Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Boss of Me

Several weeks ago, I was having a conversation with a work acquaintance about how she allowed her clients and coworkers to control her behavior. She was complaining that a coworker who belonged to a cult-like religion had cornered her on two separate occasions and spouted her cult's dogma at her. She didn't want to be impolite, so she wouldn't say something abrupt like, "I'm very sorry, but I'm not interested." The coworker could behave inappropriately toward her, but she could not bring herself to stop her.

While my acquaintance was quite troubled by all of this and was beginning to experience anxiety at the thought of going to work and being trapped by this colleague again, she simply could not take control of the situation. She said that she tried to avoid the coworker as much as possible, but sometimes couldn't escape such as when they both ended up in the elevator together. It was particularly troubling to her because this colleague only targeted her and no one else.

This situation and others like it made it clear that my acquaintance allowed other people to control her behavior by handing them power over her. Her cult-following-coworker targeted her because she had figured out that she was someone who could be manipulated into doing things she didn't want to do. While we discussed this, I explained the concept of an external locus of control to her. The short definition of this is that it refers to one's sense that the outcome of events is either in or out of their control. All people have varying degrees of external and internal loci of control.

I've been pondering the effect of locus of control and eating disorders. In my case, I have had a strong sense that whatever I do has no effect on the situations around me and that "fate", "luck", etc. have taken the wheel and driven my life to some pretty terrible places. I work hard, do my best, am kind to people, and still find that things do not go the way I would hope.

Part of the reason for this is that I grew up with parents who both had profound emotional problems and compulsive behaviors that resulted in a chaotic and stressful childhood. My mother in particular tried and failed many, many times to accomplish various goals. Additionally, she imprinted on me time and time again that I was responsible for the happiness of others (including her own, and she was never happy) and that the interests of others should come before mine at all costs. Combining the role modeling, life experiences, and verbal conditioning that I experienced, it is no small wonder that I place control of the outcome of events outside of myself. I give power to others just as my acquaintance does and have a strong sense that they should have that power.

In regards to how this relates to food, I have had a few thoughts. The primary one is that I have felt that food controls me rather than me controlling it. For the vast majority of my life, I have felt a sense of hopelessness about ever having control over my eating. I wonder now if my issues with food are tied to some extent to a life pattern of feeling helpless to affect things I desperately want to change.

Perhaps having an external locus of control increases the chance of overeating since one may feel outside factors are always going to push them to do things they don't want to do. Essentially, I don't want to eat that cake, but I am powerless to resist its influence over my sense of smell and taste. People don't notice that you allow them to coerce you into doing more work, watch the T.V. shows they want to watch when you prefer something else, or give them your time and attention, but they do notice that you're fat. In essence, the only place where they don't want you to surrender control is in your diet so they don't see it as a problem.

Taking control of your eating may require a huge mental shift from nice, helpful person to someone who is more self-interested and involved. This is a very hard shift to make because many overweight people have poor self-esteem and feel the only way others will like them is that if they accede to the wishes of those around them.

Another thought I had in regards to this issue is that eating could be a form of rebellion against attempts of others to control you. When you have everyone around you telling you you shouldn't eat so much and harassing you for your appearance, it's possible that overeating is the one thing that you decide you will do in defiance of others and their efforts to control you. It's a gratifyingly easy way of doing whatever you want and getting pleasure despite what others might want you to do.

I'm not sure that these thoughts relate to my issues with food, but I do think a piece of the picture is related to locus of control for me. Food has been the boss of me along with a great many other people around me. Shifting to a place where I'm the boss may be a step on the path to managing my eating for life.

1 comment:

dlamb said...

Often it starts with "The Drama of the Gifted Child", right? I wonder how many of us, who fall under that category, also chose the mental health profession as our field of study.