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Care versus Control

Last week I was talking to a phone client about her rebellion against taking good care of herself. Small wonder. Because of her dysfunctional upbringing, she’s confused about being cared for versus being controlled. Instead of believing that messages from others or from herself to herself are aimed at helping her, she feels controlled and strikes out in rebellion. When her inner voice tells her she should start the day with a healthy breakfast or stop eating when she’s full, it doesn’t sound caring and she doesn’t feel cared about. Instead, she feels bullied into doing something. Sound familiar?

It’s easy to see how you could get care and control confused if your parents expressed love in a bossy or dictatorial way. Sure, some parents really were trying to control you when they insisted you should or shouldn’t eat something, but it’s likely they knew no other way to care about you. They did what was done to them by their Moms and Dads. Most parents love and care deeply about their children, but many are clueless about how to get that message across. They think they’re showing caring when they’re insistent about what you should do, when all the while you’re experiencing their words as pushy and overbearing. Now you’ve got caring and control all jumbled up in your head—whenever anyone (including you to you) makes a suggestion or gives advice meant to be helpful, you interpret the message as trying to control, not care for, you.

When you experience caring exclusively as controlling, you miss out in two ways. First, you can’t take in the good intentions which are being offered by another person or by yourself to yourself. You interpret every suggestion or piece of advice as pushy and demanding rather than loving and in your interest. Second, you lose out on some darned good wisdom—from others or from your own heart—which is necessary to function effectively, especially around food. Because it is good advice to start the day with a nutritious breakfast. It is good advice when you’re full or satisfied to stop eating.

The healthy response to a caring suggestion is to appreciate where it’s coming from and thoughtfully consider its value and your response. The unhealthy reaction is to assume someone is trying to take away your rights and that you need to take a firm stand so that you don’t get steamrolled. Start interpreting suggestions as caring and forget about being controlled. Listen for the message behind the words, especially in your self-talk about food. What you’re really saying to yourself is: I care about what happens to you, I love and worry about you, I want you to do better, I want you to become a “normal” eater and a healthier person. Who can argue with that?