The Following blog post was written by one of BeginWithin’s therapists, Sally Sauter. I hope you find it valuable. I also recommend that you share the posts on this blog with others who may not understand eating disorders as well as you do. We strive to explain the issues that sufferers face, in such a way to provide support for them and their loved ones.
One of the words that nearly always sneaks into a conversation about eating disorders is control. In fact, you can back right up from eating disorders and disordered eating and just look at the topic of food, period. The most basic lunchroom discussions about food choices can meander into tangents about control, strength, confidence, and power. To me, that is striking.
I honestly can’t imagine many people saying that they “enjoy” feeling out of control, and that they strive each day to feel less and less agency in their own life. However, given the extent to which we see control as such a valued commodity in our lives, who among us even knows how “in control” we really are? For something that is so sought after, and so furtively guarded, knowing whether you have it or not sure is difficult. It’s not like finding out your credit score.
The best we can do is say how in control we feel, and in fact, there is already a long-standing foundation for looking at the matter of control in this way. Rotter coined the term “locus of control” back in 1954, the concept referring to the extent to which individuals believe that they can control events. A person who believes that they are exclusively and entirely in control of their life is said to have an “internal locus of control”, whereas one who has an “external locus of control” believes that they have nothing to do with any outcomes in their life. Everything that happens is attributed to aspects of the surrounding environment, or by “chance” or “fate.”
What does the research tell us about eating disorders and control? A 2002 study published in the Journal of Adolescence found that individuals with an external locus of control had significantly more eating disorder symptomology than those with an internal locus of control. Said another way, numerous people who feel like their lives are out of their control, manipulate food. I mean ‘manipulate’ in the purest definition of the word: they use it or change it in a skillful way, for a particular purpose.
The ED behaviors do literally nothing to shift one’s locus of control from outside to within. Binging, purging, exercising, starving- none of these things truly help a person to feel a sense of global power or control over their own life. Instead, a person who feels ineffectual and unable to do things in their life continues to feel that way, but now, that feeling is also interwoven with shame, fatigue, guilt, and a total preoccupation with food.
The false promise of control offered by disordered eating behaviors has a maddening way of ebbing and flowing. The promise looks “golden” in the beginning, and in early phases of behavior use, it can feel real and true. It transports you from your ordinary existence to some parallel universe where you think you have your shit together.
But when behaviors take on a life of their own, you may feel as though you fell into a sinkhole.
If you work really hard to get out of the hole, by clutching and grasping and pulling, at first, you will feel a surge of relief, but your relief may quickly change to disappointment, sadness, anger and disillusionment. You may only remember the way ED “promises” glistened gold in the beginning, and forget the worst moments you spent in your sinkhole. Maybe you think you can tinker with the behaviors again, toy with the food in a slightly different way for a better outcome. Maybe you think you did it wrong. Clearly, this is one of the distorted thoughts that could contribute to a vicious cycle of worsening eating disordered behaviors.
At the core of all of this, the perceived control problem was never addressed. You still feel as though there is little you can do to ensure that your life goes the way you want it to go. And you may be wondering, if you can’t sustain a feeling of control through using disordered behaviors with food and exercise, how can you?
This may be a point of contention, but I don’t believe that people who recover from eating disorders do so by “finding a new means of control.”
What if instead of trying to wrap your hands around some type of control, you slowly, systematically enter into the very types of situations in which you felt the most fearful and the least powerful? Instead of rehearsing excuses for why you will have to leave early, you remain firmly planted in those environments which make your skin crawl the most. You just remain put in your own anxiety. What if each time you felt the urge to retreat, to withdraw, or to avoid, instead, you inched a little bit closer, leaned slightly forward, or said softly “yes- I’ll be there.” And then, you went there.
Over time, the pain and the fear will lessen. Very slowly, you will begin to see clearly that all those things you thought you couldn’t do, those places you were sure you couldn’t be, those people you could never, ever speak to with ease are doable. You CAN do those things, and exist in those uncomfortable places, and look those people square in the eye and not shatter.
Through realizing that you could endure more than you imagined, I wonder, what then might happen to your locus of control?
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