5 Reasons Control is Linked to Eating Disorders

eating disorder and control

An eating disorder starts out as a way to gain control, until it starts controlling you.

Control can be a coping mechanism in eating disorders when dealing with difficult life circumstances, emotions, and change. Decisions made around eating, exercise, and self-talk are ways to cope with stress, uncertainty, and pain.

The need for stability and predictability is a core human need, and anxiety stems from future-oriented fear. Control is a way to manage this fear and create a sense of safety, and research suggests that control is one of many aspects of an eating disorder [1].

Below are five reasons why you may struggle with an eating disorder and control.

1. An External Locus of Control

The term “locus of control” refers to where you put your focus and control in life. Scientific articles on the subject of eating disorders and control break it down into two types[2]:

  • Internal locus of control – believing in your power to dictate your own fate.
  • External locus of control – believing that others or fate control your future.

Research shows that people with eating disorders tend to have an external locus of control, which means placing their power onto external things like food, body parts, or other people’s opinions.

A key to recovery is learning to shift from an external locus of control to an internal one. Start to notice every time that you are giving your power away to something, whether that’s a person, an object, or an idea. Say to yourself “I am calling my power back.”

As you begin to call your power back, you go from being more centered around an external locus of control to having an internal locus of control. And as this power dynamic shifts, you begin to make decisions that support you in creating a better and more fulfilling life.

Know that you hold the power.

Power is always present in the moment inside of you

2. Feelings of Ineffectiveness

Ineffectiveness is the quality of not producing any significant or desired effect. It can result in a sense of worthlessness and a diminished sense of control.

Feelings of ineffectiveness can arise when struggling with an eating disorder and control. You maybe believe you’re not doing enough, or you’re not enough as you are. These emotions can deeply impact confidence and self-esteem.

In an attempt to cope with those feelings, we may try to control our environment or our actions. For example, by setting high standards of perfection, or conforming to certain roles or images. We may think that if we just looked a certain way or achieved certain external markers of success, we would finally feel good enough.

However, true resolution of these feelings comes from recognizing your inherent goodness and enoughness.

You are already good enough in this very moment, regardless of external validation or achievements.

Healing feelings of inadequacy requires connecting with an innate sense of worthiness and self-love. You are good and deserving of love, simply as you are.

3. Fear of Losing Control Over Body

A major contributor to the pathology of eating disorders is a fear of losing control over many aspects of life, particularly the body.

Examples of fears around losing control over body include:

  • Not wanting to have a “recovered” body, as it’s uncertain what that will look like.
  • Weight spiraling “out of control” and feeling like failure in the one area you thought you could control.
  • Fears of enjoying food, putting on weight, needing bigger clothes, or being judged by others.

These possibilities can bring up intense emotions, and they all boil down to fear of losing control over your body.

The fear of an unknown outcome can hinder recovery when dealing with an eating disorder and control issues. It causes people to only partially commit to recovery, or retract from it altogether. This resistance often stems from a lack of trust and acceptance of the body’s natural processes.

Recognize that fear is a natural part of the recovery process. Leaning into it will lead you to progress.

By acknowledging fears and accepting the body’s natural processes, you can move forward in recovery.

4. Fear Of Losing Control Of Identity

Eating disorders can become intertwined with your identity, providing a sense of purpose and direction. The hours spent on disordered thoughts and behaviors can warp your sense of self over time.

When you think about who you are without an eating disorder, it can bring up fears of change and the unknown. It leads to questions like:

  • How will I spend my time?
  • Will recovery change how people think of me, or how they see me?
  • What happens if someone comments on my weight?
  • Will people treat me differently?
  • What will I do with all the time that I spent on my eating disorder?

These are big questions, and they can lead to existential dread. When all of your self concept has been wrapped around an eating disorder, how do you know who you are without one?

This is what the great journey of recovery helps you find out. In order to be who you are, you must be willing to let go of who you think you are.

Recovery helps you discover who you truly are by letting go of the identity you have built around your eating disorder.

5. Fear of Losing Control Of Emotions

People with eating disorders seek control not only over food, ingredients, and body size… but also over their emotions.

It’s no wonder why. Emotions can be overwhelming, especially when they’re repressed or deemed unsafe to express. If you struggle with emotional literacy, it may be challenging to identify, describe, or locate emotions in the body.

To become more emotionally literate, you need to connect with your emotions. Recognize the unique experience of emotions, and find ways to tolerate and self-soothe without resorting to eating disorder behaviors.

Learning to experience and handle emotions enables you to let go of an eating disorder and embrace the full spectrum of emotions.

Overcome Struggles with an Eating Disorder and Control

Recovery is surrendering the very thing that makes you feel safe: control.

With the right support, it’s possible to break free and change your relationship to control. To support this process we recorded a specific affirmation track in the Daily Growth Habit called “Letting Go of Control and Surrendering into the Unknown.” You can get hooked up with that here, along with our whole free private audio library of affirmations.

Through support, practice and believing in your own strengths and talents – you can regain authority over an eating disorder.


[1]Branley-Bell, D., Talbot, C.V., Downs, J. et al. It’s not all about control: challenging mainstream framing of eating disorders. J Eat Disord 11, 25 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40337-023-00752-9

[2]Froreich, F. V., Vartanian, L. R., Grisham,Jessica R. Grisham,, J. R., & Touyz, S. W. (2016). Dimensions of control and their relation to disordered eating behaviours and obsessive-compulsive symptoms. National Library of Medicine. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40337-016-0104-4

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