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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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Thank you, thank you, Carol and Hannah!

You both expressed exactly how I was made to feel by many (not all) of the comments posted on this blog. Yes, the anxieties I felt were caused by the many extremely disrespectful comments made directly to me, that did indeed cross my personal boundaries. No one deserves to be attacked in this conversation. We all have a personal right to our own opinions. It's always so much more constructive when disagreements are handled in a polite and respectful manner. Attacking someone only makes the attacker appear to be insecure with themselves, and their own opinions.

There've been some very, very good and interesting comments posted (on both "sides") on what has turned into a "debate." However, there have also been some very ugly and hurtful comments personally directed at me. Talk about kicking someone when they're already down! Knowing I still suffer from EDs, being so rude to me with words, crossing my boundaries verbally - well that's what bullies do. I would feel extremely ashamed of myself if I'd acted like that, towards anyone.

I've repeatedly tried to be so consciencious in the way my words come across, so as not to be mis-construed by anyone reading them. Contrary to many negative comments directed at me, I have intentionally attempted to show my compassion and sympathy - while trying to tell my very personal story of my own struggles with EDs, which I seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

I was planning on not commenting to anyone else on this blog, but I wanted to thank you both for stating exactly how I was made to feel by so many (not by everyone, but by many of the other posters).

Bless you Both!!!

June 11, 2009 - 2:12pm
EmpowHER Guest

For some reason I feel like much of this whole conversational debate could have been avoided if Joanna had included some reference to the current research. Maybe talked about genetic predisposition and malnutrition as triggers coupled with psychological stressors. All the boundary violations in the world happening daily won't cause an ED unless one is predisposed to it. It just sounds WRONG, given all the research that's going on right now, to put up this theory that excludes biology from the mix.

June 11, 2009 - 11:43am
EmpowHER Guest

Hi Hannah, Carol and Shelley--

I realize this topic is emotion-ladened for all--parents and sufferers alike. Parents reacted because the article, the way it was written, sounded as though it was blaming the family environment of sufferers 'in general' and that it was true in all cases (e.g. 'with every person suffering an ED').

From a parent's perspective, this is hurtful, harmful and--even if none of us are perfect parents (and we aren't)--it is most often not true. That is not to negate anyone's individual feelings about their families, but our perceptions and understanding of this illness are colored by our own personal experiences. Recent research is shedding so much new light on ED's. No one need feel 'to blame'. When blame is eliminated, it frees everyone to concentrate on recovery.

I didn't want a family new to the experience of having an eating disorder in their midst, to read this article and instantly feel tremendous guilt and shame. I wanted families to know there was a way--a treatment method--that would help them reach out and help heal their very much loved one. I also didn't want anyone suffering from an ED to feel blamed or be forever searching for causes when they could get on with healing their body and mind. This is not to say talk therapy is never useful--it can very much be for co-existing anxiety and depression. Do families never have personal issues that need resolving? Of course not. Do most families want to function well and see their loved one healthy? Of course. FEAST believes nutrition has to be first and foremost and that what supports the family will support the person suffering. I also believe that coming from a position of blame helps no one move forward.

So, I want to reach out and say I am sorry if any of you are feeling blamed. It is not the intention of anyone to project that towards sufferers or family members affected by an ED in their family.

To the contrary, we very much understand how that feels, and the Maudsley approach blames no one. It is an illness, the same as you would view other illnesses.

If nothing else, this exchange demonstrates the upset that the perception of feeling blamed can cause (and I doubt, really, that that was even the intent--but how one sends a message, and how one receives it can be two different things!). I might add, the reason I wrote some words in caps in past posts is because I couldn't figure out how to underline or italicize on this blog. I was not intending to yell (except for the one comment about 'the emperor'), but to emphasize. I can't do it in a real 'voice', other than change the lettering.

I, also, am leaving this conversation at this time as I have expressed what I felt I needed to.



June 11, 2009 - 11:38am
EmpowHER Guest

The more I read, the more I have to agree with Carol – not because I believe that parents cause an ED, but because the parents in this thread basically make it about them, and them only, thereby completely invalidating anyone else's opinion. I find it kind of disheartening, even though I understand that having your own child succumb to such an illness must be terrible. It's just that it seems so … familiar. It's always about someone else, about what they do, about they help. All of which is appreciated, all of which is also exhausting, all of which is stifling me in the end.

Oh well, maybe I am manipulating or unable to cope here or whatever form of judgment I'll have to face now. It's the same kind of farce that always seems to happen – everyone's good intentions ultimately just lead to a lot of bickering about how to best proceed, but no real progress is ever made, and it all goes right over my heads and the only thing I get is that I am somehow responsible for turning everything into such a bloody mess. It always makes me want to apologise, for not being perfect, for not being like everyone else… and here we go. It's a funny thing, a family.

No offense intended, none taken. I mean it.

June 11, 2009 - 9:41am
EmpowHER Guest

Where is the evidence to support this theory that "boundary issues" are the number one cause of eating disorders?

I have never read or heard that from eating disorder experts/medical information anywhere.

No scientific evidence to support this theory coming from a person who practices therapy specializing in treating people with eating disorders.

And you wonder why people are upset to read this article?

June 11, 2009 - 8:15am
EmpowHER Guest


Sorry if you find some comments RUDE.

What many are saying is that PARENTS are NOT THE "Number One Reason" Why People get Eating Disorders.

Any therapist who holds that point of view stands alone among what 21st century professionals/experts know about causes of ED.

Any therapist who tells you that is doing YOU and others more harm than good.


I wish you well, too.

June 11, 2009 - 5:57am
EmpowHER Guest
Anonymous (reply to Anonymous)

Hey there Anonymous,

You just proved Carol's point. The article says boundary violations are a prevailing theme in the lives of people with eating disorders. The article never says, in your shouting caps or in small type, that parents are the number one reason.

The article discusses varying kinds of boundary violations and their consequences.

Did you identify with those boundary violations? Is that what is so upsetting to you?

Any why would you attack Carol and try to undermine her recovery work?

Do you try to undermine others, perhaps even your child, when they say something that you disagree with or something that points to a possible flaw in your beliefs?

Just wondering......

June 11, 2009 - 6:20am
EmpowHER Guest
Anonymous (reply to Anonymous)

To the person who questioned my reference in bold caps to "Number One Reason", did you even bother to read the TITLE of Joanna's article???

Just wondering ...

June 11, 2009 - 7:08am
EmpowHER Guest
Anonymous (reply to Anonymous)

From the opinion piece above: "Early in their lives, people with eating disorders have experienced, on a sustained basis, relentless boundary invasion on every level."

Who is it suggested did this supposed "boundary invasion", WHO is the most likely causative factor according to this statement?

Just wondering....

I wish you well in your recovery.

June 11, 2009 - 6:54am
EmpowHER Guest

I think this entire conversation validates Joanna Poppink's conclusion from years of practice with eating disordered adults that boundary violations are a common theme in those who develop eating disorders. Those of you who are dogmatic, vociferous proponents of the "Maudsley Method" and F.E.A.S.T have violated the boundaries of those of us who did experience these boundary violations and did develop eating disorders. It is not surprising to me that the mothers completely deny that they may have in any way contributed to their child's issues, except to concede some kind of genetic predisoposition. Your disrespect for those of us who are/were children who had/have eating disorders that is at some level connected to our parent's relationship with us only reinforces Joanna's point. You can't know what you aren't willing to acknowledge in yourself.

Any treatment modality that states that parents are never to blame completely denies the experience of what I can only imagine are millions of women and men who suffer from eating disorders.Maybe you just need to drop the word blame - it's too loaded and doesn't even begin to address the nuances of a complex relationship that involves love and compassion as well as mistake and injury. You condescendingly deny and question my reality which leads me to the conclusion that you don't respect boundaries and that you have to be right.

I'm not willing to read this arm-twisting, narrow-minded, rude conversation any more. I wish your children well....


June 10, 2009 - 10:36pm
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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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