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Eating Disorders & Codependency

Codependency often occurs in the family of an eating disordered individual.

Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia are rarely thought of as family disorders, but in truth they rarely affect just the individual with the eating disorder. The pain and dysfunction that accompanies an eating disorder is often shared by family members and loved ones. This is known as codependency. Family members, often with the best intentions, often unknowingly contribute to their loved one’s eating disorder behavior. As a result, they often experience dysfunction in their lives as well.

As with alcoholics, family members of individuals with eating disorders can often become codependent. According to Webster’s dictionary, the prefix “co” means “joint, with or together.” When an individual is dependent they are influenced, controlled or determined by some other force. In this case, that force is the eating disorder and a codependent is someone who’s life is intermingled with someone who has an eating disorder.

Codependents are often unaware that they are contributing to their loved one’s disorder. Codependents therefore fall into a pattern of dysfunction, existing and attempting to function and solve problems facilitated by a set of unspoken family rules.

Symptoms of Codependency

Some symptoms of eating disorder codependency include:

  • Hopeless feelings
  • Difficulty articulating emotions
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Hyper vigilance, feeling the need to always watch out for problems
  • Putting the needs of others before your own
  • Difficulty setting boundaries
  • Self-esteem tied to the ability to control not only yourself but others in the face of adversity

Common Roles played in a Codependent Family

Similar to families dealing with alcoholism, there are roles that various members often play in a family system. These roles aren’t, however, set in stone. In fact, the same family member can take on various roles at different times. Here are some of the most common roles that codependent family members take on:

Hero: The role of the hero is often taken on by the oldest child in the family. The hero is often an overachiever, successful in pursuits and comes to represent all that’s right with the family. The hero often receives positive attention early in their life and therefore continuously works to gain recognition and approval. Though the hero might boast a confident exterior, it masks feelings of guilt and inadequacy. These feelings are often tied to the hero’s inability to “save” his family or “fix” the individual with an eating disorder.

Enabler: The enabler is often the family member that is closest to the individual with an eating disorder. In their attempt to protect their loved one, they often get caught up concealing their eating disorder behavior. They often find themselves with their ears to the bathroom door, checking the trash cans for diet aid and food wrappers, making marks on peanut butter jars and other food containers to keep track of what’s been eaten. The enabler is often stuck in denial, and is often unable to admit the severity of their loved one’s eating disorder. The enabler often takes on the responsibilities of their disordered loved one, including work, school, parenting and household chores.

Scapegoat: Often the second child in the family, the scapegoat often acts out and gets in trouble as a means of getting attention. They often feel like they’re in the hero’s shadow. Since they never gain the praise that he or she receives, the scapegoat determines that negative attention is better than no attention at all.

Lost Child: Often the middle child in a family, the lost child is often left by the wayside as family members are too preoccupied with their own roles and behaviors. The lost child therefore often becomes withdrawn and shy; without having been properly socialized in a family setting they find it difficult to make friends. Lost children often turn inward and develop an inner fantasy life. A lost child is especially vulnerable to eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia or food addiction as food can easily become a method of coping.

Mascot: Usually the youngest child, the mascot determines that the best way to gain attention is to be cute, funny and entertaining. When traumatic events unfold in the family, they often use humor as a coping mechanism and make light of the situation. Since the mascot is often rewarded for childish behavior, they often find it difficult to grow up, dealing with feelings of inadequacy through their lives.

Codependents who become involved with individuals with eating disorders as adults often come from a dysfunctional family themselves. Usually they came from a family where at least one parent was either emotionally or physically absent. They often have experience confronting eating disorders or substance abuse or illness in their own family and therefore empathize with the eating disordered individual.

By the time codependents enter the world, they often must confront such dysfunction that they realize that there is little room to experience a childhood. Codependents learn to get attention by forsaking the role of a child and prematurely taking on the burdens of adulthood. Codependents learn to mask their feelings, learning that there are negative repercussions for expressing them. They take on the role of a caretaker, often in the stead of the absent parent. As they care for their parents and the other children, their goal becomes to fix others. The codependent’s ego, identity and self-esteem become tied to their ability or inability to cure others.

As adults, codependents become driven by control. They feel that if only they can control the disease, everything will turn out okay. They might start by rewarding the individual with an eating disorder. When encouragement and rewards fail to work, they may change their strategy to convey subtle threats. These threats can often elevate into ultimatums in which the codependents threatens to leave the relationship. These threats are usually withdrawn, leaving the codependent feeling powerless and guilty. Not only is their loved one’s health at risk, their self-esteem is as well.

Codependency is quite common in the families of individuals with eating disorders. The psychological ramifications can be as devastating to the codependent as the individual with the eating disorder. At Rader Programs we understand that eating disorders like anorexia, compulsive overeating and bulimia nervosa can cause severe dysfunction in familial and personal relationships. That’s why we’ve developed a treatment program that caters to the needs of the entire family.