Regaining control

I ran across this study in PubMed today and posted it to the ED Bites Facebook page:

"Low perception of control as a cognitive factor of eating disorders. Its independent effects on measures of eating disorders and its interactive effects with perfectionism and self-esteem."

I (obviously) found it fascinating, and I think it explains a lot about risk factors for EDs. Psychologist Herbert Lefcourt defined perception of control as "a generalised expectancy for internal as opposed to external control of reinforcements." Basically, your perception of control has to do with how much you feel you can effect the course of your life and what happens to you. Aside from the existential question of how much control do you have over your life anyway, I think a low perception of control is linked to factors like perfectionism and anxiety.

Low perception of control can help explain some of the environmental influences on EDs. For some people, events in their life can lead to a low perception of control. For example: will Dad be drunk today? Will the kids at school make fun of me? For me, I don't remember any events that led to a low perception of control, but I always had this nagging doubt that one day everyone would find out I was quite a bit more flawed that everyone thought I was. I attributed all the good things that happened in my life (getting an A on a test, having fun with friends) to something that was entirely outside of my control. The teacher just "happened" to ask questions that I had studied for. Things like that. But I blamed all of the bad stuff on me. I feared it was only a matter of time until everyone found out just how inadequate I really was.

Some people who have a low perception of control develop a "f*ck it" attitude. It doesn't seem to matter whether you try or what you do, because it won't change anything. However, my low perception of control was combined with a high need for control, which meant I went in the opposite direction. Lacking a sense of control over what might happen to me, I felt the need to "make up for it" by trying to control myself and everything around me as much as possible. I became constantly vigilant over what might go wrong. Ultimately, my anxiety systems just kept going up and up, and I found that not eating was a good release, both in terms of biology (starvation-as-emotional-novocaine) and in terms of psychology.

My pseudo-control of food became all-important to me, and soon I came to feel that as long as I could maintain an iron grip on what I ate and how much I exercised, everything would be okay. When you add perfectionism and low self-esteem to the mix, you have a recipe for disaster.

The study's authors concluded:

"EDs are associated with a tendency to worry about mistakes, a low sense of self-esteem, and a low perception of control over internal feelings and external events. Perception of control and self-esteem seems to moderate the predictive power of concern mistakes on symptoms of ED. The results suggest that a low perception of control is an important cognitive factor in ED."

Some of the most important parts of my recovery have been relaxing that need for control, realizing the areas of my life over which I do have control, and making peace with the large number of aspects of my life I legitimately don't have control over.


Vivienne said...

Thanks for sharing this. Control is my everything. As someone who always felt like life just happened to me, my need for control played a big part in developing anorexia. It's always good to gain insight. XX

Cathy (UK) said...

My anorexia nervosa was always about control - of my emotions and my life. Recovery involved finding other means of feeling in control of these things without resorting to semi-starvation and over-exercising.

Nobody Girl said...

I agree this is an issue for many of us who have or had an ED. For myself, my bulimia is a way of manifesting my troubles because i have such difficulty dealing with them as emotions themselves. In turn, I materialize them, b/p them, etc. But I hope that we can realize that there is control that can be good, about self-confidence about reassuring one's validity as well.

Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul said...

I think that while many people understand eating disorders as an "attempt at control", they really don't understand the fuller (and richer) picture that you presented here. I can very much relate to the fact that while I could never determine explicity the root of my need for control (though I have some hypotheses), I have fortunately been able to start to release the need for it, while also focusing on what is "controllable" (though that might be a fallacy itself). Acceptance and Committment Therapy is a great tool for this issue.

Miriam said...

That really is quite fascinating. I never really thought about it as a "low perception of control" as opposed to "omg...i'm powerless". And sometimes ED doesn't even seem like a "control thing" so much as a vanity thing, but then again, I guess that ED's defense mechanism to make me feel powerless all over again. Such a cycle. Thanks for the insight!

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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