Eating disorders and the issue of control

Eating disorders are complicated conditions that can affect people in different ways, despite some common threads. Even though on the face of it, the eating disorders anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa might seem on the opposite ends of the spectrum, they can share similar traits. The person suffering from anorexia appears to maintain a sense of 'control' while those with bulimia may not.


The reality for many people living with eating disorders is that while they may think they're in control of the situation, often underneath it all – they're not.

How do eating disorders control us?

Although anorexia and bulimia are superficially opposites, both typically share the same perfectionist personality trait.

Both restrict their eating on the basis of rules which are reflected in their disordered thinking patterns. For those with anorexia, there may be a belief of: "When I'm thin, I'll be happy." For people with bulimia, there may be a belief of: "I must never eat chocolates or biscuits or other 'bad' food." These beliefs are driven by the eating disorder.

Inevitably, these rigid rules break down. When someone with bulimia binges, they may think, "I've blown it. I'm a failure." They may feel guilty because they haven't been able to keep to their eating rules so feel ashamed, try once more to restrict their eating and so the cycle continues.

People with anorexia may feel a need to be in control of their lives and use restriction as a gateway to this. It is important to recognise these needs as valid but also to question whether the needs are being met by restricting food. Is this really giving a sense of control?

Those with bulimia may be searching for freedom, the opposite of control. But by trying to live up to inflexible, perfectionist ideals they impose the very control that ultimately breaks down and creates their feeling of guilt.

The Romans knew that only the gods are perfect. When they made their mosaics, they always included one flawed piece. Our humanity is inherent in the principle that we are flawed. Our acceptance of this truth is the real measure of our humanity.

The paradox for those with anorexia is that they will only really be in control when they stop trying to be in control. The more they try to control themselves through eating disorder behaviours, the more the eating disorder takes control. Only by letting go of the eating disorder and by accepting themselves for who they are, can they be themselves and really in control.

Those with bulimia also need to accept themselves as flawed human beings instead of striving for perfection. Essentially, both anorexia and bulimia make us look for the same thing.

How can counsellors help people with eating disorders?

A counsellor can help you understand what may be at the root of your eating disorder. As discussed here, this may involve a sense of control, but it may involve other elements entirely. 

Eating disorders are nuanced and complex, and a counsellor with experience in this field will be able to help you navigate this. Offering gentle challenge alongside compassion and support, a counsellor can help you find your way through recovery where you can truly gain control of your life. 

If you're ready to take that step, you can use our search tool to find a counsellor today. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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