The Number One Reason For Developing An Eating Disorder
by Joanna Poppink, MFT, licensed psychotherapist specializing in eating disorders
Hundreds of people have asked me why people develop eating disorders. Of course, there are many issues involved, but as I explore this field, over the years I have concluded that there is one outstanding theme that runs through every person with an eating disorder I have encountered.
Early in their lives they experienced, on a sustained basis, relentless boundary invasion on every level.
When a person's physical, emotional, psychological, intellectual, sexual, and creative boundaries are consistently ignored and penetrated that person experiences total boundary invasion. When that person has no control or way to stop, protest or often even acknowledge such invasions, the person experiences 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, the 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 limit setter that tells her when she has experienced enough. Being oblivious to any boundary means being oblivious to limits of any kind.
The compulsive overeater eats whenever and whatever she likes. Her choices are based 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 enough. She couldn't say, "Enough," to an invader of her boundaries, and she can't say to it 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 be 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 literally assault herself with more food than a body can tolerate. She has no limit at all. The compulsive overeater will, at last, have to stop eating if only because of the pain of her distended stomach. Her body sets a final limit. The bulimic has no such limit. She experiences (in her mind) no consequences for the assault of food. When her body cannot bear more, she will vomit it all out. Then she will continue her binge. She may reach her body's limits many times.
Each time she does she can throw up and continue. Eventually she may stop 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 disregarding her boundaries..
Realistically, of course, there are plenty of consequences. There is tremendous damage happening to the body. And each time people with an eating disorder assault themselves they destroy more of their spirit, soul, self-esteem, sanity, health and value to themselves and others. Each violation deepens their ritualistic behavior, and they become more entrenched in their disorder. The consequence of this is increasing anguish and despair.
So 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).
There are other kinds of boundary violations, less dramatic, less discussed and more prevalent which are also devastating to a person's psyche. When, in the name of caretaking, people in authority take over a young person's life, it constitutes boundary invasion. When she has no privacy, when her diary is read, when her things are borrowed or taken without permission, when her efforts in school or sport are overwhelmed by someone else's ideas, goals or personality, when her choices are disregarded or treated with disdain, when she has little or no choice where her personal life, clothes, foods, friends, activities are concerned, her boundaries are being invaded.
Her boundaries are also invaded when, in the name of caretaking, she has no responsibilities of her own and no consequences for her actions. When "the little princess" or the "little prince" can have anything she asks for without putting forth any effort to earn such gifts, she learns nothing about personal effort, limits, consequences or what "enough" means. 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, lets her "borrow" money or things and never asks for them back, she experiences no boundaries and no limits.
If she doesn't have to keep her promises, if she doesn't reciprocate with caring activities for people who care for her, she learns nothing useful about herself in relationship to other people. She certainly learns that there are no limits to her behavior or desires.
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 or a car, her word or someone's heart, it can be up to her to make necessary repairs using her own resources and her own creativity. In such a process she would learn what effort means. She would learn what responsibility and consequences for actions mean. She would learn reasonable limits and reasonable expectations.
Without such learning all she learns are the tricks involved in being cute and 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, having no sense of boundaries, she will only become bewildered and anxious. She will use 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 use.
As time goes by there will be less people who will allow themselves to be manipulated. The quality of her circle of associates will decline. She will find herself in bad company. This becomes all the more reason for her to rely on food for comfort. The people around her are less reliable all the time. And finally, they tolerate her presence only because they can manipulate her.
Then she is truly in a total victim position. Her manipulative skills backfire. There are people in this world who are better at manipulating and using than she. She has found them. She has become their target and then their prey. Reliable food or food rituals, including starvation, become her most valuable relationship.
Early in her development she learned through massive boundary invasions (which perhaps seemed so 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 also could not acknowledge -- often 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. She complied and 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 can not bear this way of living anymore she still has choices. One is to continue down the road of self-destruction. The other is to reach out and get help.
It's a very tough position for her. She would have to recognize that she has had enough. She's never known what enough was. She would have to recognize that she can't bear any more pain. She's never known what a limit was. She'd have to be honest and reach out for genuine help. She has only known about manipulating others.
She's got to feel a lot of anguish and pain before she stretches beyond her life pattern into what might be a real healing and recovery path for herself. She's reaching for something she can't even imagine. No wonder it's so difficult for a person with an eating disorder to decide to get help and allow themselves to begin to trust someone with knowledge of their real personhood. She doesn't know that people exist who do respect and honor boundaries. She doesn't know that there are people who can and will honor and cherish her most private and sacred inner spaces. She doesn't know yet, that someday that trustworthy, respectful, steadfast and competent caretaker she needs so badly can be herself.
Joanna Poppink, M.F.T.
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