While most of you will know this, in my counselling practice I help people who struggle with their relationships and who struggle with eating disorders or disordered eating. While people who struggle in their relationships don’t necessarily have issues with their bodies or food (though sometimes they do!), it is rare that someone who struggles with disordered eating or an eating disorder doesn’t also find it impacting their relationships. With this is mind I thought I would blend my two specialties today and give you some direction on how you can support a loved one who is struggling.
Body related issues are on the rise for both men and women and most of us know at least one person who needs support in this area. Whether it be a friend who struggles to stop yo-yo dieting, or a loved one who struggles with anorexia or bulimia, most of us find ourselves impacted by this in some capacity. While their recovery isn’t your responsibility, offering your support can be a great way to make yourself feel better and hopefully move your loved one forward in their recovery journey.
If you or someone you know is struggling with disordered eating or an eating disorder, here are a few ways that you can be of help.
1) Express Your concern: It is normal to feel afraid or worried about bringing up a loved ones’ eating disorder. It is critical, however, that you do. When you express your concerns be careful of the language you use. For someone with anorexia or bulimia, there is no such thing as “too thin” and using language similar to this (e.g.“you are so skinny,” etc) only reinforces her need to work harder at starving herself. Instead, comment on your concern for her because she doesn’t look well, looks sick, or like she is suffering.
2) Listen Attentively: People struggling with disordered eating often carry around a lot of painful emotions. If you hear them talking about their pain, really listen to what they are saying. Instead of offering advice on how to get better, support her in what is going on for her. Try to be as non-judgmental as possible so the she feels safe opening up, as this will increase your ability to eventually get her the help she needs.
3) Focus On Her Accomplishments, Not Her Eating: Although someone who struggles with an eating disorder is hyper-focused on food, simply getting her to eat (or in the case of binge eaters, stop eating) won’t make the eating disorder go away. Underneath the unfaltering desire to be thin is a deep hurt that is causing anxiety. Rather than force-feeding her (or talking about ways to stop bingeing), show you care by reinforcing what she is doing well. Tell her how much you love her and how proud of her you are. Support her in developing a healthy relationship to food.
4) Help Her Feel In Control: One of the most common things that someone struggling with an eating disorder will tell you (if she admits she is struggling) is that the eating disorder is the only thing she can control. What she doesn’t realize is that the eating disorder is actually robbing her of all control as her health becomes more at risk. If she mentions control to you, ask her in what areas of her life she feels she has the least control and how this is impacting on her? Speak to her strengths and abilities and help her see that with the right resources she can regain control of all areas of her life, not just her eating.
5) Seek Professional Help: Trying to help someone with an eating disorder can be very emotional, and at times exhausting. It’s important not to take on the responsibility for someone else’s well being as your own. While she may beg you to keep her secret, sharing your struggle with a professional can alleviate your anxieties over her well being and help guide you in how to deal with her. Don’t delay in seeking help for yourself if you get stressed or overwhelmed.