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Control Issues

Eating problems are about nothing if not control. Exerting too much control around food leads to desires bursting out which causes us to clamp down again—and round and round we go. Rather than micro-manage food intake or let loose completely, “normal” eaters focus on regulation. Regulation connotes flexibility and an appropriate response to internal and external forces to regain balance. Sure “normal” eaters occasionally cut back on food or go overboard, but the thought doesn’t lodge into a permanent attitude.

Control is a major issue for us all: around safety, security, happiness, success, etc. These issues go way back to childhood. If yours had a great deal of unpredictability and chaos from abuse, neglect, arbitrariness and unfairness, abandonment, etc., you may try to avoid feeling helpless because it sends you into despair. Having little or no control in childhood over basic needs—including love, affection, and attention—creates adults who either give up and don’t bother trying to manage their needs or who, conversely, try to control every waking moment of their existence. The former group employs a type of learned helplessness, while the latter is often called control freaks.

Control runs along a continuum. Some folks exert barely any control over their lives and mindlessly, passively, helplessly get pushed along by the current, sometimes to disastrous ends. Others try to control everything, because appearing and being in charge of oneself is essential for their self-image and perceived well-being. Which kind of person are you? Are your control issues only around food? Do you so badly need to be on top of everything that you manipulate the outcome of most situations? Is the only place you let yourself go with food because you suppress your impulses everywhere else? Or do you flip back and forth with control issues, around food and other things?

A mentally healthy person knows what she can impact and what she can’t, when to exert effort to produce a specific outcome and when that effort will be meaningless and fruitless. She’s flexible and sees equal value in holding on and letting go. Neither one is good or bad and the process of regulation is fluid and easy. That’s the kind of attitude that will help you regulate your food issues. Getting clear about control will go a long way—a very long way—toward helping you become a “normal” eater. Start with identifying your beliefs about always needing to be prepared, needing to manage outcomes, or being powerless to make choices and take charge of your life. Consider how these beliefs impact your behavior, especially around food. Work on reframing irrational beliefs and think in terms of regulation, not control.