Like many others, I believed eating disorders were “about control” before my daughter was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. It didn’t take long, as a parent of a child with anorexia nervosa, to understand why this theory is problematic.
First, it oversimplifies eating disorders. It also assumes that someone’s life is out of control when it may not be. Finally, it makes it sound as if someone can choose to have an eating disorder in order to gain control.
I still hear about this control theory frequently, not only from therapists, but from people who have suffered from eating disorders themselves. If people elaborate on the feeling of control their eating disorders gave them, they will usually go on to say they realized they were wrong, and the eating disorder gave them NO control. The eating disorder controlled THEM, while taking over all their thoughts.
These days, experts are likely to mention eating disorders as a coping mechanism, providing a sense of escape, a numbing feeling, or even a sense of euphoria. While this may be true for some, learning better ways to cope is just the beginning of the journey. Eating disorders are complex disorders with many factors and no two cases are the same. Saying the disorder is about coping is making a sweeping statement that may not be true in all cases. It also makes it sound as if someone can choose to have an eating disorder in order to cope.
When my daughter was still in the early stages of recovery, she explained that she had been feeling significant anxiety for a long time but didn’t know what it was or how to verbalize it. She felt she began to use eating disorder behaviors as a “coping mechanism” to quiet the anxiety. This explanation helps her to express some of her feelings about her illness, but it only scratches the surface. It leaves out a lot of details, including the bio-psycho-social factors that also contributed to her eating disorder.
Therapists who generalize all eating disorders as a means of coping may waste precious time, working on an issue that doesn’t exist for some patients. Searching for root causes that may not be fully known is counterproductive. It causes us to look backward, instead of focusing on the illness in front of us and moving toward weight restoration and recovery.