“You look so healthy and beautiful,” he exclaims as his girlfriend walks down the stairs sporting a new dress. A lump starts building in the back of her throat. The tears begin streaming down her face. He feels terrible. He has no idea what could have triggered her tears.
He doesn’t know that she feels like she is losing control. He can’t hear the voice in her head, which tells her that she has gained weight and that she looks disgusting. It tells her that no one could ever love her. The voice commands her to cut back on dinner tonight.
It can be incredibly difficult to watch someone you love struggle with an eating disorder. If you have a loved one who is in recovery, the following are some ways that you can support them on their healing journey.
1. Educate yourself.
It is important to recognize that your loved one is not choosing to feel and behave this way. Rather, eating disorders are genetically based mental illnesses that are often triggered by environmental stressors. Additionally, they are a maladaptive coping strategy for numbing uncomfortable feelings, maintaining a false sense of control, and for attempting to cope with past trauma.
Further, recovery from an eating disorder is not a “quick fix.” Just as you would not expect someone with alcoholism to heal overnight, it is critical to acknowledge that recovery from an eating disorder can take time.
If you want to effectively support someone in recovery, it can be helpful to get some education surrounding eating disorder symptoms, treatment, and causes. There are a variety of websites, which provide tips, and toolkits for loved ones. Just the simple fact that you are trying to learn more about eating disorders will demonstrate to your loved one that you are trying to effectively support them.
2. Ask them what you can do to help.
Rather then making an assumption as to what would be helpful, I would suggest asking the person what you can do to support them. Some people might request that you simply sit with them while they eat a meal, whereas others may prefer that you spend time doing other activities with them.
Additionally, if the person ever reaches out to share a “recovery win” (an example would be eating a fear food) make sure that you praise them for their efforts. Imagine facing something that you are terrified of and the strength that this would take. While it might be hard for you to understand, it is critical that you demonstrate compassion and empathy.
Know that for someone who is struggling, sometimes simply having someone to sit with them and listen to how they are feeling, can make a huge difference.
3. Be mindful of how you speak about food and your body.
It might be tempting to talk about how terrible you feel about your own body around your loved one. After all, you may think that they will be able to commiserate with you over your mutual dislike of your bodies. However, engaging in body shaming around your loved one will likely only serve to reinforce their own negative feelings about their body.
It is also critical that you pay attention to the way in which you are talking about other peoples bodies. Try to avoid making negative comments about anyone else’s body. Even though you might not think this will impact your loved one, it promotes body shaming and could cause them to feel worse than they already do (not to mention it’s just plain rude).
Additionally, referring to foods as “good” or “bad” around your loved one can hinder them in the recovery process. Part of recovering from an eating disorder is learning to let go of “black and white” thinking surrounding food. So talking about how “guilty” you feel for eating a certain food is also incredibly unhelpful. Food isn’t “good” or “bad,” rather it is neutral. Further, all foods in moderation can fit into a healthy diet. If you are personally struggling with issues in relation to food or your body, it is important to seek help from a professional.
Be Compassionate with Yourself
It’s important that you are kind to yourself, while you are trying to support your loved one in recovery. You are doing the best you can and you might not always have the “perfect” thing to say. However, know that for someone who is struggling, having the support of a loved one is invaluable.
Dr. Lauren Muhlheim, Psy.D., CEDS, psychologist and director of Eating Disorder Therapy LA, explains,
“Research has demonstrated the importance of family involvement in treatment. I have found that most family members/significant others are capable of being helpful supports to people in recovery from an eating disorder, but often they do not know how to be helpful and may need support as well. I recommend having them attend at least one session to specifically learn how they can support their loved one.”
Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LCSW-C: is an eating disorder therapist in Rockville, Maryland. Jennifer has a private practice specializing in working with adolescents and adults struggling with eating disorders (including binge eating disorder, anorexia, bulimia, orthorexia, and OSFED), body image issues, anxiety, and survivors of trauma. Jennifer provides eating disorder therapy in Rockville, MD. Jennifer offers eating disorder recovery coaching via phone/Skype. Connect with Jennifer through her website at www.jenniferrollin.com