One of the hardest parts of my own recovery was the intense loneliness. I felt that no one could understand me or what I was going through. When my friends and family tried to help, they were usually unintentionally triggering because they didn’t know how to approach the situation.
Many of my interpretations of their words were disordered and irrational- it was not their fault. But I still want to utilize my experiences to help other people. I hope this can become a reference to anyone wanting to reach out to a loved one suffering from an eating disorder.
1) Create a safe space for discussion.
Use “I” statements to avoid placing any blame. By saying “I am worried about your health because I love you” or “I get nervous about you skipping meals”, you express your concerns without attacking them in any way. “You” statements such as “you’re scaring us” or “you’re being irresponsible” push guilt and blame onto them. Individuals that suffer from an eating disorder already feel an intense amount of shame on a daily basis. Listen to them and let them know they aren’t alone.
2) Do not focus on their appearance.
“You’re not fat!” seems like a helpful thing to say to someone who thinks they need to lose weight. But in reality, you’re making physical appearance seem important. You’re fat shaming. When you try to make your loved one feel better by assuring them they’re not fat, you are reinforcing that it’s a good thing that they aren’t. Individuals suffering from an ED are already hyper-aware of their physical appearance. The best thing you can do is focus on the importance of their overall well-being.
3) Avoid trivializing the eating disorder by offering simple solutions.
I always heard my friends and family say “you just need to eat” during the restrictive stages of my eating disorder. Once I started binge eating, those statements turned into “just ask yourself if you’re actually hungry” or “all you need to do is eat healthy foods”. I knew that eating proper, nourishing meals should be second nature, but I couldn’t just stop. I needed therapy, practice, and encouragement.
4) You cannot be their therapist. Find a way for them to get professional help.
My friends and family tried to give me advice for my binge eating by telling me to go on sugar-free or carb-free diets, thinking it would help me wean off my junk food addiction. But in reality, my therapists and nutritionists were the only ones who truly knew what would help me recover (which included moderation, intuitive eating, and all of the food groups). The same applied to my emotional troubles. You can be there for your loved one during this difficult time, but you can’t provide them with all the answers- and that’s okay. Encourage them to seek professional help.