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Hunger of the Soul in Eating Disorders: Insight from The Renfrew Center

Eating disorders are a complex interplay of causes and contributing factors, including biological, genetic and environmental.

Stay tuned tomorrow for part two, where Jennifer and Susan talk about how all of us can attain spiritual sustenance and more.

One of these underlying factors may be spiritual emptiness or “hunger of the soul,” according to Susan Kleinman and Jennifer Nardozzi of The Renfrew Center of Florida.

Today, I’m honored to present Susan and Jennifer’s insight on spiritual emptiness in eating disorders in part one of our interview.

If you remember, I spoke with Susan about dance/movement therapy for eating disorders and managing emotions (part 1 and part 2). Susan is a dance/movement therapist for The Renfrew Center of Florida and past president of the American Dance Therapy Association.

Jennifer Nardozzi, PsyD, is a psychologist who specialized in treating women with eating disorders. She’s currently the National Training Manager at The Renfrew Center.

Q: Jennifer and Susan, you both believe that healing the body and mind from eating disorders also requires taking into account a person’s spiritual emptiness (in addition to traditional treatments). What is spiritual emptiness?

A: The inner lives of individuals who struggle with eating disorders are filled with a profound sense of disembodiment and lack of connection to their self and others. As the eating disorder strengthens and becomes their primary relationship, it creates an illusion of control and their authentic connection to self, others as well as a higher being, diminish. We refer to this as spiritual emptiness or “hunger of the soul.”

Q: How does spiritual emptiness develop?

A: Spiritual emptiness can develop in a number of ways, each unique to the person with their self, as well as their relationship in their world at large. It may be influenced by a lack of meaning in their life brought on by depression, trauma, or a lack of hope that anything more is possible.

For many individuals, an eating disorder can start as a diet that becomes out of control as it spirals into coping patterns that consumes their lives.

The more the eating disorder ‘takes up space’ inside of them, the more they let go of important aspects of life like being in meaningful relationships; sharing their gifts and talents in the world; believing they are worthy of good things; and connecting to their authentic selves and something greater whether they call that God or not.

Q: Do most, if not all, women with eating disorders suffer from spiritual emptiness?

A: We believe so. Most of the women we see struggle with trying to control their feelings by numbing them. They often describe this experience as “going through the motions of life.”  It seems “safer” that way.

However, the process of trying to adapt their feelings by deadening them or trying to keep them under control can cause the fear of losing control to dominate their mind and overwhelming anxiety ensues. Believing in one’s self, feeling trust, hope, and compassion for self and others, all become truths that we hope to help them reawaken as part of their recovery.

Q: Do you know of any research on spiritual emptiness in eating disorders and/or other resources that readers can turn to for more information on this topic?

A: There are many good resources available regarding spirituality and several are geared toward eating disorders. Some that might be of interest to you include a new book by Geneen Roth called Women, Food, and God; a classic eating disorder book that also deals with spirituality, Eating in the Light of the Moon by Anita Johnston, and a more clinical book that also includes a considerable amount of research, Spiritual Approaches in the Treatment of Women With Eating Disorders by P. Scott Richards, Randy K. Hardman, and Michael E. Berrett.

Q: How do therapists help a person with eating disorders heal from spiritual emptiness?

A: A primary part of therapy is in helping individuals with eating disorders transform their relationship with their body/whole self into one that is more accepting, meaningful and satisfying.

Jackie Heyen, an advocate for eating disorder treatment, and a musician, created song lyrics to express what she believes to be important regarding healing. We agree. Her lyrics embrace the hope of recovery from an eating disorder:

“Show me the way to my soul

Finding the passion will lead to the soul

the soul leads to me

show me the way to my soul

believe enough for me and you

until I can believe in me.”

Q: In addition to treatment, any self-help advice on how women with eating disorders can feed their spiritual hungers?

A: The famous dancer, Martha Graham said: “Movement never lies. It is a barometer telling the state of the soul’s weather to all who can read it.”

Learning to listen to their body and to take actions that they find meaningful can inspire women to look inside of themselves to understand their feelings and needs, and outside of their eating disorder for fulfillment.

Some examples include:

  • Volunteering and making a difference for others
  • Expressing themselves creatively
  • Taking time to be with friends, family and joining community groups
  • Gardening
  • Joining a book club
  • Taking a course in a subject that interests them
  • Learning new skills
  • Virtually allowing themselves to risk exploring anything that might be of interest to them

Thank you so much to Susan and Jennifer for their insight into spiritual emptiness. Again, please stay tuned for part two!

If you’ve struggled with an eating disorder, do you think spiritual emptiness was a contributing factor? How did you find meaning and fulfillment?

P.S. We’ve kick-started another round of the Self-Discovery, Word-by-Word series. This month Karen from Before & After: A Real-Life Story is hosting and her word is vulnerability. Check out her post for details on participating, and I hope you’ll join us and write about vulnerability, too. I’ll be publishing my post next week.


Hunger of the Soul in Eating Disorders: Insight from The Renfrew Center

Margarita Tartakovsky, MS

Margarita is an associate editor at She writes about everything from taking compassionate care of yourself at any weight, shape, and size, to coping healthfully with difficult emotions. Her goal is to give readers practical, empowering tips to better their lives, and to remind you that whatever you're struggling with, you're never, ever alone.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2019). Hunger of the Soul in Eating Disorders: Insight from The Renfrew Center. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 26, 2020, from


Last updated: 30 Mar 2019
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