There is a wide difference between control and self-control. Many of us would admit to a desire for control in our lives and in fact have developed patterns and behaviors to attempt to achieve it. We’re not as diligent, however, when it comes to incubating an environment as amenable to self-control.
One of the reasons we want to have control globally is to let ourselves off the hook personally where self-control is involved: “If I can control the things and people around me, it makes it less imperative for me to control myself.”
Control is a fascinating and frustrating paradox, especially in my line of work. The paradox I see comes when people start out engaging in some sort of behavior (including excessities) in an attempt to bring a sense of order and control into their lives. There comes a point, however, when the hunter becomes the hunted and the Gotta Have It! turns on them.
The very thing they invited into their lives to bring control now controls them.
Teri thought she was an independent woman, but even in adulthood she lived in the shadows of her mother’s angst. Teri’s mother, preoccupied with her own weight issues, began to transfer that anxiety onto Teri as a child. It wasn’t enough that her mother measured and fretted over everything she ate — she wanted to include Teri in her swirl of perpetual dieting, calorie counting, and nutrient mapping.
Somewhere around 11 or 12 years old, Teri decided to take control of her life.
She figured out she didn’t have a lot of ground to work with, given she was still living at home under her parents’ strict rules. But, being an inventive adolescent, she began to find ways to assert herself.
Teri rebelled by refusing to eat in her mother’s presence whenever possible. It wasn’t really that hard to do.
Her mother was so busy getting ready for work in the morning that she never bothered to eat breakfast and rarely ventured into the kitchen for more than a hurried cup of coffee. Lunch was easy; Teri ate at school. Most evenings either she had things going on, or her mother did, so dinner together rarely coincided. On the weekends, she could usually get out of at least one evening meal by going to a friend’s house. Sundays were the hardest because it meant a meal after church together, but Teri had gotten very good at eating slowly and pushing the food around her plate, outlasting her mother, who never seemed very comfortable at the dinner table.
Away from her mother, Teri ate whatever she wanted, in whatever quantity suited her. She relished eating the kinds of foods she knew her mother would cringe at — either because she would never consider eating them or because Teri suspected her mother really longed to eat them.
Eating on her own, her way, became Teri’s declaration of independence.
This worked pretty well through middle school, but in high school, things changed. Even though her mother rarely saw her eat, the effect of what she ate started to show. Teri began to gain weight. Comments from her mother expanded from what she ate to how she looked.
One night while staying at a friend’s house, Teri complained about this unwanted level of scrutiny. In the dark and quiet privacy of her friend’s bedroom, Teri shared that she wanted to lose weight but was finding it hard. Then her friend described a way she could eat whatever she wanted and not gain weight. This was just what Teri was looking for. It seemed a fair trade — learning how and when to vomit up her food in order to still get to eat it.
Now she could eat what she wanted and not have to deal with all the disadvantges of weight gain. She could still be in control.
Like so many others, Teri came to work with me after being bulimic over half her life. She wanted to stop but couldn’t. She no longer had to force herself to vomit; instead, her stomach tended to heave up its contents without conscious effort. Teri admitted, “My life is out of control.”
What started out as a way for a teenager to take control ended up controlling her life as an adult.
I recongize that most of you reading Teri’s story probably won’t identify with the bulimia aspect. However, most of you should be able to connect to the control aspect.
Maybe you haven’t lost control to bulimia in your life. Maybe it’s alcohol. Maybe it’s acquiring stuff. Maybe it’s cigarettes or prescription drugs. Maybe you can connect with the eating part of Teri’s story. You started out doing whatever it is as a way to declare your independence, as a way to say you were perfectly capable of making your own choices, thank you very much. Somewhere, however, those choices turned into excessities and turned the tables on control. You thought that by choosing them you were exerting control over your life. Little did you know that you’d end up dependent upon them and that they’d control you.