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Understanding Eating Disorders

After a few months she began to find the emotional roots of her problems. Being the darling only child of two driven, successful parents put her under a lot of pressure. She felt she could never live up to their expectations. Deep down she wondered if they truly loved her. And she sensed her parents' underlying unhappiness which they were trying to mask with their own extreme work ethic.

Jennifer felt responsible somehow, for their pain, and unconsciously tried to solve their problems and earn their love by pleasing them every way she could. This was at the expense of her own childish innocence and vitality. She grew up too quickly and now felt angry as well as empty and lost inside. The immediate feeling she received by stuffing herself with food followed by the "magic solution" of purging was a powerful, but sadly temporary antidote to these feelings.

It took many months of learning how to accept herself as she was, and to admit her neediness and discover alternative means of fulfillment and good feelings in life, before Jennifer could move beyond her addiction to food to embrace a more healthy identity. She will always have to be alert to her tendency to seek solace in food and thinness, but now she has tools with which to recognize and combat the problem. Her grades are at a B level, and she is learning that she doesn't have to be perfect in order to love herself.

If you know someone whom you suspect has an eating disorder, don’t minimize or ignore the problem. Talk directly and honestly about your concerns, but avoid being critical or judgmental. At first, they will probably deny anything is wrong. People with bulimia and anorexia are very secretive about this part of their lives. People who are scrupulously honest in every other area become unbelievably devious about this!

If they don’t open up, make it clear that you are concerned and also emotionally available. Ask how you can be supportive. Don't push, but make it obvious you care and want to listen to whatever they want to share. Women with eating disorders often have the erroneous perception that they don't matter to anyone. Make sure they have a trusted friend in you, whether you are their parent, relative, or church youth leader.

Remember that an eating disorder
is a symptom that a person feels
terribly about him or herself
and has little control over her life.

If they talk about their fears of being fat, don't argue with them. And don't get into discussions about what they are doing to their bodies. All the facts in the world do not matter because their perception of themselves distorts reality. Remember that an eating disorder is a symptom that a person feels terribly about him or herself and has little control over her/his life. They think nothing they do is good enough, so they resort to the idea that if they could at least get really thin, then they’d be a success at something. Gently persist with the idea that they need to talk to a professional. People do not grow out of eating disorders on their own. They are complex and deep rooted and involve deeply painful feelings.

While it is best if the person seeks help without coercion, there are times when you have to take more drastic action. If a child is under eighteen, and you, a parent, are concerned about weight loss, dehydration, or symptoms of physical jeopardy, contact your physician and a therapist experienced with eating disorders for help.

Above all, become a living example to this troubled person through your own life. Avoid diets and preoccupation with thinness and food. Be physically active and enthusiastic about life. Try to evaluate your tendency to affirm others' worth based on performance. Begin demonstrating that it is the person, not their accomplishments, that is important to you. Admit that you get angry, frustrated, afraid, and needy. Talk about your own feelings and emotional and spiritual needs and model how to take responsibility for them. Seek professional help yourself when necessary.

The proliferation of eating disorders is just one more sign of our unbalanced society. As individuals and families, we can reject many of the values portrayed by the media and the culture. Within our own circles return to lives anchored in the meaning of the person as God sees us—complex and unique souls deeply loved and cherished for the spirit within—not for a skinny model look.

* Jennifer is a fictional composite of traits, family, and environmental factors typical of the eating disordered client.

** For more information on eating disorders, see the home page of the American Anorexia Bulimia Association, Inc. at

Vicki K. Harvey, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist in Southern California.

© Copyright by Vicki Harvey

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All articles on this website are written by
Richard (Dick) Innes unless otherwise stated.