Things Not To Say To Someone With An Eating Disorder
Do you have a husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend, son, daughter, best friend, or roommate who has some difficult food issues? When your loved one has an eating disorder it can be very confusing.
Maybe they dont eat all day or you never see them eat, but then a whole jar of peanut butter seems to disappear. Or maybe they often tell you that theyve just started a diet but then you find them alone in the kitchen decimating a birthday cake. Perhaps youve been saving a special dessert for yourself in the refrigerator and when you go to eat it, you find that its gone. Or perhaps theyve cried to you about their issues with food. Maybe theyve even told you that they have an eating disorder, maybe theyve promised that theyre done with this habit and theyre never going to do it again.
And then it happens again. You overhear them throwing up in the bathroom. Or you find that all the food in the refrigerator has gone missing or you cook yet another meal that they just push around on their plate only to throw out later. Youre so frustrated you dont know what to do. You feel like you cant keep anything that you want to eat in your own house, you wish theyd just stop doing this and you cant understand why they just wont stop. You wish they could just stop these behaviors.
Things To Say To Someone With An Eating Disorder
When you have an eating disorder your mind can read in to anything anyone says and make it the worst possible scenario. You look really healthy turns in to I look really fat and as we approach Christmas with the endless family gatherings the panic for people living with eating disorders, however far through their recovery they are, can be hard. The panic hits you like a ton of bricks and then it gets worse and worse, then the slight comments made about food or appearance can have a huge impact. But that definitely isnt to say getting through Christmas has to be this hard. And getting through Christmas and surviving is one hundred percent possible. I am living proof of that!
If I am struggling at Christmas it is important that people use words wisely for their sake as well as mine. I dont have all the answers but here are a few things that you could try this Christmas to help someone with an eating disorder navigate the turmoil of family, friends and food activities.
How To Talk To Someone With An Eating Disorder
If someone you know is displaying any of the warning signs of an eating disorder, confronting this person can be difficult as you may fear offending him or her. It is a delicate subject, but your concerns are valid and voicing them could help save your loved ones life.
People with eating disorders are often afraid to ask for help. Some can struggle just as much as you may be to initiate a conversation about their problem, while others can have such low self-esteem that they simply dont feel like they deserve help.
Eating disorders tend to get worse without treatment, and the physical and emotional damage is detrimental. The sooner you reach out to a friend or family member, the better his or her chances of recovery.
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I Know This Is Difficult But I Am Proud Of You
Here at Center for Discovery you will often hear the phrase validate, validate, validate being spoken throughout our houses. We want to validate just how trying the experience of suffering from an eating disorder is while at the same time letting clients know that they are making positive strides in the right direction.
David Encourages People With Any Eating Disorder To Speak To Someone About It
When you actually sit down and you talk to someone and you lay it out and you say it, then your head actually makes sense of what youre saying. And just by admitting to someone, I make myself sick, or I have bulimia, or, I gorge on food and then I do this, just hearing it actually makes you realise in your head thats really not the best approach. And it really outlines you know, its happening. It is a condition. Its real and you need to overcome that and youre not going to without talking to somebody, whether theyre a friend, a family member or if it is a, a support group, if thats what works for you without talking about it youre never gonna overcome that. And you know you may stop for a while, but if you havent talked about it thoroughly enough then youll fall back into it. You really just need to talk to someone and receive that support and then thats gonna help you overcome it, or come through it at the end.
“Recovery is possible – for everyone”
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Ways To Help Without Directly Speaking To Them About It
Oftentimes, your family member or friend might not realize or accept that they have an eating disorder. The best chance for treating this problem is by speaking with a mental healthcare professional.â
Here are some ways you can guide your friend or family member toward seeking help without directly speaking to them about it.
- Continue to let them know they’re welcome. This person may be in a place where they’re self-isolating. It may be hard to encourage them to engage in the outside world. But keep trying. Even if they say no, being invited will let them know you still value them as a person.
- Shower them with love. Telling them how much you love them and appreciate them can build their self-esteem and help them through this challenging time in their life.
- Listen to them. This may be difficult, but simply giving them your time and listening to them without judgment can mean the world to them. It can be tough to hear them speak about themselves and what they eat but not giving advice or passing judgment is what’s important.
Offering support is essential, and you can do this indirectly by:
Do Say Youre Proud Of Them
This one is tricky because you dont want them to think youre ONLY proud of them if theyre recovering successfully. Focus on being proud for the fact that they want to recover OR that theyre being open about their struggles OR for the way theyre facing this challenge.
Let them know your proud of them in other areas, too. It doesnt just have to be about eating disorder recovery. Life still happens around that process. Maybe they got a promotion. Met a financial goal. Tried something new.
If you say youre proud, let it be sincere and not conditional on how well theyre recovering.
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What Diet Are You On
Our society praises weight loss and people constantly want to know about the newest and best way to lose weight. However, if a person with an eating disorder is losing weight and gets positive feedback from other people about weight loss, this can encourage disordered eating behaviors.
It is best not to comment on appearance at all. Focus on being happy to see the person or the person being in a good mood. Alternatively, ask about other non-appearance related qualities of the person.
Choosing The Right Time And Place
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What To Say Instead
This doesnt mean you cant say anything! Just say words of compassion rather than advice. Compassionate statements recognize that the person is doing their very best. They also demonstrate that you trust the person to make the right choices for their recovery. Here are some ideas:
- Im so sorry that youre hurting right now
- It sounds as if youre working really hard
- Im here to support you
- It sounds like this is really challenging
- I love you
I know its hard to learn these guidelines. Most people genuinely want to be helpful, they just dont know enough to avoid causing harm. Hopefully, this has given you some ideas about why these statements can be hurtful and what to say instead.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.
Shes the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids food and body issues.
Four Important Reminders When Talking To A Patient With An Eating Disorder
While there isnt a one-size-fits-all approach on how to talk to someone with an eating disorder, there are certain things that are helpful to keep in mind.
Whether you are new to working with eating disorders or if you have been in the field for longer than you can remember, it never hurts to expand your knowledge and understanding of these complicated and sneaky illnesses. Being able to recognize the many ways that an eating disorder can affect an individuals life is key to offering the best tools, techniques, and practices to make recovery possible.
Eating disorders are bound by rules. Rules on which foods are good and which are bad, rules about how you should feel after you eat, and rules that decide which bodies are beautiful and worthy of love and which bodies are not. Be mindful that the language you use doesnt inadvertently reinforce these rules, as it has the power to set someone back in their recovery. Noticing these rules is a difficult task because they are often parallel to the messages society tells us about beauty, how much we should weigh, how much we should eat, etc. Be intentional as you choose your words and consult with an eating disorder specialist when youre uncertain.
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Do Complement Them On Something Not Focused On Weight Or Food
Make sure whatever compliment you give is genuine. Dont make something up. Examples are:
You look happier. Period. This focuses on their emotions, how much more theyre smiling or joking around, not about how their body looks.
You seem more energized / Love seeing you so passionate about XYZ. Instead of something like You seem less tired, emphasize and reinforce positive things that, again, arent about their body or what theyre eating.
Maybe theyre pouring more of their newfound energy into a specific project or hobby. If so, offer a compliment around that subject.
Or, if you have a close relationship with this person and you can tell theyre making progress in recovery, its okay to say, Id love to hear about an area youre making progress in when youre ready to share. Notice, youre giving them the option to say no and also leaving the door open, while also acknowledging you believe they are capable of making progress.
Again, be genuine and offer positive reinforcement that isnt tied to body or eating.
Do Not Act Like Their Eating Disorder Is A Taboo Subject
Initially, THEY may not want to talk about it, but if and when they do, please dont avoid the subject. If its a lot for you to take in at that moment, maybe suggest a different time to talk. Just make sure they know you are willing to talk.
Will it be awkward? Probably.
Dont avoid hard things because theyre hard. Think about your friend or family member and how hard it must be for them to talk about it with you. As much as possible, make them feel comfortable talking with you even when its hard.
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Christmas Is Only One Day Hold On In There
Yes, and as patronising as this sounds. It is one day and you can do this. We can do this together. We can manage our eating disorders and get through it. It might be hard and feel like a struggle but if once we have done it we can be so proud of ourselves and then have an easier day on boxing day.
Christmas isnt easy and I am not going to pretend it is but it is possible to survive it and I know actually enjoy it. If words dont seem to be helping simple squeezing my hand under the table always does the job! So why not try that if you feel lost for words.
BIO: Hope Virgo author of Stand tall little Girl suffered with anorexia for over 4 years, before being admitted to a Mental Health Hospital in 2007. She lived in the hospital for a year, fighting one of the hardest battles of her life. Since being discharged, she has fought to stay well. She now wants to use her experiences of mental health illness to champion the rights of others, inspire them to get well, and help break the stigma of mental illness. You can see what she is up to here @HopeVirgo
Learning How To Understand Their Feelings
You might be finding it hard to understand the person’s eating problem. This can also make it hard to be accepting towards how they might feel. Or how your attitude or behaviour might make them feel.
Try thinking about the following:
- Be patient with them. Remember that their own acceptance of the problem can take time. It can take a long time for them to accept it and seek help. They might not see their eating as a problem. They could see it as a solution to cope with certain feelings. For example rage, loss, powerlessness, self-hatred, worthlessness, guilt, or feeling like they have no control. They may be scared about what recovery means for them and their body.
- Be gentle with them. You can’t force someone to change their behaviour. You might try hard to persuade, trick or force someone into eating more or less. This could make them feel even more anxious and fearful about food. It could also make them withdraw from you. They might try harder to convince you they’re eating more healthily, even if they’re not.
- Don’t focus or comment on their appearance. Remember that someone’s weight or appearance doesn’t tell you how they’re feeling inside. With some comments such as “you look well”, you think you’re being kind. But they can trigger very difficult feelings for someone who has an eating problem. The eating problem charity Beat has more information on how to talk to someone with eating problems.
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Do Not Make Them Feel Like A Failure
This goes for relapses as mentioned above, and also when you initially find out about their eating disorder.
Chances are, your friend or family member with an ED already feels like a failure. If your initial reaction is angry or accusatory, or suggests disappointment, inconvenience, shame, etc. that will likely make them regret telling you and also feel like even more of a failure.
If you do have those feelings, allow yourself to feel them and process them. But understand that your loved one may not be ready to feel and process them with you. As their recovery progresses, look for opportunities to talk about feelings and find closure as part of the healing process.
I know thats a big ask. Your feelings are valid, too. But, as best as you can, do not act on them in the crucial moments.
You’re Worth More Than Your Eating Disorder
Something that’s often forgotten and overlooked, is that the person suffering and the eating disorder are two separate things. Someone has an eating disorder, no one is an eating disorder. The terms “anorexic” and “bulimic” were created and have been used wrongly. Someone has anorexia, they’re not an anorexic. Hearing from someone that you’re worth more than the hell you’re going through gives that little sparkle of hope that can help someone through a hard time.
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It’s Okay To Take A Rest Day
Resting seems quite an obvious thing, doesn’t it? But for someone in recovery, they’re likely still in the mindset of having to do everything and more. And sometimes, they just need someone to tell them that it’s okay to sit down and relax, that nothing will happen to them/their body if they take a day off in bed. Recovering is extremely tiring, it takes the life out of you. And it is okay to take a day off from school/college/work to take care of your body and mind. It’s just that most of us forget that sometimes, and being told that it’s okay to take a rest can make the difference between feeling absolutely shattered or guilty, and feeling ready to take on another challenging day.