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Number One Reason for Developing an Eating Disorder

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Hundreds of people have asked me why someone develops an eating disorder. Of course many issues are involved, but from my exploration of this field over the years, I have concluded that there is one outstanding theme that runs through every person with an eating disorder whom I have encountered.

Early in their lives, people with eating disorders have experienced, on a sustained basis, relentless boundary invasion on every level.

When their physical, emotional, psychological, intellectual, sexual, and creative boundaries are consistently ignored and penetrated, people experience total boundary invasion. With no control and no way to end, protest, or, often, even acknowledge such invasions, these persons feel helplessness, despair, and a certainty that they are worthless to themselves or anyone else.

The consequences of such total invasion are vast. One consequence is an eating disorder. Having had so many boundaries disregarded, a person has no knowledge or skills in recognizing or honoring boundaries herself. She will eat or starve for emotional relief.

She may eat vast amounts of food for comfort value alone. She may deprive herself of food until her life is in danger. She has no internal regulator that tells her when she has reached her limit and experienced enough. Being oblivious to any boundaries means being oblivious to limits of any kind.

The compulsive overeater eats whenever and whatever she likes. She bases her choices on self-medication issues, not feelings of physical hunger.
The anorexic will not eat. There is no limit to her not eating. She will starve herself to death in search of relief from her emotional pain. She knows nothing of the experience of having enough. She couldn't say, "Enough," to an invader of her boundaries, and she can't say it to herself. The concept of enough has no meaning to her. She often feels that if she "disappeared," she might find some permanent relief.

I have heard countless anorexic young women talk ethereally, with a lost-in-a-beautiful-world-of-angels smile, of how wonderful it would be to become a vapor or a light dancing spirit in the clouds. Ah, such spiritual bliss, they imagine. In reality, it's the final self-protective act, to destroy their bodies and their lives completely. Then they can truly escape the complexities of being alive.

The bulimic will binge grotesque amounts of food. She will assault herself with more food than her body can tolerate.

The compulsive overeater will, at last, have to stop eating if only because of the pain in her distended stomach. Her body sets a final limit. The bulimic has no such limit. She experiences (in her mind) no consequences of the food assault on her body. When her body cannot bear more, she will vomit it all out. Then she will resume her binge. She may reach her body's limits many times. Each time she does, she can throw up again and continue.

Eventually she stops, because she is completely exhausted, or she is in danger of being discovered. "Enough" has no meaning to her. There are no limits and no consequences for her disregard of her boundaries.

Realistically, of course, there are plenty of consequences. Her behavior inflicts serious damage to her body. And each time she attacks herself with a binge-and-purge episode, she destroys more of her spirit, soul, self-esteem, sanity, health, and value to herself and others.

Each violation deepens her ritualistic behavior, and she becomes more entrenched in her disorder. The consequence is increasing anguish and despair. Yet the eating disorder is not the cause of that anguish and despair. The eating disorder exists to numb her from her already existing psychological agonies.

For a while, maybe a few years, the eating disorder successfully blocks her awareness of pain too difficult to bear. But eventually the protective device of the eating disorder becomes just another boundary invader, this time self-induced, that weakens and damages her even more.

What do I mean by a history of boundary violations? Blatant and extreme boundary violations involve sexual molestation, sexual abuse, and physical abuse. Much has been written about these areas now, especially in material exploring Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). Use your search engines to find some quality information posted on the Internet in these subject areas.

However, there are other kinds of boundary violations, and these are less dramatic, less discussed, more prevalent, and just as devastating to a persons psyche. When, in the name of caretaking, people in authority take over a young person's life, it constitutes boundary invasion.

When others deny her privacy, read her diary, borrow or take her things without permission, or use their ideas or goals or personalities to overwhelm her efforts in school or sports, that is a violation of her boundaries.

When others disregard or disdain her choices or deny her any control over her personal life, clothes, food, friends, and activities, they are invading her boundaries.

An invasion of boundaries also takes place when, in the name of caretaking, people give her no responsibilities of her own and attach no consequences to her actions. When the child or adolescent can have all the things she asks for without putting forth effort to earn such gifts, she learns nothing about personal effort, limits, consequences, or the meaning of enough. If she wants something, she gets it. That's all. If someone picks up her clothes, does her laundry, fixes her car, pays her bills, lends her money or things without expecting them returned, she experiences no boundaries and no limits.

If she doesn't have to keep her promises, if she doesn't reciprocate with caring actions for people who care for her, she learns nothing useful about herself in relationship to other people. The only thing she learns with certainty is that there are no limits to her behaviors or desires.

These boundary invasions are not loving acts, nor are they "spoiling" a child through overindulgence. Quite the contrary, they are acts of neglect. The child's taste, mind, capacity to learn, and ability to grow and function as an independent agent in the world remain unacknowledged.

When others, even well-meaning others, ignore her identity as a unique, developing, and competent individual and flood her with their personal agendas, she feels as if a steamroller had flattened out her psyche. She may learn to please, to manipulate, to compete, or to control, but she is unable to learn to be fully present in the world as her genuine self.

She doesn't learn that she has meaning and value. She doesn't learn that she can put that meaning and value within her to work to accomplish goals.
For example, if she breaks something, whether it is a lamp, a car, her word, or someone's heart, it is possible and healthier to give her the responsibility for making necessary repairs using her own resources and her own creativity. In such a process, she learns what effort means. She learns what responsibility and consequences for actions mean. She learns reasonable limits and reasonable expectations. She develops resources to make healthy and caring decisions in the future.

Without such lessons, she learns are the tricks involved in adapting quickly to the expectations of others or being manipulative to get what she wants. These are poor and insubstantial tools to rely on when building an adult life.

Somewhere inside, over time, she may gradually realize this. But without a sense of boundaries, she will only become bewildered and anxious. She will accelerate her practice of using her eating disorder as a way to numb her feelings of anxiety. She will use her manipulating skills to get what she wants from whomever she can exploit.

As time passes, fewer people in her life will allow themselves to be manipulated. The quality of her circle of associates will decline as she seeks people she can control with her inadequate methods of functioning in the world. She will find herself in bad company.

This becomes all the more reason to rely on eating disorder behaviors for comfort. The people around her are less reliable all the time. And finally, they tolerate her presence only because they can manipulate her.

She arrives at the total-victim position. Her manipulative skills backfire. People exist in this world who are better at manipulating and using than she. She has found them. She becomes their target and then their prey. Her dependence upon her eating disorder becomes her most valuable and trustworthy relationship.

Early in her development, she learned through massive boundary invasions (which perhaps seemed ordinary and unimportant at the time) that she was helpless to assert herself. She learned that she had no private or sacred space to cherish and respect. She could not acknowledge, even to herself, that she was being thwarted, invaded, controlled, manipulated, and forced to deny large aspects of her natural self. She had no recourse except to comply.

To succeed at being unaware of her natural tastes, curiosities, and inclinations and her pain in restraining her natural tendencies, she developed an eating disorder. Now that she's older and her manipulation skills are failing her, she only has her eating disorder to rely on. This may be the most crucial time in this person's life.

If her pain and despair are terrible enough and she is certain she cannot bear this way of living anymore, she still has choices. She can continue to rely on the eating disorder and by so doing take the path to self-destruction. Or she can reach out and get help.

This is a tough position for her. She's never known what enough was. Yet to choose to get help, she has to recognize that she has had enough pain. She's never known what a limit is. Yet she has to recognize that she has reached her limit and must choose between death and life. She has only known about pretense and manipulation. Yet she has to be honest to reach out for genuine help.

She feels massive anguish and pain before she stretches beyond her life pattern into what might bring her healing and recovery. She's reaching for something she can't imagine. It's difficult for a person with an eating disorder to decide to get help. She would have to allow herself to trust someone with knowledge of her real personhood.

She doesn't yet know that people who do respect and honor boundaries actually exist in this world. She doesn't yet know that there are people who can and will honor and cherish her most private and sacred inner spaces. She doesn't yet know that someday the trustworthy, respectful, steadfast, and competent caretaker she needs so badly can be herself.
Her first move toward recovery requires all the courage she can muster. Her recovery begins when with fear or rage, she rallies her courage to reach out for help.

Difficult, yes. But what she doesn't know yet is that she has been courageous all her life. She makes a grand discovery when she learns that she can apply her strength and courage to her own health. She can use her gifts to, at long last, be free of her eating disorder, be her genuine self in the world.

Professional Resources for Finding Help
Academy for Eating Disorders (AED)
American Anorexia and Bulimia Association (AABA)
Anorexia Nervosa and Related Disorders (ANRED)
International Association of Eating Disorders Professionals (IAEDP)
Joanna Poppink's Eating Disorders Resource List In-Patient Treatment Programs
National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA)
Joanna Poppink, Los Angeles psychotherapist, licensed since 1980 (MFT #15563), is deeply committed to bringing recovery to people suffering from eating disorders.

Her specialized psychotherapy practice is designed to allow clients to progress through anxiety situations to ongoing recovery from bulimia, compulsive eating, anorexia and binge eating. Her primary goal is to provide people with a way to achieve thorough and long lasting healing.
Eating Disorder Recovery book in progress through Conari Press
10573 West Pico Blvd. #20
Los Angeles, CA 90064
[email protected]

Add a Comment206 Comments

EmpowHER Guest
Anonymous (reply to anne57)

Thank you for posting this article about the new research, Anne57.

I just returned from the NEDA Conference in NY, and this exciting research was the talk of the place ... as was the other latest research that completely refutes old-fashioned and harmful notions about 'boundaries' and the like held by old-school therapists like Johanna. Most of the sessions/workshop presenters at NEDA were very 21st century with today's knowledge of causation and appropriate treatments. I did sit in on one where the therapist showed us photos of babies and told us that anorexia and other eating disorders begin in infancy - with poor bonding with mothers.

It's pathetic, really - and quite harmful.

I spent time in treatment facilities where therapists tried to tell me that my parents were responsible/to blame for my getting anorexia.
It did me no good but a great deal of harm.

The good news is that parents AND sufferers are getting a lot of good information today which help them understand the need to stay away from people like Johanna and to go to treatment providers who really 'get it' for help.

Hopefully, we can put a stop to the blaming of parents and other family members for causing eating disorders. This is false.

I love you mom and dad!

October 15, 2010 - 6:13pm
(reply to Anonymous)

Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I hope this means you are healing.

October 15, 2010 - 6:21pm
(reply to anne57)

Thank you for posting this article, Anne. It was my experience working on an eating disorder unit that family therapy was crucial to healing. Eating disorders are so difficult to treat. We need evidence based information, not old fashioned ideas with no basis in fact.

Thanks again.

October 15, 2010 - 6:10pm
EmpowHER Guest


You are welcome. I am glad to share the video.
I wish you continued good health, peace and happiness.
You are doing an amazing job of self-care.

September 6, 2010 - 5:56pm
EmpowHER Guest


Eating disorders are NOT addictions ... the recent research/evidence supports that they are BRAIN disorders.
The notion that 'dysfunctional families or parents' cause people to develop eating disorders is nonsense and frankly, 'old school'.
If you had a dysfunctional family or poor parenting, the %'s are the same as with non-eating disorder sufferers.

I am glad that your eating disorder is in remission and I hope today that you have a good relationship with yourself, your body and your family.

I came across this short but powerful video featuring Dr. Craig Johnson of Laureate.

He speaks on the high recovery rate of people with anorexia (70-80%)
and tells us that in treating very difficult patients, "our best years are ahead of us".

He tells us that the answers for successfully treating very difficult patients and being able to shorten their recovery time will likely come not from psychotherapeutic research but from bio-genetic research, as anorexia is a disorder of the brain and genetics

Worth your three minutes:

September 6, 2010 - 2:10pm
EmpowHER Guest
Anonymous (reply to Anonymous)

Dear Anon,
To state that EDs are a “brain disorder“, and thus, by apparent extension, proceed forward to the additional assertion that experience and environmental factors ( such as parenting, as a pertinent example) can play no role in the disorder’s development, may be an example of drawing unwarranted conclusions. I suspect that any " new school" psychologist or neuroscientist worth his salt would support, with little hesitation, the statement that experience and environmental factors can and do produce significant physical changes in brain structure. Changes in structure that may tip the scale, in combination with other admitted factors such as genetics, and result in expressed psychological conditions that could also be properly labeled as “brain disorders.”

For example, it’s been conclusively demonstrated that psychological trauma and abuse correlate with quite substantial and measurable structural changes in the hippocampus and amigdala , changes that are (admittedly, also by extension) thought by many to underlie the pathological symptoms of PTSD, a condition that as most would agree, might also be labeled a “brain disorder.”

And while it's confoundingly true that EDs often show up in the families of good parents, EDs remain mysterious, and to then proceed to the conclusion that parenting, no matter what it's form, could have no possible effect on the development of EDs remains akin to the argument that since many trauma victims do not go on to have PTSD, experienced trauma can play no possible role in the development of those who do, and that's it's existence in a victim's background is a mere and unrelated artifact of coincidence.

To close, I suspect that most neuroscientists would agree that simply labeling a current condition a “brain disorder” does not, by extension, preclude the very real influence of environmental factors on the disorder’s development. And that the drawing of such conclusions, no matter what comfort they may provide to honestly and authentically good and caring parents ( or to others who, in truth, may not be that good ) is by all current scientific accounts and standards, unwarranted.

September 6, 2010 - 10:34pm
(reply to Anonymous)

Well said, Anonymous. Thank you for your well-reasoned comments.

September 7, 2010 - 6:10am
(reply to Anonymous)

Interesting video... I'm so glad they're learning more and more how to treat eating disorders!

For me, personally, my eating disorder is the exact same as my alcoholism, which is considered an addiction (even though alcoholism also is a brain disorder). The behavior patterns are identical for me. Bulimia (purging) releases chemicals in the brain similar to a drug, hence my personal opinion that it's an "addiction" for me. The exact same stressors that cause me to drink, can also cause me to purge instead. (Maye that's a study someone should do.)

I cross-over my recovery methods, use the AA 12-steps for my eating disorder, and I use visulization/relaxation and psychotherapy drugs under a doctor's care for my alcoholism recovery. It's what works for me! :)

Life for me is all about balance and normalcy. No, every day is not perfect, we all have "stuff" to deal with on a daily basis. That's what living life is. I'm in a really good place right now, today. I'll face tomorrow when it comes. I've learned to live in the present moment. The desire to purge is still there sometimes, just like my desire to drink. The key is, I have the tools that I use when those desires creep into my head.

Thanks for sharing the video!

September 6, 2010 - 3:15pm

I haven't posted to this board in a while, mainly due to the ugliness and close-mindedness of the comments made towards Joanna Popink. Her article fits me, personally, to a T. I'm 47 years old, at age 44 developed full-blown, out-of-control bulimia. I should have died during that time. I'm what's referred to as a "restrictive bulimic", can starve myself for days, eat and immediately purge whatever I've eaten.

Thankfully, with the knowledge I've gained from many many sources (including Joanna), I've managed to regain my control and am now in remission. This disease is no different than any other "addiction". I've been under the care of my doctor, long-time therapist (5+ years now) and a nutritionist who specifically treats eating disorders. My counselor and my nutritionist are recovering anorexics.

Thank you, Joanna, for your article!!! :)

Warmest regards to all,

September 6, 2010 - 1:30pm
EmpowHER Guest

“Being overweight sucked, but after reading your book, I lost 85 pounds! Words can’t express how good I feel!“ This is a comment which I recently received about the book Lose Weight Using Four Easy Steps which can be ordered through www.bbotw.com

January 2, 2010 - 11:21am
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