Psychological Causes of Eating Disorders

This is part three of a four- part primer on eating disorders provided by eating disorders specialist Isabelle Tierney, M.A., LMFT, BHSP. Isabelle lives in Boulder Colorado and provides web-based and in-person trainings, seminars, in services, and interventions throughout the US and abroad. For this article, InnerChange asked Isabelle to discuss the emotional needs that eating disorders attempt to meet—i.e. what function the disorder serves—however dangerously—for the sufferer. Understanding these functions, according to Isabelle, can be a first step toward providing treatment.

It is crucial to understand that eating disorders SERVE IMPORTANT FUNCTIONS. Uncovering those functions—or emotional needs—and finding healthier ways to fulfill them is crucial to successful treatment and healing.

Below are some of anorexia’s important functions:

  • As the person loses weight, dieting and weight loss take on a different function for the anorexic sufferer
  • She/he finds a newfound control in life; she previously did not feel effective or adequate despite efforts at perfection
  • She believes that being thin will solve all problems
  • She finds a new sense of power (does not have to give in to hunger) and superiority; she finally measures up
  • Her control over eating gives her a new sense of meaning, a purpose to life
  • She gets a new sense of challenge
  • She gets a new sense of independence, the “good girl” saying no to authorities, often for first time in life
  • Anorexia gives her an identity, which is often a fundamental developmental task

Following are some of bulimia’s important functions:

• “While I’m eating, nothing else matters;” the bulimic can eat to satisfy emotional needs without worrying about the usual consequences
• Food is an outlet for all the feelings and conflicts that cannot be exposed
• The binge-purge cycle blocks or discharges feelings that are experienced as unacceptable
• The bulimia is a way to cope with uncomfortable emotional states; it relieves stress, anxiety, low-self-esteem
• Unlike the anorexic, the bulimic DOES acknowledge there’s something wrong but feels hopeless about what to do about it

Only by first understanding the emotional needs that an eating disorder attempts to meet can we construct a treatment plan that effectively meets that need in a healthier manner. Understanding is the first step toward both compassion and treatment.

For more information about Isabelle Tierney’s programs and services visit To schedule a consultation, seminar, or interview, call 303-817-6912.