If someone you know or love is struggling or recovering from an eating disorder, it can be difficult to know what to say to them. You might feel like you are walking on pins and needles when talking with them, wondering if something you say might trigger them to relapse. Also, if you have never struggled with an eating disorder yourself, the feelings, emotions, and experiences related to an eating disorder may be foreign to you, and you might unknowingly strike a nerve with the person you are trying to love and support.
Supporting family and friends through recovery of any kind is challenging, but can also be unexpectedly rewarding. Learning to successfully navigate these fragile relationships and conversations can make a profound impact on your loved one’s recovery. Below are some suggestions on both topics to avoid, and ways to support someone with an eating disorder.
What NOT to Say to Someone Recovering From an Eating Disorder
- “You are looking healthy and beautiful.” Stay away from all conversations related to weight and physical appearance, even if your comment is positive. While your intention with this statement may be to offer support and recognition of a person’s positive progress, “healthy” might be interpreted as “fat” by the person recovering from an eating disorder, which may set them back from any progress that have made.
- “If you would just start (or stop) eating, everything would be fine!” While the solution may seem simple to you, it’s important to understand that eating disorders are complicated manifestations of even more complex problems. If someone has developed a disordered relationship with food, they are most likely dealing with other, deeper problems as well. Providing simple solutions to complicated problems that you likely don’t understand is therefore not helpful.
- “You are making me worried.” Avoid conversations or words that place blame, shame, or guilt on the person with an eating disorder. It is normal to have your own set of feelings associated with someone else’s struggles, especially if it is someone that you deeply love. However, adding additional feelings of blame and guilt to the situation may simple exacerbate feelings with which your loved one is already struggling. If you need to express your feelings or concerns, try using “I” statements such as, “I am worried about you.” These simple shifts in grammar can make a huge difference on how the conversation is received.
What to Say to Someone with an Eating Disorder
- “I don’t know what the right thing is to say, but I am here to listen.” Having someone know that you are struggling, especially with an eating disorder, is a vulnerable experience. It causes people to want to hide, and avoid even the people they love. By reciprocating vulnerability, even by admitting that you don’t know what to say, you allow your loved one to feel at ease. You allow each other to have an authentic and vulnerable conversation. Also, being available to listen can be a great way to provide support during the recovery process.
- “You are so strong, and I believe in you.” As with all relationships, affirm the qualities that you love, respect, and honor. We’ve all been in positions where we struggle with self-confidence and self-worth, and need an external boost of esteem. Choose to see and love the other person for their good qualities, and not dwell on their eating disorder. If you are authentic, this will help the person struggling with an eating disorder to see these good qualities within themselves as well.
- “I’ll love you no matter what.” Unconditional love is perhaps the greatest gift we can give another human being. Reminding someone that you love them—that you’ll always love them—is a beautiful thing to say, especially when they are in the middle of fighting an eating disorder.
- “I’ll help you find help.” If you observe a loved one struggling with an eating disorder or relapsing from their recovery, sometimes it’s important to step in and help them find help. Our team of eating disorder professionals at The Center • A Place of HOPE focuses on whole-person recovery, and is standing by to assist you. Fill out this form or call 1-888-747-5592 to get more information or to speak confidentially with an eating disorder specialist today.
The Center – A Place of Hope is an eating disorder treatment specialist.