If you are a friend or loved one of someone recovering from an eating disorder, your response is vital in that person’s healing journey. Most importantly, love must be at the core of your approach. Loving the individual means doing what is best for her, not what will make you feel better. She needs to be allowed to express her anger and her pain, even if it is painful for you.
Please note that while we are using “she” for grammatical simplicity in this article, females are not the only people affected by eating disorders.
While dealing with an eating-disordered or disordered-eating friend or loved one, it is important not to neglect the other relationships in your life. If the person is someone in your family, focusing solely on her may strain your relationship with your spouse or others in the family, especially other children. Dwelling exclusively on her and her behaviors can damage the rest of the family. It is a “family” problem, but it need not destroy the family.
Also, be aware that your actions and attitudes are very important to the one with these issues. If she is a member of your family, what you think about her is essential to her. If she is a friend, she needs your love and acceptance. It is especially important not to compare her with other people, especially siblings. Her self-esteem is already in question; it doesn’t need to be battered further by unfair comparisons.
Constant questions of “How are you doing?” or “How are you feeling” or “How is it going?” can aggravate her feeling of inadequacy. She may have numbed her feelings for so long that she is unable to articulate exactly what she is feeling. Allow her to tell you what she wants, when she wants. Being open and honest are new skills that she is mastering. Let her work into them as she continues on her journey.
Along with loving the individual comes trusting the individual. She must be allowed to find her own values, her own ideals and standards, and her own answers, rather than being required to accept yours. You cannot be her thought-police or food-police.
Be willing to go into therapy with her if she feels you are responsible for her pain. Working together to come to a knowledge and acceptance of the truth can establish a pattern of relationship that will last long after the therapy is over.
Whether a family member or friend, someone with an eating disorder or dysfunctional relationship with food desperately needs people around her who love and accept her. She needs the safety of that love and acceptance to venture out into the reality of her painful past. Being there for her, accepting her, and listening to her can give her the support that she needs.
If you are supporting the recovery process of someone you love and care about, but need more support yourself, contact the eating disorder specialists at The Center • A Place of HOPE at 1-888-771-5166 / 425-771-5166. They can help connect you with the resources you need to be a source of love and support for the recovering person in your life.
Excerpts of this blog were taken from Dr. Gregory Jantz’s book Hope Help & Healing for Eating Disorders: A Whole-Person Approach to Treatment of Anorexia, Bulimia, and Disordered Eating.