Few things are as frightening as losing control, feeling powerless against overwhelming forces. When overcome by events, we can feel swept up on relentless waves of circumstance that hurl us toward terrifying heights and bone-jarring lows. Each event is made worse if we have tried to stop it and been unsuccessful. It could be the sense of abandonment following the death of a loved one; no amount of longing will bring that person back.
It could be the continual verbal battering of a family member; no amount of pleading will make that person be quiet. It could be the searing memory of sexual abuse; no amount of wishing will ever made you feel clean again. It could be the careless taunting of peers; no amount of apologizing can make up for the stinging pain.
The absence of control causes feelings of panic, powerlessness, and pain. If the situation bringing about the loss of control is not fixable, some people substitute a different activity to control. Compared to the feeling of helplessness, power feels pretty good. So good, in fact, it becomes addicting. Eating or not eating becomes addicting.
Is food really the problem? Surprisingly, it is not. Eating disorders aren’t so much about the food itself as they are about trying to take control of the actions surrounding food. People with eating disorders are involved in a terrible conflict, trying to control something that has control over them. This conflict soon turns into an unending struggle to get the upper hand.
For the bulimic, who binges and purges, the control comes from “breaking the rules” or “getting away with something.” Bulimics feel powerful and in control when they can eat whatever they want and not suffer the consequence they dread—getting fat. If you are bulimic, all the thousands of calories you’ve eaten on a binge. Getting rid of that food is like getting rid of shame.
If you are anorexic, you are taking control by saying no to food. By controlling your body’s need to eat and drink, and also its need to mature and grow, you are saying to yourself, At least in this area, I am the one who is making the decisions! The ability to have mastery over your own feelings of hunger and thirst makes you feel “high.”
Obsessed with food but unwilling to consume it themselves, some anorexics will find enjoyment vicariously, cooking elaborate meals for others and relishing in the meal by proxy. Their ability to enjoy food through others, but refrain from indulging themselves, brings about an enormous sense of power and control.
If you are a compulsive overeater, you have insulated your life from the world with food and flesh. You have learned that you can keep others away by being overweight. You have found that your one faithful friend is food, though it has now turned against you and you can no longer hide the pain.
It is the same for those with disordered eating patterns. In the beginning, there was a reason for the choices you’ve made around food, around what to eat, when to eat, and how much to eat. Because you were in charge of the choices, you felt in control of the food. However, as these eating patterns become more entrenched, your choices shrink. It is no longer you in control of the choices, but rather the patterns those choices have produced are now in control of you. You want to change; you want to do something different but find it incredibly difficult. Even if you’re able to make a minor changes for a short amount of time, you find yourself turning both reluctantly and with relief back to your established patterns.
Whatever your struggle with eating, there is another area of your life you’re trying to control: your pain. One truth that has come out about eating disorders is that people suffering from them have had significant hurt in their lives. Studies have indicated that 80 percent or more people with eating disorders have been victims of some kind of abuse—whether verbal, emotional, physical, or sexual. By controlling what you eat, you are really trying to control that terrible pain.
Authored by Dr. Gregory Jantz, founder of The Center • A Place of HOPE and author of 29 books. Pioneering whole-person care nearly 30 years ago, Dr. Jantz has dedicated his life’s work to creating possibilities for others, and helping people change their lives for good. The Center • A Place of HOPE, located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington, creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety and others. For more information about eating disorder treatment, fill out this form or call 1-888-747-5592 to speak confidentially with a specialist today.