• Dr. Howard Farkas

Gaining Control by Changing Your Perspective: Some Case Examples

I’ve talked about changing your perception of things when you don’t have the ability to control them directly. This can help strengthen your feeling of control, autonomy, and independence without feeling the need to binge in order to regain that sense of control. I’ll give you a great example of how one patient of mine dealt with her frustration about not being in a relationship despite the fact that she has everything going for her.

Obviously, there’s only so much control that a person can have to change this situation. Some people, of course, are more “out there” and are willing to go up to a perfect stranger and start a conversation that might lead to something, and this will certainly improve their odds. But there’s always the annoying fact that there’s another individual who has an important say in whether or not anything is going to happen, and besides, not everyone is comfortable being quite so “out there.”

She said that every morning she would get on the bus to work and look around at her fellow commuters. Her thought was always some version of, “There are so many good looking guys in Chicago, what’s wrong with me that I can’t find even one to be in a relationship with?” This left her feeling defeated, helpless, and often hopeless. This sense of her life being determined by forces outside of her control creates the need to correct it by asserting control in some other area that also makes her feel that way, but one that she can, at least momentarily, do something about. For her that means going home after work and bingeing.

After discussing these ideas for the past few sessions, she now has a better sense of how changing her way of viewing that situation leads to those feelings and what she can do to change that perspective. Now she gets on the same bus, looks around and thinks, “Wow, there are so many good looking guys in Chicago, my chances are great that I can find one to be in a relationship with.” This change was her own idea and it came to her automatically; we never actually discussed this particular situation before, just the idea of shifting perspective.

You might object, as she herself did at first after reporting this, “That’s great, but I’m still not in a relationship.” True, but the feeling of control that she gains from this shift in perspective will affect her feeling of control over her life and her sense of hope, including the possibility that she too can be happy. In fact, this experience made her feel more willing to go out with friends that weekend to an event where she would have an opportunity to meet someone. The main point is that even if it doesn’t turn out that way, she is feeling better about herself, more hopeful, and more in control. As a result, she feels less of a need to reassert her control by bingeing.

Here’s another example. I’m seeing a young man in therapy who is in his late 20’s and has been having problems with episodic drinking binges and emotional eating. “Jason” has also been very unhappy in his job and has gained about 25 pounds since he started there about 9 months ago. He is working as a tech specialist in an organization where few of the employees are very computer savvy so there is a lot of demand for his services. He and his boss are the only two technical people in the office, and they have to deal with the full range of cell phone, internet, email, hardware and software issues that come up. He’s very good at what he does, and is a problem solver by nature so he enjoys doing this type of work. But he’s miserable at his job because, in his words, “my boss is an idiot, paranoid, and controlling.” Not a great recipe for job satisfaction.

In our most recent session, Jason told me about an incident earlier in the week that led to him going home and overeating. His boss asked him to work on a problem that he himself was unable to resolve but he wouldn’t give Jason some important technical information that he needed to get the job done. As he put it, “My boss is too stupid to know how to figure it out for himself, but he’s also too paranoid to give me the codes that will let me get the job done. He told me, ‘you’re a smart guy, you’ll figure something out.’” Jason said he had to suppress the urge to strangle the guy – or at least scream obscenities in his face and quit. Instead, he said the only thing he could have done without getting fired or arrested was to restrain himself and tell him he’ll try do what he can. He felt there was no other option than to shut up because the guy’s not going to change and telling him off will just make his life more difficult.

It was clear to him that the experience led directly to his loss of self-control after work and I explored a bit about what he thought the connection was. “I just needed to blow off some steam,” he said. I reflected back to him my understanding of the problem: that the way he saw the situation, he was locked into a tight space with only two options: blow up now or blow out later. He chose the blow-out. Either way, he had no choice about whether an “explosion” of some kind would happen. Plus, he was still angry at his boss – and now at himself too for taking it out on the food. We have all been there: it’s the classic dilemma of finding yourself in a situation that is intolerable as it is, you have no power to change it, and you can’t get out of it. What do you do?

I told him that there is a third option. That is to recognize that his emotional reaction was not directly caused by the situation, even though it did feel that way. There’s another step between what happened and his reaction to it, and that step is how his perception caused him to experience the event.

The way he was looking at it, he had the responsibility to get something done but had no authority over how to do it. That never works out well. You can’t have the responsibility to do something without the authority over how to do it and still feel a sense of autonomy and freedom. It’s like the slaves in Egypt who were told to make bricks without straw. The good news is that although he can’t change his crazy boss, he does have some choice about how he perceives the situation that he’s in.

Instead, without saying or doing anything to try to change the boss, he could view the part of his job that he does have authority over to be all he is really responsible for. Beyond that, it’s like he’s doing the guy a favor and that figuring out how to solve the problem is an interesting challenge. If he solves it, it’s a win because he did the impossible; and if he doesn’t, so what? He was asked to do the impossible!

You can’t feel responsible for something you have no authority over. Keep in mind that he didn’t have to change anything but his own internal perception to feel better. He may still end up telling him the exact same thing that he did; that he’ll do what he can. But not feeling the burden of responsibility would make all the difference in his experience of it. He agreed that he felt better just imagining doing it with that perspective.

I can probably blog on this topic forever, providing new examples every day. The bottom line is this: How you feel about some experience might seem like it’s a direct response to that situation. In reality, it’s a response to how you perceive the event, not the event itself. That’s something that you, and you alone, have complete control over.

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