Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Control Freak Revisited

If you've ever seen the movie When Harry Met Sally, you remember Sally's penchant for controlling and convoluted food-ordering
: 'I'll have the salad, but the dressing on the side and no bacon unless you can cook it well-done and then I will have bacon but crumbled not strips...' Harry sits next to her and rolls his eyes.

But how many of us can secretly relate to Sally's attempts to control her world? They scream of an internal vulnerability, a need to know all the answers. Sally's not just showing us her relationship to food; she's showing us her relationship to her whole life.

When clients tell me they've started restricting or hyper-managing their food intake, one of the first question I want to ask is what's going on in the rest of their lives. Where do they feel a loss of control in another area of their life that's being filled (unsuccessfully perhaps) by the control they can feel when they keep their calories under a thousand or get to some perfect weight? Feeling our humanness, our vulnerability, means the relinquishing of control--even Sally gets there eventually: snot-nosed, human and despairing. It means realizing we aren't always going to know the answers or even understand the plan for our lives, let alone create it.

How we relate to food and to our bodies can tell us a lot about how we're relating to our lives. When I become more self-conscious, more restrictive and judgmental with my body, it's often a sign that something else in my life is making me feel vulnerable and I don't want to feel it. One client I worked with began starving himself and working out like a maniac when his job security suddenly became shaky. Another client notices that she has a tendency to diet whenever family is about to come into town; it gives her something else to focus on besides the growing feeling of anxiety and confrontation she's afraid will swallow her up when they arrive. If she can be thinner, maybe she'll be invulnerable to the drama that usually ensues.

Our bodies take a lot of this abuse, but I'm sure--just like we would--they'd rather be seen and connected to rather than objectified and controlled. Control puts us in a robot-like position, gets us out of feeling and into doing. As with a bad relationship, living with the dynamic of control can feel like walking a tight rope; inside, our bodies and our psyches live in fear of doing something wrong and no longer being valued, rather than knowing we're valued no matter what we do.

If control is coming up for you around food and your body, ask yourself what else might really be going on? Are there are other things playing out in your life that feel out of your control? Are there feelings you'd rather not be feeling?

The truth is that there are a lot of things in life we can't control: from relationships to jobs to even how people see us. In the end, Sally's vulnerability is what makes her loveable, not whether or not she has her whole life figured out. If we rely on control for our happiness, we're bound to be let down. Instead, we have to change what we try to control, focusing on our feelings and our attitudes rather than the perfect diet or body.

When we control too much we not only stop being in a real relationship with ourselves, we no longer let others in the way we could. Learning to be with the soft edges and hunger of our bodies takes courage and opens us up to the world much more than fearful restriction. How can you let yourself feel your vulnerability, the truth of what you're experiencing? If you let go of control, what might show up in your life instead?

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