It's OK not to be in control

The above may be examples of times when you are out of control or felt out of control, but being this way is ok, right?

  • When did you last step onto an aeroplane and resign yourself to the fact that your life was now in the pilot’s hands?
  • Or you suddenly realise you are getting old and are unable to do anything about it?
  • Or you reflect on the past and realise you cannot change your background or where you came from?

Often, for those with eating disorders, they feel that the only things they can control in their lives is their weight and food. Being out of control can feel scary to some and this can be when people turn to food for comfort and a sense of control.

For those who overeat and indulge in large food binges, such as those with bulimia and binge eating disorder, these sufferers may demonstrate control by controlling what they eat and how much they eat; and whilst they are eating the food soothes them and provides them with the temporary oblivion that they need to forget about what is going on in their largely uncontrollable lives. During a binge overeat, the sufferer may feel safer and can forget about what they really feel and what they may be unable to manage in their lives, if only for a short space of time.

For those who restrict food, such as those with Anorexia, these sufferers tend to control food by restricting it. Portion control is their way of gaining some control in an often chaotic and unpredictable world.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy teaches eating disorder sufferers that life is largely unpredictable and that it’s ok not to be in control all of the time. Counselling strategies ask the client to list times when they have been out of control and they have been ok afterwards, as well as looking for the evidence to support their belief that if they are not in control then they will not be ok. Counselling facilitates the client to acknowledge and address the question, ‘What’s the worst thing that happened when they were not in control?’ and when the answer is typically, ‘Nothing’, the client is able to repeat the word nothing a few times to acknowledge and validate that they were ok on the whole.

Other counselling challenging techniques may be around their beliefs of what they thought would happen and what did actually happen and discuss these comparisons in session. Practical tasks may be to blindfold the client and lead them around a room or building, so they can practice giving control over to others and to put their trust in another person.

It can often be helpful for the client to write down what they may be able to control in their lives other than things linked to food and/or weight. Here are just a few examples:

  • Taking out a pension and putting this in place for the future.
  • Taking out insurances.
  • Writing a will.
  • Choosing what books to read.
  • Choosing how honest they are with others.
  • Choosing how often they openly express their feelings.
  • Choosing how much time they spend on the internet.

Contrasting this list of control with exploring how boring and even physically and mentally draining life would be if they could control what was going to happen from day to day, month to month and year to year can be a particularly helpful technique to facilitate clients to see that having total control may not be as ideal as they first perceive it to be. It could be very exhausting having to plan and have fore-thought over everything! Would anyone really want to be like this? Is their ideal really ideal?

Another helpful counselling technique could be for clients is to make a list of things that crop up during the course of the week that they cannot control – each one should be written onto a separate piece of paper as it occurs and then placed into a container. At the end of the week, the client then opens the container, reads each piece of paper, and questions if what is written they definitely cannot do anything about and, therefore, have no control over. They then take these slips of paper that have things written on that the client has deduced they still have no control over, outdoors to a river or the sea or similar, tear the pieces of paper up and let them float away in the water and forget about them. This physical release can serve to unburden the client from unhelpful negative thoughts about things they cannot change.

If there are any pieces of paper that, upon reflection, potentially can be changed, then these should be actioned as soon as possible and then disposed of, ready for the next week’s paper slips. This technique can help to avoid food becoming the container for the emotional distress that the client is experiencing when they feel that things are beyond their control. The use of a physical container rather than food becoming the emotional container, can be particularly helpful in breaking the cycle of adverse behaviour (Kullman, 2018).

Ultimately, it’s about client sufferers knowing and accepting that unexpected things happen; things will not always go to plan; and not being able to anticipate every eventuality that may have an adverse effect on them, is ok.

It’s also about remembering that everyone can only control their own actions and reactions; and that not being in control can provide a learning experience and can promote growth within a person (Kullman, 2018).

Being able to sit with a lack of control and accepting unpredictability, rather than using food to bring in some control, can be one of the main goals for some client sufferers.


Kullman, A. (2018) Hunger for connection: Finding meaning in eating disorders. London: Routledge.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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