So you've just found out that your friend or family member is struggling with an eating disorder. You want to be supportive, but you're not sure what to say, and before you know it, your friend is defensive and angry or (perhaps worse) completely shut down. What went wrong?
The fact is, eating disorders are complex mental illnesses. Without a basic understanding of how an eating-disordered mind works, you can easily stumble into trouble. As someone with a long history of personal struggle, I've used my insight to compile a list of the most common mistakes people make in this area.
The Top 10 Worst Things to Say to Someone With an Eating Disorder
- Why do you do that to yourself? There are many causes that feed into eating disorders, including cultural, emotional, and physical factors. Chances are, your friend or loved one isn't happy about the thoughts and behaviors holding him or her hostage. This kind of question feels like an accusation, and immediately puts people on the defensive.
- You don't look like you have an eating disorder! Eating disorders affect people of all shapes and sizes. In fact, 70 percent of women with eating disorders are at or above a healthy weight, but there is a lot of internal pressure to fit the stereotypical picture of a starving anorexic. It's easy for the eating-disordered mind to take a comment like this as a criticism, even if you don't mean it that way.
- Just eat healthy and be active. Food and weight are not the real problem. Telling someone with an eating disorder that he or she should just diet and exercise is like telling a drug addict to only shoot a little heroin. It minimizes the problem, and may very well be impossible advice to take!
- It's what's on the inside that counts. Even to people without eating disorders, this often sounds like, "You're ugly. Get over it." You might think it's reassuring, but trust me. It's better to move away from talking about appearance altogether, because it's not the core issue.
- You look great right now! You don't know what your friend's natural weight would be if he or she were not practicing eating disorder behaviors. What if that natural weight is much higher than his or her current weight? You've just reinforced the idea that the eating disorder is a necessary evil for looking good.
- What was the last thing you ate? Once again, focussing on the food is just a smoke screen, a distraction from talking about the real problems causing the disorder. You should also be careful in assuming what behaviors your friend practices. Remember, not everyone with an eating disorder stops eating. There are many different kinds of eating disorders, and within each diagnosis, many different symptoms a person might have.
- I know someone else with an eating disorder, and s/he said... While there might be time down the road to share about the other eating disordered people in your life, when you first find out that your friend is struggling, you should focus on his or her experience alone. No two people are the same, so avoid making comparisons, and just listen.
- Just eat whatever you want. If only it were that simple. If you have no problems eating what you like without judging yourself, congratulations! But this conversation isn't about you, and clearly, it's more difficult for your friend. Instead of giving advice about a subject you don't know much about, try to learn more about your friend's struggles.
- So who are you taking to prom? Don't change the subject. Moving too quickly to another topic will make your loved one feel like you aren't interested, like you don't care. I know it's a hard thing to talk about, but try to honor the bravery it took to share, and stick with the conversation.
- ... ... ... Silence may be golden, but there's a time and a place for it.
The bottom line: If you can't think of anything to say, just listen. Ask open-ended questions about the important things: How do you feel about the eating disorder? Does anybody else know about it? What are your biggest fears about getting help? What can I do to support you? You might be surprised by the responses you get.