Finding out that your friend, brother, sister or anyone close to you is struggling with an eating disorder is upsetting and heartbreaking, and can leave you feeling quite helpless. It’s one of those times in life when you just need to admit that, yes, the situation is hard, it seems bleak and hopeless, but then to make the very important commitment to not allow those negative thoughts to determine your actions. Undoubtedly, your friend has already had those thoughts run through his or her own brain, so it’s your job to not give into them, tempting though it may be.
But what can you say? What can you do? The truth is, you can actually do a lot, starting with offering a kind, compassionate and listening ear.
Those who struggle with an eating disorder usually battle shame in conjunction with the mental illness. Most eating disorders are based on a desire to control, as well as a need to keep the whole experience hushed up. Unfortunately, eating disorders just aren’t talked about frequently, so they quickly become confusing, upsetting situations where no one knows what to say, including the person struggling with the disorder.
This is the beauty of conversation, however. You might not understand the disorder, the motivations behind it or what goes on in the mind of the person struggling, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn. Talking with your loved one, versus pretending the problem isn’t there, can be very important in the healing journey. All you have to do is be honest — if you don’t understand, say “I don’t fully understand this disorder, but I want to learn from you what it means for you.” Ask them questions like, “How can I help you?” “What do you need?”
And when they answer, listen.
A lot of times, people say the wrong thing not because they intend to be insensitive, but because they truly don’t understand the situation. This is important to remember in many aspects of life. Speaking about a topic you’re not fully educated on can hurt feelings, offend and put the other on the defensive, without even intending to do so.
This rings true in conversations about eating disorders, making it vital that you learn as much as you can about eating disorders and the way they affect both the body and the brain. Plus, the more you understand, the more compassionate you can be, without accidentally enabling. It gives you the tools to talk openly and knowledgeable with your friend, while also knowing what not to say.
Watch weight/body talk
When you’re with someone battling an eating disorder it is imperative that you don’t bring up talk about weight and body image. Saying things like, “You look good,” or “You’ve lost weight,” while well-intentioned, can trigger disordered eating behaviors. It can also affirm their behaviors stemmed in low self-esteem, indicating that their behavior is effective and creating noticeable results. Obviously, this isn’t something you’d want to encourage, intentionally or not.
Instead, consider compliments that don’t focus at all on their external appearance, but rather point out a positive in their mood or who they are as a person. Try, “You seem so happy today,” or “You have such positive energy this afternoon.” Compliments that focus on the goodness of who they are as a person versus what they look like are not only more genuine, but they’re more helpful!
Do something together
You need to remind your friend that they are more than the eating disorder they battle. Of course, you can verbally remind them of this, but it’s important to live this truth as well! Ask them to come and do things with you, like paint pottery, figure out an escape room, go to the zoo or museum, see a movie or play with puppies at the humane society. It will give the two of you something fun and relaxing to do together, but it will also bring a sense of normalcy into their life.
Depending on their stage of recovery, your friend might experience intense control of the eating disorder over their life, or they might be battling fiercely to recover, or may be somewhere in between. Regardless of where they are, suggesting an activity that has nothing to do with ED will give them a time of mental rest and peace, and just plain fun.
Don’t be afraid
While it can be scary finding out your family member or friend struggles with an eating disorder, and while you should allow conversations about it to happen between the two of you, the most important thing you can do is continue to love them the way you always have. It’s important to view them no differently than before, and to not characterize them as their disorder. Having open, authentic and vulnerable conversations will not only make the situation less scary, but it will hopefully offer you ways to help and provide support.
For those situations which are a bit beyond your control, or for increased support and information whether for yourself or your loved one, never be afraid of reaching out to the compassionate therapists at Seeds of Hope. Eating disorders are severe mental illnesses and talking with a therapist can offer many alternatives and solutions for everyone involved.