Facebook Pixel

Number One Reason for Developing an Eating Disorder

Rate This

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 Bob J.)

"It seems to me that you are one of the clinicians that are viewing eating disorders as a diet that's gone wrong - at least to some degree. When this is done those that view it as a mental illness have trouble arguing points, because as Laura Collins put it we're doing an apples and oranges comparison.

If you're viewing it as a diet, then you are putting it into a category where someone can just quit doing whatever they're doing. You're saying that certain things can be the absolute cause of it. Really though, they're not causes rather catalysts that set off this predisposed mental illness.

If you're not predisposed to have that mental illness then no matter what circumstances surround you, you aren't going to develop an eating disorder.

If we were to focus on your article and the belief that people whose parents have no boundaries, then why doesn't everybody with a horrid child - whose parents behaved in that matter - develop an eating disorder?

It's because they're not predisposed to the development of that mental illness.?

was my, Kat's, post

June 14, 2009 - 10:03pm
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.

None of the parents who have responded to this article have attacked the author or those suffering from eating disorders. Rather, every parent has been at pains to point to scientific advancements in our understanding of causative factors and modern approaches to treatment. The days of blaming and shaming patients and families are at an end. The days of trapping families in paralyzing guilt, while forcing them to stand on the sidelines and watch their children descend into an endless well of sadness, pain or even death-are over.

Our daughter spend years in the very treatment paradigm this author espouses.
It nearly cost her life, twice. When she was 21 we began family based treatment for her anorexia with the support of staff at the University of Chicago. Today she is a graduate student, has lived free from this cruel disease for nearly 3 years, and we are thrilled for her.

Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
Recovery is possible within the context of a loving determined family, and the right professional support. Every sufferer and every family deserves to know that.

June 13, 2009 - 9:27pm
EmpowHER Guest

Peace be among us all.

To those who suffer from ED ... whether actively or in recovery ... and those who love and care for sufferers of ED ... let us not stand separately on different sides of the street ... but rather let us join together in understanding, empathy, support, love and forgiveness.

May we all be at Peace.


June 13, 2009 - 8:07pm
EmpowHER Guest

I didn't mean to invalidate your experience, sorry. Only you have the power to do that, really. Sorry you took my post so personally, I truly apologize. I was speaking of my own experience helping my young daughter recover from a devastating eating disorder. During her illness she thought she was fat when she was grossly underweight. She thought she was hated by her friends, when she was loved dearly by them. She thought her parents were trying to kill her by making her eat more than 200 calories a day. Now? If you ask her, she will tell you herself that the illness, the eating disordered voice in her head, made her believe these things. She truly believed them. Now she is healthy, happy and vivacious.

I don't want you dismissed, but I do want you to get the best, evidence based care available. I would want you (if I was your mom) to get the best care, from people who were up on the current research and who would treat you with compassion and care. I would want them to take you seriously as a patient, but to also let you know that you could recover and how the illness controlled your mind. I would want only the best for you. I would want full and authentic recovery for you.

June 13, 2009 - 4:34pm
EmpowHER Guest

"Their brains are so twisted by chronic malnutrition, and their clinicians are so willing to accept without question what these patients are telling them. "My mother controlled me. My father molested me." Maybe it is the ed talking, and not the real patient. "

Now that is just arrogant. Okay, maybe our perceptions have become distored by our illness and we might be prone to misinterpret or exagerrate things. An overprotective but loving mother might be misinterpreted as "controlling" or "domineering" by someone who is in the depths of an eating disorder. But if a patient complains about something specific like, "My father used to say I was a fat ugly cow" or "My father molested me" she should NOT be dismissed as just another "crazy" patient who is making it up.

How dare you invalidate our experiences like that! You are extremely arrogant and narrowminded ERICA!

June 13, 2009 - 11:49am
EmpowHER Guest

It seems to me that you are one of the clinicians that are viewing eating disorders as a diet that's gone wrong - at least to some degree. When this is done those that view it as a mental illness have trouble arguing points, because as Laura Collins put it we're doing an apples and oranges comparison.

If you're viewing it as a diet, then you are putting it into a category where someone can just quit doing whatever they're doing. You're saying that certain things can be the absolute cause of it. Really though, they're not causes rather catalysts that set off this predisposed mental illness.

If you're not predisposed to have that mental illness then no matter what circumstances surround you, you aren't going to develop an eating disorder.

If we were to focus on your article and the belief that people whose parents have no boundaries, then why doesn't everybody with a horrid child - whose parents behaved in that matter - develop an eating disorder?

It's because they're not predisposed to the development of that mental illness.

June 12, 2009 - 11:47am
EmpowHER Guest
Anonymous (reply to Anonymous)

"If you're viewing it as a diet, then you are putting it into a category where someone can just quit doing whatever they're doing."
I may have missed it, but I have not read anywhere here that anyone views an Eating Disorder as a diet. A diet may bring on the malnutrition that leads to the ED in a susceptible individual, a disorder which affects the mind and body, both a mental and physical illness.

I could post a list of studies here but instead will quote from a reliable source, NEDA, National Eating Disorders Association USA.

"Dieting can lead to an eating disorder.
Many studies and many health professionals note that patients with eating disorders were dieting at the time of the development of their eating disorder.
Dieting may not cause an eating disorder, but the constant concern about body weight and shape, fat grams and calories can start a vicious cycle of body dissatisfaction and obsession that can lead all too quickly to an eating disorder"

I like the use of the word "catalysts", I think it fits very well.
Predisposition + catalysts can equal ED.
You can't change the predisposition but you can avoid the catalysts, in most cases you can avoid the malnutrition.

June 13, 2009 - 12:08pm
EmpowHER Guest

It seems that all of our experiences with ED whether as a patient or as a parents have been stressful and highly emotional not to mention completly scarey so we have developed each of our own strong views. As with many disorders different treatments may be appropriate.

I think we are all agreed that abuse -physical or emotional or dyfunctional families do not always cause eating disorders. When they do, they present a much more complex picture that needs to be dealt with. No one doubts the enormous difficulties faced by those trying to recover. Those working to recover have my utmost admiration and respect. However perhaps the research about genetics is providing some light as to why although all those abused have problems not all develop an eating disorder.

Those of us who speak emotionally here about parents being blamed have also had extremely traumatic experiences but it has been in the therapy. When I look around at my friends I see families no different from my own or indeed much more authoritarian and controlling and yet their children did not develop eating disorders. Yet instead of including me, advising me how to modify my behaviour or help me provide a supportive to recovery envronment the doctors actively looked to blame. "Er no you're not too controlling, perhaps you don't do enough er no well obviously it's Dad then" For 5 years I stepped back and watched my daughter decline and attempt suicide. I watched my son in intensive care. I was devastated. I work with families with disabled children. I adore my family. Yet now not only am excluded as I wouldn't be if they had cancer because my children were going to die and it was actually apparently all my fault.

Desperate I did step in and support refeeding actually not through Maudsley but through the Mandometer program. Once nutrition started to make a difference we could see that we all had anxieties and issues which together may have been a trigger but wouldn't have been with another child or in another family. Yes for my daughter depression is a co-morbid problem and for my son and husband anxiety and I am burnt out - we all continue to receive therapy support. As with all families we continue to be a work in progress. Thankfully in recovery, they no longer blame me and I certainly don't blame them or think they were manipulative etc in any way. Eating Disorder is a terrible illness which affects the whole family.

So again anyone with an eating disorder trying to recover has my utmost respect whether parent or patient on this blog we all know how hard and traumatic the treatment process is. But I'm trying to point out the trauma that a sub group of eating disorder families go through when they are blamed and accused without ever knowing what they did wrong compared to non eating disorder "normal" families that might cause the death of their child. So yes we are thrilled our children including the adults like mine are alive and doing well. The newer research on biology and genetics is helping us all make some sense of it all.

But families are so important in life. Please wherever possible lets help families work together for recovery.

My best wishes to every family battling this disease.

June 11, 2009 - 5:42pm
EmpowHER Guest

I suffered from anorexia for many years, and then in my forties, began to really embrace recovery.

I am ashamed to say that during my 'active ED' years, I blamed my parents for so many things - to the point of thinking that I didn't care whether they lived nor died and thinking that I would not even cry at their funerals because, in my mind then, my parents caused my 'terrible childhood'.

During my 'active ED' years, my memories of my childhood and my parents treatment of me was skewed by my disease.

Now, in recovery, I realize that my parents were good parents - did their best - my problem was not them, but rather my own "stuff" ... genetics, personality traits, etc.

My dad died just months ago and I gave the eulogy at this funeral.
I celebrated the wonderful man, American, military hero and dad that he was.
But I am sad to think how many years my 'mixed up' mind had me thinking negatively of him.

My mom is still alive and just recently - in tears - I said to her:

"Mom, did I ever tell you how much I appreciate that - through all my challenges - you and dad were always there for me ... you never gave up on me."

She calmly answered:

"That's what mothers do."

I love my mother and my father and though it took me to recover from a mental illness to come to that realization, I am so glad that I finally DID.

God Bless you all!


June 11, 2009 - 2:41pm
EmpowHER Guest
Anonymous (reply to Anonymous)

Thank you dear Cathy for posting. I am so sorry you have suffered so long and the pain you have felt. I am thrilled you got to express to your parents your love for them and see the whole picture clearly. I know 1st hand the pain they must have felt and your words must have been balm to their souls.
Blessing on you and good health.

June 11, 2009 - 6:39pm
Enter the characters shown in the image.
By submitting this form, you agree to EmpowHER's terms of service and privacy policy
Add a Comment

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.

Active Adult

Get Email Updates

Health Newsletter

Receive the latest and greatest in women's health and wellness from EmpowHER - for free!