Eating Disorders & Codependency
Codependency often occurs in the family of an eating disordered individual.
Oftentimes, the presence of an eating disorder like Anorexia, Bulimia and Compulsive Overeating
is mistakenly viewed as a problem of the identified individual alone and not as a family disorder. Family members, just
like the eating disordered individual, experience pain and dysfunction as a result of the disorder - that's called codependency.
Even with best intentions, family members often unwittingly contribute to the practice of the eating disorder and experience
dysfunction in their own lives.
Family members of eating disordered individuals, similar to the family members
of alcoholics, are viewed as codependents. "Co" from Webster's dictionary means "together, with, or joint."
Dependent is defined as "influenced, controlled, or determined by something else." For eating disordered individuals
that "something else" is the eating disordered behavior. A codependent is someone whose life is intertwined with
the eating disordered individual. Unknowingly their attitudes and actions enable the eating disordered individual to continue
their behavior. By enabling the eating disorder individual, codependents not only contribute to the dysfunction in the
eating disordered individual but also cause dysfunction in their own life. The codependents, along with the eating disordered
individual, fall into a dysfunctional pattern of living and problem solving which is facilitated by a set of unspoken rules
within the family.
Symptoms of Codependency
The symptoms of codependency for eating
- Part of self esteem is determined by the ability to
not only control oneself but also others in the face of serious adverse consequences.
- Difficulty with boundaries, especially around the issues of intimacy and separation.
- Others needs take precedence over one's own needs.
- Hyper vigilance:
Feeling the need to always be on the lookout for problems.
- Feelings of hopelessness.
Common Roles Played in a Substance Abuse FamilyThe codependent learns early
in life that there is no room for them to be a child. By the time they enter the family there is usually so much dysfunction,
that the parents are not able to give attention to them for being a child. The codependent learns that the way to receive
the attention that all children need is to drop the role of a child and take on the role of an adult. In this new role
the young codependent learns there is no room to show feelings. They feel that expressing feelings gets them in trouble
or ignored, at best. The young codependent becomes a caretaker, almost taking on the role of the unavailable parent. They
take care of the present parent and often the other children in the house. Their goal in life becomes one of trying to
fix others. Self esteem, identity and ego are all tied into their ability to cure others. Underlying feelings of insecurity
and failure are present as a result of not being able to control all negative situations.
Similar to alcoholic
families, eating disordered family members often take on certain roles within the family system. These roles are in no way
set in stone and family members often take on different roles at different times in their life. Some of the most common
roles are as follows:
Enabler: The enabler is usually the individual emotionally closest to
the eating disordered person. They watch over, protect and conceal for the eating disordered individual. Making marks on
peanut butter jars and other food containers to keep track of food eaten, listening in at the bathroom door, checking
the trash for food and diet aid wrappers are some of the ways an enabler tries to keep track of, and control, the eating
disordered individual. Denial can also be central to the enabler as they often deny to others, and even themselves, the
extent and severity of the eating disorder. Denial of the disorder to others is achieved through the enabler concealing
the effects of the eating disorder by taking on responsibilities for the eating disordered individual. These responsibilities
include work, school work, parenting, and household duties.
Hero: Usually the oldest child
in the family takes on, or is given, the role of the hero. They are often perceived as being helpful within the family and
as successful in their pursuits. Attention early in their life gives them a partial sense of worth and they often continuously
strive to achieve approval and recognition. The hero is often the beacon of the family and represents for the family what
is right with the family. Underneath the successful and confident exterior lies a sense of inadequacy and guilt. Part
of these feelings are a result of the hero's inability to fix the family and eating disordered individual.
The scapegoat is often the second child in the family. Since much of the family attention has been directed to
the hero, the scapegoat gains attention by acting out and getting in trouble. Since they perceive they can never get the
praise the hero receives, negative attention is better than receiving no attention at all.
The lost child is usually the middle child in the family. By the time the lost child enters the family, the family
members are too preoccupied with their own behaviors and roles to allow for quality time. The lost child is often shy,
introverted and withdrawn. Since they never had the opportunity to learn to socialize within the family, they find making
friends difficult. To cope, the lost child turns inward and develops a fantasy life. The lost child is particularly vulnerable
to the development of an eating disorder like Anorexia, Bulimia or Compulsive Overeating as they often use food to comfort
Mascot: The mascot is usually the last one born into the family. The way they receive
attention is to be funny, cute, and entertaining. When there is pain in the family they divert attention through making
a joke or light of the situation. The mascot finds difficulty with growing up because they have been rewarded for their
childlike behavior. Since they have not been taken seriously in the family they often grow up feeling unimportant and
Codependents who, as adults, become involved with an eating disordered individual often come from
an eating disorder, substance abuse or other dysfunctional family themselves. Usually, they grew up in a family where
one parent was missing. This does not have to mean that the one parent is physically missing, but more likely that the
one parent was absent in their role as a parent. The parent may be eating disordered, a substance abuser, suffer from an
illness, grieving over the loss of a loved one, or even a single parent. In all these circumstances the codependent feels
abandoned, if not physically, than emotionally.
As an adult, control now becomes central to the individual's life. Codependents feel if they can only control
the disease, everything will turn out OK. Codependents usually start off trying to help the eating disorder person by giving
support and trying to reward the desired behaviors. When encouragement and reward do not work, the codependent changes
strategies and delivers subtle threats. These threats quickly escalate, culminating in the ultimate threat of all, leaving
the relationship. This threat is usually withdrawn, leaving the codependent feeling helpless and guilty. The investment
in controlling the disease is so great because they not only want to save their loved one but also their self esteem is
As we have seen, codependency often occurs in the family of an eating disordered individual. Its results
can be as devastating to the codependent as to the eating disordered individual themselves. Most programs understands the
dysfunction eating disorders like Anorexia, Bulimia and Compulsive Overeating have caused in the family members life and
has developed an effective treatment program for the entire family.