We all need a sense of mastery and control in our lives. There's nothing inherently wrong with this. To some degree, knowing our actions can have a positive or desired outcome is motivating and/or empowering... otherwise, why would we try? It's the thought, belief or hope that one can make a difference in life that makes us attempt in the first place. It's deadly when this mindset disappears. I remember hearing a story about an orphanage that contained many infants that never cried. It wasn't because they were sleeping or had nothing to cry about... it was because they had figured out that their crying wouldn't do anything. No one would come. No one tended to them when in needed. They were neglected. They had lost their sense of control in that their crying would get a respond.
Sometimes, life presents events that rob us of power/control. These events could look like anything from a trauma to moving. It can look like being born into a particular family or geographical area to struggling with an illness. Perhaps, someone feels as though they have no power due to the social or religious community they are part of, or due to the various physical changes that puberty brings. We all experience events that challenge our sense of control.
Time and time again, I hear the theme of 'control' when talking with individuals who are, or have, struggled with an eating disorder. They express finding comfort in knowing they could control what was put in their bodies/mouth, what isn't put into their bodies/mouth and/or how it was taken out. Often, the use and manipulation of food is something they have learned to do over time, only making the connection as to how they use food years later. Trying to find control, in any form, makes sense on some level... that one would attempt to find control in a distressing situation in any way that was possible. The eating disorder become a coping mechanism of sorts. Knowing this, who would blame them for having an eating disorder? That during a time of chaos, they found a way to try to survive. In the short term it's brilliant, in the long term it is extremely costly and deadly.
Part of recovery involves rebuilding hope and ability to find a sense control outside of their eating disorder. Listed are various ways of doing so, although by no means a complete list.
Challenging Distorted Thinking. It's easy to adopt various types of distorted thinking, such as all or none, catastrophizing, black and white, exaggerating, etc, in or as a result of a difficult/distressing situations. The problem is, over time, it hinders people from being flexible in thinking. For example, categorizing people (including themselves) as either good or bad due to past behaviours could keep one stuck in feeling unworthy of recovery itself. This would make it difficult to engage in self-caring behaviours such as building a healthier relationship with food, with others and with themselves. Another example would be to challenge the distorted thought that the only thing that will keep them safe is their eating disorder. For many, the eating disorder has been with them through some really tough times. Parting ways with it, in order to learn and implement healthier ways, could be distressing, however possible!
Accepting We Don't Have Control Over Everything. Another way to regain a sense of control is to acknowledge there are some things in life we don't have control over. We do, however, have the ability to control how we respond to it. We can't control whether or not we lose our job during a recession or downsizing, however, we can control what we do next. Do we cope by going on a bender, or do we allow individuals (or agencies) to help us during a time of need? Do we let emotions rule us, or do we implement wise mind (using both emotional and rational sides of the mind instead of letting one overrule the other). Do we feel our feelings or do we stuff them away?
Assertiveness and Boundaries are Key! Another way of regaining or building a healthier sense of control is by implementing boundaries and assertiveness with those around you. You have a say in your life, and the right to assert your boundaries before and when people infringe on them. You are allowed to stand up for yourself. You are allowed to protect yourself physically, mentally, emotionally, socially and spiritually. Learn your rights and how to effectively express them.
Do More of What You Like! It's easy to get lost in the eating disorder, and for it to eventually control you (the paradox of this illness). Reclaim what you like in your life outside of your eating disorder and do more of it. If you've forgotten, that's ok. Use recovery as an opportunity for self-discovery. Try new things. If you don't like it, great! It's simply more information about who and what you like.
If you can relate to any of the above, contact a therapist today! We all figure out ways of coping... some healthy, some not. Some struggle with an eating disorder, others struggle with addiction. Some isolate, other's never say 'no'. Regardless, when presented with a situation that leaves us feeling out of control (or over controlled), the worst thing to do is to be alone. It is possible to find a healthy sense of control again.