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What is Self-control?

We first hear the word “self-control” early in childhood and go on to use it to explain our eating successes and failures ever after. We act as if it’s a commodity we can go out and buy at the corner store, as if we either have it or don’t, as if it’s something outside ourselves that we can somehow get hold of and place inside us. Nothing could be farther from the truth, and we do ourselves a disservice by our wrong thinking.

Self-control is a process, not a single action; it’s an acquired skill, more a way of thinking than behaving. It develops over time, generally starting in early childhood, but can also be learned at any time in adulthood. Let’s look at the word. The self part is pretty clear: it’s about us. The control part is more complicated. There are a number of meanings for the word control, but the one that is most useful for troubled eaters is regulate. Usually when we think of control, we imagine an external imposed on an internal, something big or powerful exerting its will over something tiny or weak. This is not a useful image for disordered eaters.

The idea of regulating yourself is more to the point. When we steer a boat or car, we go a little to the left, a little to the right. We are not in an adversarial position with the boat or car, but are going with the flow, taking into account the mechanics of the vehicle. Pull too far in one direction, there’ll be a rebound reaction. The goal is not to rule or master appetite. We are not taming a bronco. We can’t divorce the body from the eating process; we have to devise strategies to work with, not against, it. We are looking not to crush or control our responses to food, but to finesse our them.

Self-control develops from regulating yes and no in regard to appetite. When we want something—for better or worse—more than the food in front of us, we refuse it. We are not controlling anything, but making one choice over another. Being able to choose wisely involves quieting destructive impulses, focusing on long-term goals rather than what’s up in the moment, nurturing an attitude of self-care, understanding that by shutting one door, we are opening another, and recognizing that making beneficial decisions over time will become habit.

Here are some words to substitute for controlling your appetite: regulating, guiding, steering, balancing, honoring, divining, respecting. Try giving up the concept of control and find another word to describe the process that celebrates your ability to create a positive relationship with food.