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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

"I'm not sure if it ever occurred to you, calling someone else a bully is, in fact, bullying behavior.
It is possible to disagree with another person's point of view without disparaging them. "

How is it bullying behavior if you're calling out someone for bullying? Not all of the parents on here were rude but I can think of two individuals who made offensive comments on here. Granted one of them did apologize.

So if someone is offended by another individual are they not allowed to speak up?


June 17, 2009 - 10:40am

Jera, I am very sorry that you suffered so much, both from boundary violations and from an ED. I hope you got the treatment you needed and that you are now physically and mentally/emotionally healthy. No one should have to go through what you did.

Most families of children who manifest EDs are, however, loving and supportive of their children. They are close enough to their children to prevent boundary violations by others, or to treat the ill effects if that should happen temporarily to their child. Most families will do whatever they can to bring a child to health from any illness, physical or mental. Certainly there are abusive parents who do nothing but harm to their children, but that is just not the case in the vast majority of families. EDs can and do manifest in both kinds of families. The healthy families can literally save their children's lives. It is very sad that you had to save yourself, but a good thing that you were able to do so. Many other children have died as a result of either getting no treatment for an ED or not receiving successful treatment.

Whatever the causes are of EDs, the word needs to be spread that there are very successful treatments out there, that don't take many years and hundreds of thousands of dollars. These treatments can be done outpatient in much less time, with the help of devoted families in addition to the mental and physical health care professionals. I would have given much for the following link back in 1999 when my D was starving in front of my very eyes. http://www.maudsleyparents.org/whatismaudsley.html

June 17, 2009 - 9:25am
EmpowHER Guest

Please, empowher management!

Speak to real experts such as those at Rogers Hospitals, Walden/MA, Remuda Ranch, UCLA, and other professionals for their opinions on what this woman has to say about ED causes.

Do NOT hold this woman up as an "expert" on eating disorders. To do so does a great disservice to the public at large.

June 17, 2009 - 6:44am

Dear Jera,

Thank you for this most moving and articulate post. You think deeply and obviously have done a great deal of successful internal work.

Thank you for your patience in reading through this discussion and speaking so thoroughly and gracefully on many of the issues raised. I appreciate hearing from you.


June 16, 2009 - 10:59pm
EmpowHER Guest

Dear Joanna,

Thank you for your article. It's very difficult to read articles/books where they discuss the whole boundary issue. A lot of people are afraid to touch that because they don't want to be accused of '"blaming families", or, god forbid, suggesting that eating disorders are about more than just food and weight. I know that in my case, boundary violations were what started and kept my anorexia going for many many years. It wasn't a "biochemical imbalance", heredity (no one in my family suffers from EDs, depression, or anything like that. just me), or a "diet gone wrong". I had no control over my life, no defense against the boundary violations, and no one to stand up for me and my ED literally saved my life. It was the only thing that helped me get through those things and survive. Forcing me into some family therapy or "Maudsley approach" would have led me to suicide or simply exacerbated the boundary violations that were already happening. Certainly those approaches can be effective, but not in all cases.
I'm sorry that so many people are misunderstanding what you are trying to say and attacking you. I found it to be very articulate and compelling. As for those who were accusing you of being self promoting or not supporting people trying to recover (e.g. that ridiculous accusation that you were a therapist who sought money through keeping someone ill and therefore in treatment for a long time), I'm sorry that they're so narrow minded and I feel sorrier for any ED sufferer who has to deal with them.

As for that horrible comment someone made about ED sufferers and how their thinking is "twisted" and that they're "manipulative" and therefore lying if they allege abuse, that smacks of misogynistic victim blaming. I am an abuse survivor. Many of those same things are said about abused women who are trying to press charges against their batterer or keep her children safe from him. People often justify trying to take over an abused woman's life because-by virtue of her having been abused-they think she is stupid, not thinking clearly (even when the decisions she makes, if taken within the context of the environment she is trying to survive in and the obstacles she is up against, are very logical and sensible courses of action) and that because she "let him do that" she is therefore untrustworthy, weak, and prone to hysteria or lying.

Thank you Joanna. I shall be saving this post, thank you for it.


June 16, 2009 - 10:27pm
EmpowHER Guest

From Joanna's Twitter page ...

"Just became eating disorder expert and will do Q & A for empowher.com."

Now that is a scary idea.

June 15, 2009 - 4:24am
EmpowHER Guest

Peter, I agree that the article should be withdrawn - by Ms. Poppink or the editors of Empowerhr.

Very well thought out post, by the way.

... Suze

June 14, 2009 - 10:10pm

I have struggled with my decision to contribute to this debate. I have questioned my motives and worked to clarify my purpose for writing and my intended audience. What I have realized is that these are all things that you, Ms. Poppink, failed to do before you submitted this article. I have read a number of your various posts and blog entries across the Internet and find most of them to be well written and positive contributions to the Internet community. However, this article and particularly this article on this site which claims to be "a unique online resource dedicated to helping women improve their health and well-being. We provide up-to-date medical information, access to leading medical experts...." is extremely dangerous.

I'm unclear as to who your audience is--is it ED patients themselves? is it treatment professionals? is it friends and caregivers...the "hundreds of people (who) have asked (you) why someone develops an eating disorder"? Are you posing a new theory asking for dialog and feedback? What you fail to make clear to your readers is that this is a new theory, without any research base. That's fine if you are honest about it, but your writing is so over-the-top with broad, sweeping generalizations and black and white thinking that it couldn't help but polarize readers. The headline is not "One Reason for Developing an Eating Disorder" it's "NUMBER ONE Reason for Developing an Eating Disorder."

You write "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." Your word choice leaves no room for discussion; "one outstanding theme," "every person," "sustained basis," "relentless boundary invasion," "every level" are all extremely aggressive, all-or-nothing phrases that don't belong in a serious scientific discussion. If they had been supported with evidence from the literature and research, the hyperbole might be forgiven.

On your Twitter page you express surprise to have generated such a violent response, but your own emotionally charged words have set up this response. To use the language of DBT, this "black and white" thinking has led to a response that comes from readers' "emotional mind." If you had proposed your theory a bit more cautiously, the discussions might have come instead from readers' "wise mind."

But here's my personal concern. For the past 15 years I have worked as a teacher and librarian with students and their teachers, helping them to become savvy internet users. We are fortunate to have access to a wealth of peer-reviewed research articles in various commercial databases, but many students still take the easy path of Google and Wikipedia and often rely on this kind of questionable scholarship. In this case, if they had followed my advise and checked out the Empowher "Terms of Use" link, they might have read the following statement "content is created by experts in the medical community or submitted by members of the site. The Content we write or commission is written by medical and health experts and reviewed by medical experts before it is posted." They would be led to believe that this is a reliable source of information. Of course, they would be wrong, since clearly no such peer review of this article took place. (I emailed Empowher about this and as yet have received no response.)

In consideration for the information needs of young women and men struggling with eating disorders, I would strongly recommend that you withdraw this article, re-craft the first three to four paragraphs, and then re-post it on your own blog.

I would also like to briefly comment on two generally excellent articles that you've posted elsewhere. I found the article "For Parents of Children with Eating Disorders" (http://www.trans4mind.com/life-coach/life-challenge5/poppink.shtml) very helpful, though it did concern me that you don't remind parents to think of the eating disorder as separate from the child. And finally in your otherwise excellent article "For Teens: When You Discover a Friend is Bulimic or Anorexic" (http://www.something-fishy.org/doctors/doc_article015.php) you neglect to encourage teens to tell a trusted adult. This is standard advice for dealing with suicide, should an eating disorder be treated any less seriously?

Best of luck with your book project.


June 14, 2009 - 9:19pm
EmpowHER Guest

I'm greatly offended by this article. It makes people with eating disorders sound like spoiled manipulative brats.

Maybe it's the title that gets to me. Number One reason? Maybe if it was titled "One of the Reasons People get Eating Disorders" I'd be less offended.

I can understand why parents of children with eating disorders are offended by this article. I can understand why people with eating disorders are offended. I have an eating disorder and I'm very offended.

That being said.....

I think some parents on here are very narrow-minded--almost fanatical. This whole idea of "we're a healthy loving happy family and our child developed an this disease....It's a brain disorder. We're not to blame."

It just reminds me of my own family. They're not abusive. They're not horrible people. But despite what they believe, they are not perfect and wonderful parents. They have done things to hurt me.

I feel there are two extreme sides here.

There are the psychologists who want to blame EVERYTHING on the parents. As a parent myself, I hate that. I feel no matter what I do, I'm going to end up screwing up my child forever.

On the other side there are the parents who want to believe that it's impossible that they have hurt their child. These people remind me of my own parents. The message I have always gotten from them is that we have a close, loving, wonderful family. People compliment my family all the time. We look picture perfect. We're funny. We smile. We're entertaining. We do fun stuff together. And my family IS great to an extent. But we DO have our problems.
And some of those problems may have led to me eventually having an eating disorder.

Yes, biology and genetics might have played a role as well. But to discount environment in my opinion is as narrow minded as putting all the blame on parents.

June 14, 2009 - 5:44pm

I'm going to weigh in on the side of those who have felt hurt by some of the posts in this thread. While none of this material has been directed at me, I've felt discomforted by some of the posts too.

I'm on several other message boards and it's been my experience that things rarely move in this direction when people are required to take responsibility for what they write through signing their posts.

It's hard to ignore the fact that, despite previous mention of this issue, some of the post's I've found most unsettling continue to be posted anonymously.

Just my 2c,

Bob J.

June 14, 2009 - 3:45pm
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