You often hear the phrase “control freak” used in a negative sense. I have even used it myself to describe authoritarian personalities. Authoritarian personalities are people who place a desire to be “right” (that is, seen as right) above the desire to know what is objectively true.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that the very idea of “control freak” is a sneaky and unfair package deal.

There are essentially two motivations for wanting to control. One motivation is wanting to control people or entities that you either cannot control (e.g. the weather, human mortality) or should not be trying to control (e.g. other people).

But there are many aspects of life you both can and should want to control. To name only a few examples: your career path; your place of residence; your choice of spouse (or whether to marry at all); the number of children you want to have (or even whether to have children). All of these examples, and many, many more I could name, all refer to decisions over which you both can and should have control. Most of life’s legitimate activities, in fact, are about gaining control.

People who criticize someone else for being a “control freak” sometimes have a genuine complaint. Sometimes you will encounter other people who act as if they can and should control entities (particularly other people) which they have no business trying to control.

Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, to name two extreme examples, were the ultimate control freaks. Their actions illustrated both the evil and the ultimate futility of trying to control the uncontrollable. Hitler tried to shape humankind into his twisted idea of the ideal race; and Stalin attempted the same thing, only his focus was on economics rather than on race. Both men ultimately failed, although in their evil they took many innocent people with them.

The world is populated with little Hitlers and little Stalins, the great majority of whom would not initiate physical violence against anyone but are nevertheless psychological control freaks. They scream in anger at the weather or at inanimate objects such as computer printers or fax machines — as if such entities were capable of injustice. They harshly insult and put down employees or family members, and then expect loyalty and high morale in return. They assume, in all cases, that there is only one way to do things, even when there’s objective evidence that equally good (or possibly better) options exist.

Sometimes people call others control freaks when they resent those people taking control over legitimate aspects of life. This is akin to rushing to label someone a “perfectionist,” implying neurosis or irrationality, when many people labeled this way are simply trying to do things properly, and with excellence.

A woman once told me that her boss was a control freak and perfectionist. When I asked what she meant, she replied that her boss insisted they always be at work on time and maintain good relationships with clients. She offered no other evidence for her boss’ alleged irrationality.

Sometimes teenagers call their parents control freaks, when the parents are simply focused people who keep their word and strive to live life with a sense of purpose — and expect their children to be the same. Sometimes parents complain that their kids want too much control over their lives, when what their kids demand is simply to be left alone and responsible for their actions.

Arrogant politicians, even in supposedly free countries like the U.S., increasingly resent citizens who assert even a little bit of desire for independence and autonomy. President Clinton’s supporters, for example, called the 1994 overhaul of Congress a “temper tantrum” on the part of millions of adult voters. George W. Bush’s calls in 2000 to lower taxes just a tiny bit, and “allow” Americans to keep a teeny percentage of their retirement funds for themselves, were met with at times vitriolic attacks on his “extremism.”

Watch out for the package deals often smuggled into phrases like “control freak.” Sometimes what advocates of this label seek to criticize is valid. Sometimes just the opposite proves true.