no” to trying a wacky alternative “treatment” for bipolar disorder. Your father says, “Clearly, you’re hooked on those psychiatric drugs and don’t really want to get better.”
In all cases, not listening to “no” is evidence that the other person is trying to get you to do something you don’t want to do — they are trying to control you.
‘No’ Is a Complete Sentence, Don’t Let Others Control You
It has been said, and it’s true that “no” is a complete sentence. As in:
- Can you pick me up and take me to my appointment? “No.”
- Do you want to join us for lunch? “No.”
- May I borrow $100? “No.”
In the above cases, you might want to expand on your “no.” You might want to explain why you can’t pick a person up for their appointment or why you don’t want to go out to lunch. Or you might not. Either way, your “no” should be enough. Your loved ones should respect that “no” regardless. An explanation may be given, but it should be required for respect.
It Can Take Time for ‘No’ to Prevent Control Attempts
Many people think they know better than others. For example, does your mother think she knows who you should date? Does a friend of yours think they know what your diet should contain? And so on. These people may have your best interests at heart, but that doesn’t mean they’re not trying to assert control over you, and “best interest” doesn’t make that okay. (Believe it or not, an abusive person who asserts extreme control may think they are “doing it for you” too.)
But if these people are used to getting their way with you, if they are used to ignoring your “no,” then it can take them some time to start realizing that your “no” is firm and that you’ll no longer accept their control. This doesn’t have to be a contentious process. You can gently assert your boundaries, say “no,” and stand up for yourself a little bit at a time. Force the other person to “practice” respecting what you want. Start with something small and work up. The first time you say “no” probably shouldn’t be for the Christmas dinner that you’ve attended every year for the last 20 years and that your mother loves. (But if it is, that’s okay too, but more difficult.)
Say ‘No’ and Don’t Allow Others to Control You
That said, it might be a contentious process. Generally speaking, people who are used to controlling you aren’t going to want to give up that control (see: parents with newly-adult children). So, you may literally have to say, “I have a boundary that is important to me. Please respect that.”
Or, after many attempts, you might have to get down to brass tacks and just say, “You are ignoring what I want and trying to control me. I will not allow that to continue.”
This will, no doubt, make the other person angry. But sometimes, that confrontation is worth it to assert control over your own life. Sometimes it’s the wake-up call the other person needs. It’s a hard pill to swallow that you’ve been controlling or attempting to control another person, but sometimes it’s a pill that has to be ingested.
Saying ‘No’ to an Abuser Who Is Controlling You
Now, the above assumes that you’re not dealing with a truly abusive situation. If you are ever at risk emotionally, or certainly physically, the best “no” you might ever say is the one you say while walking out the door. That said, it can be much more complicated in these cases, and I’m afraid that is beyond the scope of this article.
What If a Person Still Won’t Listen to ‘No’ and Still Tries to Control You?
The best outcome when you say “no” is the other person respects your wishes and doesn’t try to further assert control. Aiming for the best outcome is great; however, we don’t always get the best outcome. So keep in mind:
- Saying “no” takes practice on your part. If you haven’t been doing it, you might find it quite difficult. Don’t give up if it doesn’t work the first time. Keep trying.
- Hearing “no” takes practice on their part. As I said, people don’t like it when you start up for yourself and say “no.” That’s okay. That’s human. Don’t give up on your boundaries even if they aren’t initially respected the way you want. Keep trying.
- Have a heart-to-heart. You may need to sit a person down and talk about why you feel the need to assert boundaries when you didn’t before. No one likes these difficult conversations, but the result is a better understanding for both parties.
If you’ve done all of the above and the person won’t listen to your ‘no,’ the person won’t stop trying to control you, then you may have to reevaluate the position that person has in your life. The fact of the matter is that boundaries are healthy, and we all have them. If someone refuses to respect your healthy boundaries, how much do they really care about you? I’m not saying to just cut the person out of your life, although that’s always an option, but altering your relationship dynamics may be warranted. For example, maybe you don’t make plans on the fly with this person if they won’t respect your thoughts about those plans. Maybe you don’t eat with this person if you feel they are always judging your diet. Etc.
In all, it’s important to understand that someone not listening to your ‘no’ is trying to control you — even if you choose to do nothing about it. Self-awareness and relationship-awareness matter even if you’re not prepared to take action on what you learn, at least right now. Knowing that you’re being controlled matters even if you allow it to happen.
So look for this pattern in your relationships. Say “no” and see what happens. I have found it very telling.
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