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Understanding Self-Control

Posted Oct 03 2012 12:00am

Everyone knows what “self-control” means, right? Well, there appears to be some confusion even among (or especially among) the experts, so let’s clarify what we mean when we refer to the concept of control to make sure we’re all talking about the same thing.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary offers the following preposition-ending sentence fragment (just saying, it is a dictionary) to define control: “To exercise restraining or directing influence over.” Although these terms – restraining and directing – are meant as alternative adjectives to clarify the word’s meaning, rather than two separate definitions of control, I think there is a very important difference between them that can help us distinguish between different types of control.

“Restraint” means resisting or overriding impulses, urges, behaviors, or desires that compete with intended behaviors. This is how self-control is typically described in the psychological literature on motivation and how most people use the term colloquially. It’s either-or: you do it or you don’t. There’s no sense of degree or dimension. When you exercise this type of self-control the result is either success or failure. As Yoda said, “Do or do not; there is no try.”

This view, as applied to eating, is very common among people I have seen with eating disorders. I once asked a patient of mine to describe what her experience of dieting is like. She thought for a moment and said simply, “It’s like walking on a tightrope.” She described her feeling of having to watch every step to avoid failing. “You can never relax and just eat what you want because once you do you’re off the diet and have to start all over.” I thought that summed up the experience perfectly: with a diet, as with a tightrope, you’re either on it or you’re off it. There is nothing in between. A small slip is the same as a swan dive into the net below. Show’s over.

This is a concept that the psychologist and addiction researcher Alan Marlatt called the Abstinence Violation Effect. It refers to the helpless feeling of resignation that follows a minor lapse after resolving to totally abstain from a behavior. Failure to uphold a sincere commitment to abstain can make a person feel like such a failure that there’s no point in even trying. The reaction tends to be, Oh, what’s the point? Screw it! The result is that a minor lapse often becomes a major bender.  The reason for this is that there is only one way to succeed and a million opportunities to fail, so failure is pretty much guaranteed!

In contrast to the all or nothing sense of behavioral control as self-restraint, the alternative sense of the word, as “direction,” is dimensional: it denotes behavior that can move along different points on a continuum as called for by a given situation. It is an ongoing process of self-regulation in which behavior is guided, not restrained. Viewed from this perspective, control of eating patterns can best be compared to controlling your car on the highway.

As you drive, you use the steering wheel to control the car, and you constantly make small corrections in order to stay in your lane. If you don’t pay attention to the road, you may begin to drift toward the shoulder and be startled by the sound of a rumble strip or gravel crunching under your tires. When that happens, you don’t give up and say, “Oh well, I’m already off the road, so – what the hell – I might as well drive into that cow pasture.” Instead, you control the car by steering it back onto the road. Once you’re back in your lane, that small deviation should have no impact whatsoever on the rest of your trip, other than to make you more attentive to your driving. This is the meaning of self- control – perhaps self-direction is better – that applies more suitably to eating behavior.

You have to eat, even when you want to lose weight. Your only real choice is not whether to eat, but what and how much. Therefore, when people feel the need to apply an all-or-nothing approach to eating, certain foods must be declared off-limits. It’s an unnatural and artificial type of abstinence. It allows you to pronounce “I shall never allow [sugar, fat, carbohydrates, processed foods, etc.] to pass my lips” in the same way that a recovering alcoholic will declare the same about alcohol.

This goal of establishing some type of food abstinence is a common feature of what I refer to as the “diet mentality.” It becomes a new source of external control in your life, even if it’s coming from you. Your own sense of self-determination, the small steering corrections you make to stay in your lane, is taken over by this repressive authoritarian control. When other life situations begin to add to your sense of being controlled, guess which one is the first candidate for regime overthrow? It’s the dictator you set up yourself in the hope of restoring some law and order to your diet. Be careful what you hope for, though, because at some point, you’ll rebel.

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