When I was in my early twenties I was in a relationship where something was wrong.
I couldn’t quite put my finger on it… but a kind, elderly friend did. He told me, “This relationship is like hitting yourself over the head with a hammer so you can see how good it feels when you stop doing it.”
Huh, I thought.
I kind of knew what he meant.
I could feel it.
And yet, I stayed in the relationship for several years.
Why? Well, I guess because I was young, inexperienced and insecure… And because there were lots of good things about it.
But that sense of something wrong that I couldn’t put my finger on?
Now I’m a lot older and a little bit wiser, I know what it was.
If I’d been more psyche-savvy back then, I would have picked up on the phrases below. I would have known how controlling they were. And I would have understood how bad they were making me feel.
These 15 phrases may explain why you’ve got that niggling feeling, just like I had.
Read on. Spotting them now could save you a whole lot of heartache…
1) “Are you wearing that?”
Of course, if your loving partner had checked the weather, it’s going to be minus four degrees and you’ve gone for the floaty kaftan you didn’t wear in the summer, fair enough…
But otherwise, why are your choices being questioned? There’s a subtle control red flag right there.
This one may go hand in hand with…
2) “If that’s what you think/feel then go for it.”
Again, maybe you’ve just had one of your worst ideas ever, and your partner, co-worker or friend can see the car crash coming…
BUT… this could also be a way of undermining your choices and questioning your judgement. With the added twist that the person saying this still looks like they’re being supportive.
3) “Are you sure?”
Again, it’s all about context.
Maybe you want to let the cat out at night and your partner is worried she’ll get hurt. Or perhaps you’ve decided to make peace with a tricky relative by inviting them to a big family barbeque.
If “Are you sure?” leads into a loving discussion about something that impacts on you both, then that’s great. Taking time to think through something together is only sensible – especially when it has big consequences.
But… are your decisions being questioned often? Is the “Are you sure?” about small things that are really your business?
If so, step back and take a breath. Undermining someone’s confidence in their own decision-making process is a subtle way to gain control.
Could that be happening to you?
Maybe. Especially if, when you then express your discomfort, you hear…
4) “You’re over-reacting.”
If someone feels criticised by you being less-than-happy they might go on the attack. They may use this phrase to cast you as over-emotional, irrational or unreasonable.
This gets you back under control as it erodes your self-esteem and confidence. You rely on the person more and more, and you look to them for approval. You might even isolate yourself from loved ones.
In the same vein, you may also hear…
5) “You’re too sensitive.”
Yep, maybe you are sensitive. That’s to be celebrated. “Too” sensitive is a value judgement that’s unhelpful. In some cases it can be subtly controlling as it undermines your self-esteem.
Maybe you just need to be heard and that’s not happening.
If you’re quick to be upset, defensive-aggressive or overwhelmed by emotion, you can recognise this and seek help from a therapist and/or bodyworker.
But just being told “you’re too sensitive” is dismissive.
So are jokes or teasing about how you feel – these minimise and belittle your experience.
Someone who does this may also ‘lovingly’ make comments that paint you as incapable in all areas of life, such as…
6) “You’re so disorganised / thoughtless / impractical / bad with money…”
And these come with behaviours. For example, the other person always ‘has to handle’ the finance as you are useless. Or, when a DIY job needs doing, they talk about how impractical you are.
Or, are you being told that you ‘always’ lose your keys or ‘never’ remember to fill up the car with petrol?
Narratives about you being incapable erode your confidence and self-esteem. Once again you end up relying on the other person more and more. Sadly, you end up believing the stories about you.
Sure, we can all do with a little improvement, but if you’re constantly being cast as incapable, perhaps that person doesn’t have your best interests at heart.
Also be wary of subtle versions of classic controlling phrases, such as…
7) “I know why you said that.”
Lifecoach Lisa A. Romano explains that: “This implies they’re inside your head, and they know better than you.”
It’s very damaging, as it’s control from the inside of you. That’s scary.
Lisa is talking about narcissists, but this kind of phrase is unhealthy and controlling when coming from anyone.
Also very damaging and twisted is…
8) “Stop making everything about you.”
This is another phrase that Lisa highlights. It’s instantly going to make a healthy, self-reflective person look at themselves. You’ll wonder whether you’re being self-consumed, perhaps out of anxiety or emotional overwhelm.
However, the controlling person is using this to keep things about them. To keep running their agenda. To keep control.
What can you do about this? The biggest thing I ever learnt in life is that good boundaries are about self-love, kindness and respect for both you and the other person. So I worked on that.
However, if you do stand up to a controlling person, though, especially if they have narcissistic traits or NPD, you may then hear some of the following phrases. These are rounded up in a fantastic Brainy Dose video…
9) “I think you need help.”
This is a subtler form of “You’re imagining things.”
It’s intended to undermine your perception of reality.
And to make your question your sanity.
10) “You always read too much into things.”
This is a subtle take on a denial of your reality, such as “I never said that or did that.”
Here, you’re being led to question your understanding of things.
You can also begin to question your reality when you constantly hear…
11) “You’re just misconstruing my intentions.”
Obviously, it’s vital for all of us that we can speak up when we feel misunderstood.
But… if the ground always seems to be shifting under your feet with this person… it’s worth looking deeper.
Of course, you’re only expressing how you’re feeling, and not looking to blame anyone. However, if you raise this with a controlling person, you may hear…
12) “You’re the only person I have problems with.”
This is a form of blame-shifting and also makes you question your self-perception and your own reality. It’s the subtle version of the outright “It’s not me, it’s you.”
These three phrases all chip away at your self-esteem, self-believe and confidence, by making you question your perception of reality.
And from psychologist and author Dr Ramani, we can also add three more red flag phrases to this round up.
13) “I don’t want to make this about me but…”
This is control that looks like empathy.
Then the person proceeds to make it completely about them.
14) “I’m sorry you feel that way…”
Remember, you’re entitled to feel however you feel, as long as you express it appropriately.
Obviously, we’ll disagree with others in life. And that’s great. That makes things interesting, draws empathy from us and challenges us to open our minds. Plus, isn’t it wonderful that we’re all different?
However, this phrase conveys that your feelings are disappointing or unacceptable. This is subtle emotional manipulation. To this person, it’s not okay for you to disagree.
This phrase is also used in place of an apology, without the person actually being sorry for the harm caused or taking any responsibility for their actions.
15) “Why are you doing this to me?”
Yep. Victimhood. Plain and simple.
A subtle way of trying to control you is when someone makes themselves the victim of you.
Remember, you’re not ‘doing’ anything to anyone, and if someone feels you are, they can take a step back or set a boundary.
Being made a victim of someone is very damaging. If this keeps happening with a person in your life, you might feel upset, bad, guilty, wrong or just icky, without knowing why.
When someone is trying to subtly control you, it’s not okay. Whatever the motive, and whether it’s intentional or not. It’s up to us to put in a boundary.
We need to love ourselves enough to look after our own mental and emotional well-being in relationships. That’s our responsibility.
It then gives us the bandwidth and clarity to care for others too. Maybe that’s lovingly encouraging an anxious-controlling partner to seek help (as trauma therapist Patrick Teahan explains, PTSD and NPD can look very similar).
Or perhaps it’s showing a self-serving narcissist the door. Or anything in between. But you have to look after you. It’s a life skill, and a vital one.
You’re brave, you’re amazing, and you can do what you need to do – however much you’ve been knocked down by this person.
I know, because I did it.
And I know you can too!