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From Chaos to Rigidity and Back Again


For a long time I’ve been writing about how dysregulated eaters relentlessly ricochet between structure and freedom, mostly through dieting and bingeing, but in other ways as well. Too much freedom and we feel uncertain, uneasy, and out of control. We long for ritual, grounding, sameness, a scaffolding around which to build our lives, and containment to make us feel more secure. Too much structure and we itch for change, variety, diversity, adventure, and the rush of something out of the ordinary.

Another way to view this tug of war is via rigidity versus chaos (Daniel J. Siegel, PhD, clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine and executive director of the Mindsight Institute (  being on a diet—1/3 cup, 6 ounces, 5 grams, and 2 servings of whatever—and self-doling out little pinches of portion-controlled pleasure? Or the scale staring up at us in judgment of whether we’ve been good or bad, hit the mark or missed by a mile, and are worthy or not to live another day. Talk about rigidity.

Alternately, gastronomic chaos comes in the form of mindless eating and compulsive overeating—buying sprees in the grocery store, feeding frenzies in our kitchens, losing ourselves to the madness of food obsessions, and devolving into emotional anarchy whenever we’re around anything edible. 

Dysregulated eaters’ food patterns often reflect the systemic family chaos and rigidity they grew up with, not only around food, but in how they were parented. Mom or Dad may not have been on top of much and that included food. They shopped or cooked when they felt like it or had the money. Meals weren’t scheduled; they happened randomly or they didn’t. Life may have been chaotic as well—too many moves or stepparents, and too few sane, consistent, stable people in our young lives.

Because opposites attracts, those who live in a whirlwind of randomness and disorder often choose partners who don’t bend and who value rules over people. Mom says you can stay out late and just don’t wake her when you come in, while Dad gives you a whuppin’ when you come home one minute after curfew. Or a parent shows you two sides of the same coin: strict and follow-the-rules one day and laissez-faire the next. So you bounce between these two extremes and wonder why you sometimes feel as if you’ve lost your sanity and other times can’t stand the pressure of having to keep such a tight hold on it. You’ve not experienced much of a middle ground and, therefore, succumb to ping-ponging between chaos and rigidity in your own life. 

A middle ground does exist. With food it’s called “normal” eating. No more jumping on and falling off the damn wagon. No more imprisonment-by-diet or stretching the elastic band until it breaks. Just an easy, relaxed relationship with food and your body, knowing when to say yes and no in appropriate balance.