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How to Talk to Someone with an Eating Disorder

This blog post comes from Bonnie Brennan, senior Clinical Director at Eating Recovery Center in Denver. She discusses how it may be difficult to know what to say to a friend or loved on that has an eating disorder and the importance of accepting that healing is an ever-changing process.

When someone you love is living with an eating disorder, you may often feel as though you are walking on eggshells. You may frequently wonder if you are saying the “right” thing. This can be agonizing at times, as you try to figure out the best things to say to your friend or loved one.

#1: Remember that healing is an ever-changing process

Why are many well-meaning compliments like, “You’re doing so well” and “I’m so glad you’re healthy” met with emotional backlash? When this happens, you may feel powerless, stupid, shameful, guilty, sad, worried and angry all at the same time. And yet you desperately hope that you can find a way in. I have to say, if this is your hope: GOOD FOR YOU!

When talking with someone with an eating disorder, you may sometimes feel like you’ve said the right thing. But the next time you use those words, all hell breaks loose. Some days, you spend hours in your head reciting the hopefully helpful things you’d like to say to your loved one, only to have them shrug you off and tell you that they don’t want your help.

When these things happen, it can hurt.

The truth is that people with eating disorders may approach conversations from more than one perspective at any given time. This is because:

There are, of course, many more perspectives than this. When you are helping someone with an eating disorder, know that this is all a normal part of the recovery process. And as you walk along the journey with your loved one, remember that you, too, really only have your perspective to see things from.

#2: Remind yourself why you want to talk

At times, it can be very helpful to remind yourself: Why do you want to talk to them in the first place? My guess is that there are many reasons you talk to your loved one:

  • Because you care
  • Because you’re scared
  • Because you love them
  • Because you believe in them
  • Because of many other unique and wonderful reasons that are important to you

This is why you talk to them.

When someone you love has an eating disorder, it is okay to be honest with them and to tell them exactly how you feel. It is okay to share with them what you are experiencing, and how your interaction with them affects you. It’s also important to be willing to witness whatever emotions they will be experiencing: mad, reactive and more. It may be challenging but if you are getting emotion from your loved one that is a good thing! It means that they feel safe enough with you to show you how they feel, and that there is a part of them that cares enough to show you that they are still hurting.

#3: Be kind to yourself

Caregiver stress is very real. It can be difficult to find the right balance when helping a loved one with any illness, including an eating disorder.

Don’t let this stress get to you. As a caregiver, you must take care of yourself, too. The common narrative of putting the oxygen mask on yourself before you help someone else always stands true. More often than you’d think, often the best approach in communication is just to listen, to be there for them, and to tell them that you love them. Support them and have faith.

Bonnie Brennan, MA, LPC, CEDS is Senior Clinical Director at Eating Recovery Center in Denver.