Eating disorders are often a family affair. Regardless of age, when one person is struggling, the effects can often trickle down to other family members when the disorder is dominant in a person’s life. I get phone calls and emails often from families looking for ways to support their loved ones. Parents, siblings and partners are looking for the “best” ways to approach their loved one when they are struggling, while also trying to deal with the effects a disorder has on their connection. In these situations, there is rarely one best approach but I am going to focus on an angle that I think is often missed in these situations.
As you may know, eating disorders are no joke. They control and dictate so many parts of a person’s life and make everyday activities way more challenging. One of the hard things when in the supportive role is that the support person often is left communicating with the disorder more than their loved one. Take for example meal times, or going on vacation, or a trip to the beach. These are all experiences that most people equate with being happy, but for someone with an eating disorder, these experiences often flood them with anxiety. As a loved one, it can be hard trying to understand why positive experience feels so negative to the person struggling.
One of the most important things a loved one can focus on is emotionally validating the toll an eating disorder takes on the person who is struggling. So often we try to find solutions to their problems which means we don’t really listen to how they are feeling. I want to be clear that I don’t mean listening to their eating disorder. For example, if your loved one comes to you and says “I feel fat, and like I hate my body” your job isn’t to validate this experience (doing so would actually be damaging) but rather to say “it sounds like today is a tough day, what’s making you feel sad and a bit beaten up?” We want to validate that behind the eating disorder dialogue there are emotions that the person is feeling and that it is okay for them to feel them. If we were to respond to the statement with “you aren’t fat, you’re beautiful” it doesn’t foster conversation and it also won’t change the disordered thought. When you go for the underlying emotion, the person struggling is invited into exploring their own emotions and sharing them with you. The more we share our vulnerabilities and are validated in them (that part is critical), the healthier we become and the more someone leans into recovery.