As a team of individuals who devote our careers to studying and treating individuals with eating disorders, we have come to the conclusion that eating disorders are actually a very poor name for these health challenges. Actually, eating disorders are not about eating. In our view, individuals who are diagnosed with an eating disorder often, or always, have a disrupted relationship with their bodies. The nature of this relationship gets in the way of their ability to live a vital and fulfilling life. This concept applies to all eating disorders.
What do we mean by this?
We consider the development of an individual's relationship with his/her/their body much like the transactions between a parent and an infant. An infant cries. This cry could mean any number of things: the child is hungry, tired, wants to play, wants to be held, needs a diaper change, or needs to make an impact on the world. The parent takes a guess as to what the cry might mean, responds to that perceived need, and watches what happens next.
Over time, the parent learns what each cry means and gets better at responding with what the child needs in that moment. Over time…
Parents get to know their child.
The child, in turn, increasingly feels that his or her parent is pretty swell, and that he/she/they exists.
The child learns that he/she/they is a human being who can have an impact on the environment.
With development, the goal of a child, an emerging adolescent or an adult, is to become her/his/their own parent—to "self-parent." In other words, an individual tunes into the messages of the body (e.g., hunger pains, gut butterflies, heart palpitations) and learns, via trial and error, what these sensations mean and how to meet the need that these sensations are communicating. As a result of this back and forth with oneself, an individual comes to know oneself, trust oneself and believe in his/her/their capacity to impact the environment.
We believe that, in individuals with eating disorders, this relationship somehow got derailed. Our job, in both our research and in our treatment, is to help individuals learn to listen, decode and respond to what their body is telling them—and see what unfolds once one has a trusting relationship with oneself. There are many layers to how we go about this, but several components are:
- understanding and validating the history of how this relationship became disrupted;
- helping parents to role model their own self-connection;
- helping parents set some safe boundaries to encourage a child’s self-exploration; and
- creating a context in which self-exploration can occur in a curious and nurturing manner. We believe these components are common to all eating disorders.
Thus, while each eating disorder may have some unique symptom expressions, there are also common underlying themes. We organize the information on this site by disorder for convenience. However, you will notice that many content areas overlap across disorders.