The subconscious need for control can often show up in the most interesting ways, but nowhere is it more well disguised than in altruism. It happens when we get angry at someone for continuing to misuse drugs or alcohol, or returning to a toxic relationship. In these situations it is easy to get caught up in a sense of superiority because after all, we just want what’s best for them, right? That’s a problem because it assumes that we know better than they do what is best for them.

When you find yourself getting upset about the actions of others, step back and ask a few questions:

  • Why do I allow someone’s personal choices to affect my mood?
  • Why do I feel like I know what is right for someone else?
  • Why do I feel responsible for the choices others make about their lives?
  • Why do I feel as though someone is responsible for making the choices that I feel are right?
  • Why do I become so attached to outcomes that I get angry at others for making decisions about their own lives?

Autonomy matters. Even in a negotiated power exchange dynamic, all parties have made the informed and conscious decision to be involved, thus the autonomy of all players is honored and respected.

In situations such as this it may be helpful to understand the differences between ultimatums, requests, and boundaries.

A request is when we ask someone to do (or not do) something.

An ultimatum is a control grab.

A boundary is about our own declared limits.

To make it easier visualize the nuance and distinctions between them, let’s look at an example:

You have been dating Joe for six months. He’s a great guy, but when he drinks, Joe’s behavior becomes erratic and triggering for your own trauma.

REQUEST: “I don’t like the way you act when you drink. Would you mind not drinking around me?”

ULTIMATUM: “If you don’t stop drinking, I’m out of here.”

BOUNDARY: “I feel like we don’t communicate well when you’re drinking and it makes me uncomfortable. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

There is a time and place for requests. I tend to use them as a first step. If you’re doing something that makes me uncomfortable, I might ask you not to do it around me. That gives you the opportunity to make changes before I raise the Threat Level. If a request does not bring about the desired change, I need to consider whether or not a clearly-stated boundary is needed.

The differences between ultimatums and boundaries aren’t always clear, but it gets easier when we look objectively at motivation and action. A boundary is a declaration of potential action based on my needs. An ultimatum is a declaration of potential action based on control. Ask yourself if the mechanism for potential action is based on a desire to control or manipulate the actions of others.