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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.

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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

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January 2, 2010 - 11:21am
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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