Letting Go of Control in Recovery from Bulimia

Nature Railroad Tracks into Stormy Clouds

Control is a trait commonly found in many eating disorder diagnoses. Disordered eating behaviors, such as bulimia, are often characterized by feeling a loss of control, a sense of urgency in maintaining control, a shift in the environment which alters control, or all of the above.

A lot of emotional and behavioral responses can come about when control over ourselves, our bodies, and our environment changes. Because of this, letting go of control is a common theme in eating disorder treatment and recovery.

For individuals with bulimia nervosa, letting go of control involves a few nuances unique to the disorder.

What Does Control Mean to You?

Start rewriting your relationship with control by changing your thought process about what “control” is. Changing our thinking about control can involve acknowledging that control is not always the best or safest thing.

Eating disorders lie to us and make us think if we could just engage in our disordered behaviors, we will have control over our emotions, our lives, and our bodies, and then we will be worthy enough, loved, successful, etc.

In actuality, holding on too tightly to control can keep us from embracing moments of growth, leaning into challenges, and living in the present moment.

Processing what it is that felt so comforting and desirable about control is the first step in changing those faulty beliefs and rewriting a more useful narrative.

Letting Go vs. Losing Control

A helpful way to change your thinking may be to consider that letting go of control is not the same as losing control. Many of the challenges in releasing control are focused around the fear of losing control over oneself and ones’ behaviors.

The truth is, letting go of control doesn’t have to mean complete abandonment of any attempt to control aspects of your life. What letting go of control actually involves is practicing acceptance that we cannot always achieve control.

There will be moments and circumstances in life where controlling the outcome of events is not within our power. Practicing acceptance of this helps us to take these moments and adapt to them instead of panicking and engaging in the destructive behaviors of our past that give us a false sense of control.

Bulimia and Loss of Control

For individuals with bulimia nervosa, characteristics common to all eating disorders come into play. Individuals that develop eating disorders have been found to use these characteristics as ineffective coping skills for aspects of their lives they feel they cannot control such as their emotions, their actions, their bodies, their environments, their future, their daily life, etc.

However, bulimia comes with the added component of how control relates to purging behaviors. People diagnosed with bulimia nervosa report that both their binge and purge episodes are characterized by feeling a loss of control over themselves and their behaviors [1].

African American woman overcoming BulimiaThis creates a cognitive connection wherein letting go of control is tied with unwanted behaviors and discomfort. As such, the fear of letting go of control becomes physical and visceral because it reminds the person of past disordered moments.

Understand that letting go of control does not always mean a harmful behavior will follow. You have, within you, the strength and ability to learn and apply this to your recovery.

Control vs. Impulsivity

Individuals struggling with bulimia are found to be more cognitively impulsive, which creates another barrier to letting go of control in recovery [1]. Many are afraid that letting go of control leaves them open to impulsivity and that they will then “fall back into” old behaviors.

Impulsivity involves a lack of control. However, you can release control without immediately encountering impulsivity. Consider those impulsive behaviors you once used that were ineffective, and practice how you can catch yourself when the desire to use them comes up.

Throw Out Shame, Too

As you practice letting go of the need for control, consider also tossing out shame. Shame and control can come hand-in-hand while working toward recovery.

As one learns that a need for control is undesirable and could be disordered, they can feel shame and guilt when they experience that need to regain control.

Not all desire for control is bad, and it is possible to learn, over time, how to balance a desire for control that is healthy and a need for control that is destructive.


[1] Marsh, R., Steinglass, J. E., Gerber, A.J. (2009). Deficient activity in the neural systems that mediate self-regulatory control in bulimia nervosa. Archives of General Psychiatry.

About the Author:

Image of Margot Rittenhouse.Margot Rittenhouse, MS, PLPC, NCC is a therapist who is passionate about providing mental health support to all in need and has worked with clients with substance abuse issues, eating disorders, domestic violence victims, and offenders, and severely mentally ill youth.

As a freelance writer for Eating Disorder Hope and Addiction Hope and a mentor with MentorConnect, Margot is a passionate eating disorder advocate, committed to de-stigmatizing these illnesses while showing support for those struggling through mentoring, writing, and volunteering. Margot has a Master’s of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published July 20, 2020, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on July 20, 2020, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC

About Baxter Ekern

Baxter is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He is responsible for the operations of Eating Disorder Hope and ensuring that the website is functioning smoothly.