In the last issue of Sending Hope we talked about the way control likes to trick us into thinking eating disorder behaviour is good and safe. In recovery, we aim to repair our relationship with control, and bring ourselves back to a more normal baseline. Before we get there, it can be helpful to understand how we use control in our lives. It can be quite complex, so buckle up while we get into some intricate stuff!
To explore this, we look at something called The Locus of Control. Locus, meaning area, looks to explore whether you are controlling your internal environment (responsibility, ownership of behavior, thoughts, feelings, self-discipline etc) or external environment (social situations, physical environment, blaming). If you search the internet, you will find dozens of articles that highlight how much better it is to have an internal locus of control, but this does not account for individuals who struggle with excessive ruminating, self-deprecating internal dialogue, creating rules and obsessional thinking.
It is important to then look at balance.
First ask yourself, how much control do I believe I have over my life?
Consider how much control these external factors have over your life:
Opinion on concepts such as fate/luck/chance
Lived experience & life lessons
Sense of ownership, responsibility, duty, obligation
Examining the impact that these have over your life will clarify how much or how little control you really feel you have over the things that occur in your life.
Then ask yourself, how do I exert control and why do I behave or think that way?
Having an internal locus of control can mean that you are independent, self-reliant, able to validate the self, be open to feedback and self-development. It can also mean you take ownership of your behavior and show responsibility for your actions and the direction in your life. If we allow our internal locus of control to go overboard however, we can end up taking on too much responsibility, obsessing and ruminating about how to improve or perfect, take responsibility for things that are not our fault or feel that we are the reason that things go wrong or don’t pan out. This can then in turn, make us feel out of control and we might start to use behaviors to try and regain that feeling that you have it together. As a general rule, when we feel overwhelmed by our internal environments we seek to feel in control of our external environments.
Having an external locus of control can mean that you are more likely to feel guided by the factors outlined above, which is certainly not a bad thing at all! But on the more unbalanced end of things, you might be more likely to blame others for how they have impacted your life, get stuck in the victim identity, control people around you and your environment. This can be as simple as always being the dominant person in a conversation, always assuming a leadership role even when it is not required, being heavily involved in other people’s issues or injustices. It can often be far easier to enmesh ourselves in other people’s stories, rather than work to manage our own difficulties. Sometimes these behaviors can be ways to carefully curate how other people feel about us.
Eating disorders are often a messy combination of extreme internal control and misuse of external controls. We may experience extreme internal discipline, whilst also behaving in a way that helps to elicit care from others. We might struggle to achieve the level of internal discipline we crave, so as a result we engage in chaotic and impulsive behaviors like binge eating and feel completely out of control.
Understanding how you exert control is complicated, ever changing and sometimes completely confusing! So here are some questions to get you started.
How do I control myself (internal environment)?
How do I control other things (external environment)?
What controlling behaviors are potentially problematic for me?
Why do I use these behaviors?
What can I do to adjust my behaviors so that they are healthier and more balanced?
Understanding how you use control is about self-awareness. Once you are aware, you can gently adjust certain patterns and behaviors to help manage mental and physical health in a more helpful and appropriate way. Take it slow and seek balance!