Bridget’s daughter Sadie has an eating disorder. “It’s so hard to watch her,” says Bridget. “It seems as if her entire purpose in life has become her body. I can’t understand why this happened. I’ve never taught her or modeled that her body is this important. So why is this happening?”
Bridget’s concern and confusion make sense. It’s upsetting when a child finds purpose and meaning in an eating disorder. From the outside, an eating disorder seems destructive and harmful. So why do kids like Sadie find comfort and purpose in managing their bodies like it’s the most important thing in the world?
The answer is complicated. There is no single reason why an eating disorder shows up. However, it’s not uncommon for eating disorder beliefs and behaviors to add meaning to a person’s life. Seeing eating disorders as purely destructive interferes with our ability to understand and treat the disorder. When we understand the purpose, we can address it.
💥 Note: an eating disorder may serve a purpose, but an eating disorder is not on purpose. 💥
Meaning, purpose, and eating disorder recovery
Like all of us, kids like Sadie are seeking meaning and purpose in life. It is human nature to seek purpose, and in our individualistic culture, it’s all too easy to turn our sights on our bodies as a worthy purpose.
But when your own body becomes your purpose, things can get a bit messy. This is what we see with eating disorders.
Purpose is our reason for being, the thing that gets us out of bed in the morning, the thing that lights us up. Purpose is usually about something larger than ourselves. We are communal creatures, and thus purpose usually revolves around community. Each person’s purpose is different, but we do know that all people seek purpose and meaning in their lives.
But sometimes our kids can’t find a purpose. And between COVID, school shootings, the news, and everything that’s been going on in the last decade in our society, many kids are feeling overwhelmed and lack hope. And without hope, it’s hard to find purpose.
So sometimes an eating disorder can come in and fill the need for purpose in a person’s life. It can fill a hole and give a person a reason for living. And I know it doesn’t seem like an eating disorder is a worthy purpose, but it may be the best way they can get through the day right now.
Of course parents would like to see their kids seek purpose outside of their bodies. And we definitely want kids to seek purpose outside of their eating disorders. But it’s very hard to turn the tide when you don’t know what you’re looking at. Here are some examples of how purpose can get wrapped up in eating disorder behaviors:
Most eating disorders begin with a goal to lose weight. Our culture is obsessed with diet and fitness, and harmful diet messages are everywhere. Our kids pick up on the importance of staying small from a very early age. Doctors, teachers, and the media all promote weight control as essential. Weight control can feel like a very worthy goal in our culture even if it’s not coming directly from the parents.
Binge eating disorder, bulimia, anorexia, and eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS) typically involve the core behavior of restricting food and the belief that doing so will result in a thinner body. Restricting food can feel powerful and strong even if the result is the opposite. Overcoming physical urges can become a compulsion because it gives a sense of control and mastery.
Eating disorders may provide hope. Hope that, in this overwhelming world, at least we can control our bodies. Hope that we can succeed at restriction or achieve a certain weight. Hope that life will be better and more fulfilling if we can meet the body ideal and/or control our actions. Hope that manipulating eating and exercise will bring happiness.
In addition to promoting thin bodies, our culture also promotes strength as an important virtue. We all want to feel strong and powerful in life. An eating disorder can come in and show someone they are strong enough to resist eating food. Strong enough to keep running even when exhausted. Strong enough to force food out of their body after it’s been consumed.
Eating disorders often serve a purpose in someone’s life. They provide important benefits that can be hard to see but are nonetheless powerful. Treating an eating disorder without addressing the purpose it serves in someone’s life can lead to incomplete recovery.
Finding purpose outside an eating disorder
Your goal should be to support your child in finding joy and purpose outside of their eating disorder. Generally, a good purpose has something to do with being part of something larger than yourself. Here are some examples of broad categories that might appeal to your child:
- Social justice
- Athletics (With a focus on camaraderie and connection rather than individual performance)
- The arts
Once your child has a general idea of what they might be interested in, you can help them nurture their purpose in the following ways:
An eating disorder is typically a disembodied experience. Denying hunger, counting calories, binge eating, over-exercising, and purging require a separation of mind and body. Having a mindfulness practice will help your child develop an awareness of their needs and desires, which is essential to finding purpose. I really like the Wheel of Awareness program from Dr. Dan Siegel.
When a child finds purpose in their eating disorder, they are applying their valuable skills and resources to their own personal body project. Help your child find a place to volunteer their time, energy, and talents. This will build their sense of community and help them see how applying themselves to others is more fulfilling than focusing on their own body.
Help your child explore their natural and instinctive passions. One problem is that often we start with a natural passion and quickly turn it into a career goal. For example, did they like to sing until they turned it into a passion for being a rock star? Scale it back and just enjoy the passion of singing without tying it to an outcome. The lack of talent or future financial success is no reason not to enjoy a passion.
Finding purpose is usually rooted in social connection and the greater good, so finding a community to belong to can be a great start. Help your child find a community where they feel they belong and are contributing to the group. Look for school clubs, community groups, sports or arts, or anything else that brings like-minded people together.
Of course you want your child to have a purpose beyond their eating disorder. So how are you feeling about your purpose? Do you have a vision statement for yourself? What gets you up in the morning? Start talking with your child about your purpose, and if you aren’t sure what it is yet, talk about that. Telling our kids to find a purpose will be much more powerful if we’re modeling how to do that and talking about the benefits in our own lives.
Purpose can’t be rushed. It took time for your child to develop an eating disorder. And it will take time for them to replace their eating disorder with healthier pursuits. When it comes to purpose, it’s often a slow and steady process rather than a single event or declaration.
Bridget listened to this advice and realized she had to start with herself. “I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t think I’ve worked on this for myself yet,” she says. “I’ve been so focused on Sadie having a purpose and I guess I forgot that these things have to start with me. Maybe it’s not so much that I taught her that her purpose is her body, but that I didn’t show her how to build a purpose.”
Bridget spent some time coming up with the things that light her up and started participating in activities that helped her make progress on her purpose.
Bringing it to Sadie
Once she was working on her own purpose, Bridget started to have conversations with Sadie about her purpose. It’s been challenging at times, but overall Sadie has been surprisingly open with the idea of finding purpose outside her eating disorder. She has roughly identified that nature might be an area of interest for her and is slowly exploring possibilities.
“I think the biggest breakthrough has been in thinking about this differently,” says Bridget. “Before I was very much focused on getting Sadie to change. But now I’m really working on making changes in myself and our family. And I notice that Sadie is a lot more open to trying things and exploring her purpose with this approach. We’re still dealing with the eating disorder, but I feel much more hopeful today than I did before we started this.”
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.
She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.
For privacy, names and identifying details have been changed in this article.