Approaching a loved one about disordered eating
Watching someone you love struggle can be incredibly difficult. Not knowing what to say or how to broach the subject, worrying that you’ll say something wrong and make it worse – we have all been there. Trying to talk to someone battling an eating disorder can be particularly tricky – along with the behaviors that you may notice, there are also tumultuous emotions happening within them, along with personality changes, which can make them seem like a completely different person. All of these together make it quite hard to sit down with your loved one and express your concern; however sometimes this is what they need to recognize that they really do need help. Here are some tips on what is helpful and not helpful when approaching someone you love who is struggling with disordered eating.
Voicing your concerns can be emotional, and can make both you and the other person feel vulnerable. Having the conversation in a private, non-confrontational, and loving way can help your loved one feel supported, rather than attacked.
Focus on your concern for their health and well-being, rather than what they are doing with food and their weight. Share examples of specific times where you felt concerned for them, and let them know that you are there for support.
Your loved one may become angry or defensive – we know that this often comes from a place of fear. They may never have had the eating disorder pointed out before, and if it is all they know, having someone voice concern can feel threatening. Let them know that you understand this, but don't give up on expressing your worry, and help them understand that you will be there for them whether they seek help or not.
Do not comment on their appearance, or try to reassure them that they are not fat. Individuals struggling with an eating disorder are already highly aware of their body, and any appearance-related comments (however well-meaning) often serve to reinforce the extreme focus on body and weight. Instead, focus on how it has impacted their health, changes in personality, energy levels, and relationships.
Use "I" statements that bring the focus to your relationship with the person, and how seeing them struggle affects you. Statements that start with “you” can often feel accusatory, and may create feelings of shame or guilt. Your loved one likely already experiences these emotions on a daily basis – they need to hear that you are not blaming them for their actions or attitudes.
Avoid giving simple solutions. Telling someone who is struggling with an eating disorder to "just eat" invalidates their experience and minimizes the emotional and cognitive side of the eating disorder. Recognize that disordered eating is much more complex than what you see on the outside.
Above all, remember that the eating disorder is not a choice, and individuals who are struggling have difficulty reaching out for help due to an immense amount of shame, guilt, and fear. Having supportive people can help give them the courage to start talking about the eating disorder, and seek treatment.
If you have a loved one who is struggling with disordered eating, and would like some more information about how to approach them, please contact us at Westwind. We're here to help.