No, You Don’t Lack Self-Control
It’s a new year, and that means being bombarded with fitness ads, posts about the latest restrictive diet, and other wellness miracles being shoved in our faces by companies who profit off of our desires to be “thin” and “beautiful” and “healthy.” As someone who is trying to extricate myself from diet culture, and also in eating disorder recovery, I find this barrage of empty promises off-putting, to say the least.
This year, as I dodge icky marketing ploys disguised as wellness, I have been thinking a lot about the concept of self-control. In my teens and early twenties, I believed that I had a self-control deficiency: That if only my willpower were stronger, my body would look like how I wanted it to and I would stop eating french fries. One New Year I even committed myself to building this muscle of so-called self-control so that I could finally have the body I wanted.
The problem with my fixation on self-control was that I wasn’t addressing any of my actual needs. I was blaming and shaming myself for behaviors I didn’t like, behaviors that were trying to communicate with me that I was not okay.
I felt an emptiness that I thought could be filled with “body goals” when what I really needed was a good therapist. I needed to see bodies like mine on social media, in magazines, on TV shows. I needed stores to sell clothes that were made for bodies like mine. I needed urgent attention and treatment for my eating disorder. I needed the people in my life to separate my sadness from what my body looked like. I needed someone to talk to me about racism and fatphobia. My “issues” with my body and food had absolutely nothing to do with my so-called lack of self-control and everything to do with the lack of support I felt from my community and the systems I lived inside of.
Being in recovery, I’ve learned that self-control is a trap designed to keep us boxed inside of our shame and trauma patterns and blame ourselves when we really should be pointing fingers at the capitalist, white supremacist systems that thrive and survive off of our self-blame.
We do not exist to be perfectly on track and constantly productive. Sure, structure is awesome and can be really life-affirming and fulfilling. But when we “fall off” track, and when our shit gets messy, as it inevitably will, we can offer ourselves the grace to be flexible, listen to our bodies, and hold ourselves with compassion. Instead of feeling shitty for “eating too much” or “watching too much TV,” we can shift the narrative: “I found a lot of joy and comfort in eating this meal,” “my mind really needed this break.”
The bottom line is that usually our impulsive behaviors have a complex story to tell us about our past, our trauma, and the systems of oppression we’ve been affected by. Shaming ourselves cuts that story off when we are being asked to listen to it.
And sometimes we don’t have the energy to listen to that story and that is okay. Sometimes it’s easier to behave impulsively than it is to deal with our shit, and that is also OKAY! The point I’m trying to make is that however we choose to show up for ourselves, let’s try to do so with the kindness, compassion, and consideration we deserve.
As I remove the coats of shame caked onto my beliefs about myself, I’ve learned that I’m actually a very diligent person. When shame and guilt are not in control, I am naturally committed to the things that serve me and I practice these things with ease. Underneath the version of myself that shame and oppression have forced onto me, I am fucking amazing. It has been an absolute gift and privilege to be able to walk with myself through this process of unlearning and rediscovery.
So no, you don't lack self-control. Self-control is a myth, a lie told by institutions that use your shame as their currency. Our systems and social infrastructures must be more accessible and equitable in their ability to accommodate and support everything that we are.
And just a reminder, in case you needed it: You are wonderful and worthy even when you aren’t showing up how you’d like to, even when you feel shitty about yourself. And scolding yourself doesn’t actually motivate you to do better (yes, I’m right.) Holding yourself accountable to your personal commitments does not have to mean playing the blame and shame game. Treating yourself with care, honoring your shadows, and enforcing your boundaries will be far more transformative and healing experiences than anything self-control could ever offer.