The Illusion of control
What we –as mindful eating teachers- often hear from participants is: “If I work hard enough, then I’ll get what I want (the perfect body and weight, a better relationship, a great job). A quite tricky statement. It actually says: “If you are successful, it is thanks to your efforts. If you fail, it is your own fault”. Our 21th century Western culture is submerged by this management thinking. It claims that if we keep everything under control, we will be fine. Unfortunately, life isn’t interested in linear thinking and there are always unpredictable situations and nothing is permanent.
The desire to control and to plan rigidly (food intake, weight), is something I observe with all my clients who struggle with eating issues. In this sense, restrictive eating and indulging in food could be seen as two extremes on the continuum of control.
How did all this –what I call- “controlitis” started? Namely, the crazy idea that you have to be 100% the CEO of your own life? On a sudden point in human history, we thought we were the center of the world and external (supernatural) forces were no longer relevant. The positive outcome of this perception was individual freedom. However, by pushing the idea of individual freedom to an extreme, we are also very much on our own. If we want to create a world dictated by an individual, fixated self, then there is no other to blame if we don’t succeed. Your shit is your responsibility… “Overweight, illness or stress-eating? Well, I’ve told you what to do!”
The urge to control is never ending. There are apps checking cholesterol levels and smart balances which send warning signals to a personal health coach. Nothing wrong with using the latest technology to monitor -for a while- your health. However, the frantic controller wants to plan, to suppress or to dominate for the rest of its life everything that is not part of the perfect world. The more we are trying to keep every possible aspect of life under control, the more fear and anxiety will rise to the surface. If we are really honest, we know that deep inside of us there will always be something trying to escape our control.
The neuroses of controlitis arise most clearly in contact with the little unexpected things during the day or when the body -and not the thinking mind- decides to follow its own needs. Maybe it starts in the morning with a bit of irritation when somebody arrives five minutes too late at an appointment. And then after a whole day of inner and outer struggles, the evening ends with a full-blown binge, driven by hunger and accumulated anxiety and frustration.
The dark, hidden and suppressed parts in us are interestingly enough showing up in food obsessions, in all the strange eating behaviors and shame-based thoughts about ourselves and the body.
After recognizing and acknowledging controlitis, how to work with it? In the first class of a mindful eating course, I used to say that we can’t control the outcome of this course. With often disappointment in the eyes of the participants. Almost every person starts a training with high expectactions such as losing weight within 8 weeks or getting rid of bad eating habits. The fact that these habits have already persisted for more than ten years is for most participants just a minor detail.
If it is impossible to control the outcome of a mindful eating course, then what remains? Maybe only gaining mastership over the mind and awareness of the process itself. In a mindful eating program, the participants learn to become aware of the cobble stones on the path instead of being obsessed by an unknown end goal. By walking the path, step by step, people learn to be no longer driven by the automatic pilot but gently guided by insight and compassion-based awareness. Our most reliable companions to make wise decisions are definitely ‘mindfulness and compassion’.
Another level to work with controlitis, is to understand and feel how devastating egocentric thinking is for our wellbeing. It kills basic notions such as inter-connectivity and the nourishment of good relationships. By letting go of the idea that we –as individuals- can control every aspect of our lives, we might open up for unexpected wonders and new fresh encounters. By letting go of our fixed selves, we might truly meet the beautiful nature of ourselves and human beings.
How do you address “controlitis” in a mindful eating training?
Caroline Baerten, Belgium