If you feel that you have a good understanding of how I explained autonomous control, then this part may or may not be useful to you. If that’s the case, feel free to skip it. At the risk of overexplaining it, this schematic serves my need to clarify things visually. That’s how I learn best, so I like to use visual images to explain things as well.

This is a graphical depiction of the important role that a balanced sense of autonomous control plays in behavior, and how that can be set off-balance by a shift to the extreme on either side. As the term implies, true autonomous control combines autonomy, or independent action, with control, or responsibility and structure. Going to an extreme on either side of the scale can throw everything off-balance which is psychologically unsustainable.

When that does happen, the imbalance tends to be restored by going to the extreme on the other side. Too much structure begins to feel like externally-imposed control, which is counteracted by defiant or oppositional behavior. Since the counter-reaction, rather than the outcome, is the primary motivation, this behavior is often acted out on impulse rather than by weighing costs and benefits.

It would also follow that lacking a sense of control and structure would be equally destabilizing by creating a feeling of internal chaos, and could lead to restoring balance in the other direction by becoming overly structured or self-restrictive. This may explain what motivates certain behaviors such as anorexia or other types of extreme dieting.

The ideal approach is to maintain balanced moderation by having a sense of authority and self-direction, but also by taking into account a sense of responsibility: to others, to your work, to society, and so on. That responsibility can take the form of conforming to external expectations, like getting up to go to work in the morning, obeying the law, adhering to a schedule when necessary, or offering a compromise when your legitimate autonomous needs conflict with those of someone else.

When there are moderate and reasonable limits on your freedom, then you are able maintain an emotionally even keel. This allows you to pursue goals autonomously, guided by your own needs and by how those are met by the behavior, rather than impulsively acting in opposition to your perception that someone else is trying to control you.

I call this a dynamic equilibrium model of autonomous control. Dynamic equilibrium is a term used primarily in the natural sciences, but has also been used in the social sciences. The idea is that a system is maintained in a relatively steady and balanced state (homeostasis) while the elements that maintain the balance are in flux and they react to each other to maintain equilibrium. That is, they move in tandem mirroring each other so that if one moves to the extreme, the other does too to maintain constancy. It’s a zero-sum game.

When the counter-balancing elements involve emotions and behavior, and they shift to the extremes, you can see the kind of problems that may result (in the boxes at the bottom of the graphic). That brings us back to our topic and illustrates how emotional eating fits in.

Of course, understanding the theory and successfully applying it to your behavior are two separate things. The four-step approach that I outlined here is necessary for overcoming emotional eating, but may not be sufficient in conquering overeating. A long-standing pattern of emotional eating may become so habitual that even without the external control stressors triggering the behavior, simple habit can keep it going. In future posts I will focus on the mental habits that over time tend to groove a rut in your eating behavior and how to get a handle on pulling yourself out of them.

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This step is the take-away, bottom line, upshot, payoff, etc. for everything we’ve discussed up to this point. So pay close attention. Once you have identified the reason (or reasons) you feel controlled, the next step is to take a good look at the situation that is causing the stress to see if you can change how it impacts you.

The key to doing this successfully involves the effective use of coping mechanisms. In psychology, coping with stress is broken down into three basic strategies. Depending on the nature of the stressor, each of these can be used to reduce or eliminate the impact of the problem that is making you feel controlled. These are:

  1. problem-focused coping
  2. appraisal-focused coping
  3. emotion-focused coping

Problem-focused strategies are simply solution-oriented approaches to dealing with a situation that causes stress. If the problem is due to something that can be changed, you can solve it by reducing or eliminating the source of the stress. Let’s say you’re tense and anxious due to your hectic schedule. You feel like you’re running from one meeting to another, while always being afraid that you’ll be late to the next one. You would look at how you are managing your appointments to see how you can reduce the problem.

A patient of mine was dealing with an extremely stressful work situation. He is a doctor working in a busy outpatient clinic where there tends to be a lot of patients who don’t show for their appointments. As a result, the clinic administrators looked for a way to balance patient flow without causing too many gaps for the doctors or delays for the patients. They found a good balance by looking at the average number of no-shows for the clinic and developed a practice of triple-booking each appointment slot to manage the patient flow.

This worked well for the most part. The problem was that cancellations and no-shows varied according to specialty and my patient’s specialty area had fewer missed appointments than the others. As a result, he was constantly overbooked, running late for each appointment and working late every day. The simple fix was to show the administrator how his cancellations and no-shows differed from the others, and that his appointments should therefore not be triple-booked. Problem solved.

This simple approach is the best way to deal with problems that are causing stress, so it should be the first thing to look for when you identify the situation that is causing you to feel controlled. If you’re overwhelmed with work, hire an assistant or delegate responsibilities to others. If your office desk has developed geological strata and finding things you need requires the skills of a trained archeologist, enlist the help of an organized person to help you come up with a better system.

These are fairly straightforward solutions to problems that can really end up controlling your life. In reality, though, it’s usually not so simple. Most of the time, the problem you’re dealing with is not so readily solvable but is rather an ongoing situation that does not lend itself to a simple fix. That leaves you with the next option: appraisal-focused coping strategies.  This means reappraising and challenging your assumptions – or in plain English, turning on your mental crap detector.

Without getting too philosophical about it, when we respond to any event, we feel and believe that we are responding to the plain reality that’s out there. That’s a reasonable and common shortcut that we use to unclutter our brains and streamline how we think. Unfortunately, it’s not true. The idea that we see things as they really are is a simplified but wrong view of the cognitive process we go through when we respond to events. The truth is that we’re really responding to our interpretation of the experience, which can be very different from the reality. So it’s essential to challenge the assumptions we make about how we first view the event.

Everything we see and experience first has to pass through a process of perception and interpretation before we respond to it. That interpretation of what we perceive is our own addition to the experience and it colors or even completely distorts our understanding of the event. It’s like a filter that we use on the camera lens of our mind. It distorts the picture we take of reality in a way that is unique to us. Often, we may apply the same filter to many different experiences. We don’t give too much thought to it when we do this, because it occurs at a level beyond our conscious awareness, and besides, most of the time it has no practical impact.

However, when we respond emotionally to our experience of an event, and then behave in some way that is in turn triggered by that emotional response, how we filter reality can make a huge difference. For the purposes of our discussion, it can determine whether or not an event will trigger an episode of binge eating or not.

It’s too easy to accept the sense of being controlled as the reality and to respond to that perception by eating. But what if your perception is not the reality? It is very possible that your filter tends to allow perceptions of external control to pass through more easily than alternative interpretations. So the most important question to ask is, “Am I really being controlled or are there ways that I can look at this situation differently?”

Appraisal-focused strategies are appropriate when there is no straight-forward solution to a problem. Instead of changing the cause, you modify how you think. This is what I wrote about in some detail concerning Hamlet’s prison. Whether you feel trapped or not may depend entirely on how you look at things.

Another patient of mine grew up as the oldest of six children. Her parents, whether by their nature or necessity, were very rigid about expectations of behavior and fairness. Among those rules were that the older children had to be responsible for their younger siblings. This wasn’t just a matter of watching out for their safety, but also making sure they were happy.

As a consequence, my patient had to do things like include her younger sister whenever she went out with friends, give up her right to an extra piece of pizza if her sister wanted it, and so on. Now, as adults, she doesn’t particularly enjoy the company of her younger sister, but feels incredibly guilty about not wanting to spend more time with her. Unlike the other person’s work schedule problem, this is not a situation that lends itself to an easy solution. So what does she do about the overwhelming stress that comes from the guilt she feels about not liking her sister? She had to reappraise the situation.

First, she had to recognize that perhaps her parents’ expectations were not fair to her. True, she was the oldest, but she was still just a little girl herself and had her own need to be a kid, not a nanny. So a lot of her resentment toward her sister was probably redirected from feelings she had toward her parents that were unacceptable for her to acknowledge. Second, she and her sister are very different people as adults, with different interests and personalities. Sometimes people who are members of the same family wouldn’t choose to be friends with each other if they weren’t related and they don’t have to feel guilty about that.

For this patient, of course, that was not an acceptable option growing up, and she never got the memo as an adult that this rule had ever been repealed. Allowing herself to admit that she would probably not choose her sister as a friend if they met as adults was a revelation to her. That doesn’t mean that she can ignore her as if they had no connection, but including her in her life her as one would any family member is not what was stressful to her. Essentially, she had to give herself permission to disregard rules that were at best obsolete and probably were never a good idea to begin with. This, not surprisingly, was a pattern that repeated itself in her relationships with friends, co-workers, and the men she dated.

This process of reassessing how one interprets and responds to reality is in fact the majority of what goes on in therapy. It’s what most of the talk in talk therapy is about. It’s a process that requires examining patterns of events and relationships and noting how you tend to respond to them until there are enough data points to connect the dots and see a consistent picture emerge.

Since the process relies on no one but you to accomplish, together with a therapist who supports your budding independence, it is a very good example of how to develop a sense of autonomous control in your life. If you commit to it and put what you discover into practice, it is usually a very effective and powerful way of implementing change. But even then, there will be lifelong habits of thinking and behaving that slip through, no matter how effective therapy is. That’s where the third coping technique, emotion-focused coping, can be very helpful.

Emotion-focused strategies involve dealing with the feelings that are stirred up as a consequence of the stressor. This can include managing hostile feelings by counting to ten, or reducing anxiety by meditating or using relaxation techniques. Unlike the first two strategies, which are directed at reducing the source of stress, emotion-focused coping is more tactical than strategic, since it is aimed at the effects of the stress. Distracting oneself from the urge to binge would be an example that is most relevant to emotional eating. This is what many therapists who work with emotional eating recommend when they encourage people to “surf the urge,” meaning, distract yourself from the urge to binge until it passes.

Other useful responses could include any type of pleasant activity that serves as a distraction and occupies your attention, preferably while occupying your hands as well. Any kind of needlework, doing crossword puzzles or taking a hot bath, might be some examples of emotional-coping behaviors. Going for a walk, exercise or reading could also work well. Watching TV might be an effective way to divert your attention, but it could also allow for having a snack while you watch, and the opportunity for habitual eating could defeat the purpose of distracting yourself from emotional eating.

Surfing the urge, and any other response that you might choose to take the place of emotional eating, can be helpful advice when you feel like bingeing and have no other way of dealing with it. However, I see this as a last resort, after the attempts to address the source of the stress has failed. That’s because emotional eating is the effect; the stressor, whether it is a problem that can be fixed or a perception that can be changed, is the cause. Whenever there is a cause and effect relationship, the most effective way to minimize the effect is to first address the cause.

With most of my patients, even those who have binged on a daily basis for years, I don’t begin treatment by getting them to change their behavior. If anything, that would just introduce a new form of external control that sooner or later would have the exact opposite effect of what we are trying to accomplish. Instead, I help them defuse the power of food by encouraging them to view all food as on the menu. Then we’ll look at their experience of external control and discuss the coping techniques I describe here. Often, after only a few weeks of therapy with someone who has been struggling daily, I’ll ask them how their eating has been. They’ll usually think about it for a few seconds and look up with an expression of puzzlement when they realize that it’s been a week or more since the last time they binged.

When it comes to emotional eating, perceived control is the cause; rejection of control is the effect. First try to solve the problem that causes the experience of feeling controlled; if that’s not possible, change your perception of that control. When that’s not enough, find better ways to respond to those feelings. The unwanted behavior will often take care of itself.

If you’re like every other human, and chances are that’s the case, stress can enter your life in all forms, from every possible source, and in every possible way. Therefore, saying that emotional eating is due to stress is like saying that an illness is due to being sick. It’s circular and meaningless. Unless you can identify a specific cause that can be linked to the effect you will be unable to eliminate the symptom.

However, with all the possible suspects as the source of the stress behind this behavior it can be very difficult to identify the ones that are actually causing it. Fortunately, it should be clear by now that emotional eating is a specific type of response to a specific type of stress. It is a defiant act of self-liberation from the domination of external control, so the search for a cause can therefore be more focused. The first question to ask, then, is not “Why am I stressed out,” but “In what way am I feeling controlled?

As I described in the previous section, the source of the problem is often related to control around eating, such as explicit or implicit pressure to lose weight. But it can also come from any other situation in which you feel you bear the full responsibility for getting something done, but your freedom or authority to do it your way is being limited by other people or circumstances. (I want to emphasize that you feel that’s the case; it doesn’t mean that it is! This is an important point for finding alternative solutions, which I’ll address in the next step.)

A simple and fairly common example is when someone asks you for a favor. You may have no time, energy, or desire to say yes, but there’s a part of you that feels unable to say no. Perhaps you’re concerned that this person will be angry with you or will see you as a bad or uncaring person. Maybe being seen as the kind of person who is always available to help is more important to you than commitments that you’ve made to yourself to get certain things done. So even if this means that the items on your own to do list get downgraded in priority, you have to make that sacrifice to maintain your image.

All of this is very nice, but not so deep down, you may feel resentful. Whether you acknowledge it or not, you may be grumbling to yourself about how inconsiderate this friend is for “forcing” you to give up what you need to do, and instead do something that is inconvenient and time-consuming. How rude!

Of course, none of this is true. The friend may have been very accepting if you explained that you’re unable to comply with the request, even without providing a good excuse. But there’s some part of you that has internalized the idea that complying with every request is the right way to behave. You may even be able to recall some such explicit message, spoken in a voice that sounds suspiciously like one of your parents.

Whatever the reason, you feel forced, compelled and controlled. If this is an ongoing occurrence, you will likely feel that your sense of independence, what psychologists refer to as self-determination, is out of balance. To correct that, you unconsciously feel the need to engage in some behavior that makes it right again by reassuring yourself that you’re still in charge. Any situation in which you find yourself feeling that your sense of independence is impinged upon may be a likely candidate for causing a counter-reaction type of behavior like binge eating.

This behavior feels like a satisfying correction to the imbalance caused by the impaired sense of autonomy because you’re able to break the rules without hurting anyone else. “After all,” you tell yourself, “I’m the one who made the rule, so I’m the one who can break it.” Yes, you have the freedom of the proverbial fox that’s guarding the hen house. On the other hand, of course, “not hurting anybody else” implies that you are hurting yourself with this behavior. So why isn’t that enough to prevent it?

If the object of the behavior is to feel free, then that would include feeling free of having to worry about the predictable outcome. “I may feel bad later,” you tell yourself, “but I don’t care!” That’s the point of the freedom – you have the freedom to ignore consequences.

Recognizing the source of the perceived control is the key to overcoming that counter-behavior, because this pattern only “works” if you’re not fully cognizant of why you’re doing it. If, however, you use the urge to binge as a signal to think about how you might be feeling controlled, you defeat the supposed purpose of acting in opposition to that control, which is to feel independent. As Edward Deci puts it in his book, Why We Do What We Do, “When people are either complying with or defying controls, they are not being autonomous, and they can know that.”

Being aware of your options and choosing to act out of preference, not out of defiance, is the key to true independence.