Eating disorders – one of the many dragons billions of women and men around the world must slay during their lifetimes. Studies from the National Eating Disorders Association have found that in the United States alone, roughly 20 million women and 10 million men have battled with the clinical illness, along with the millions more who go unreported. More likely than not, there is someone in your life who is currently struggling with a eating disorder in some form. Maybe you’ve tried to reach out before and failed. Perhaps you’re simply at a loss for what to do next. It can be challenging to give a loved one the comfort he or she needs, but your proper support can help ensure their safety and get them on the road to recovery.
To help get you started, here are five small ways you can better help someone with an eating disorder. Throughout this list, remember every person is unique in what he or she needs in order to be comforted. The causes behind these disorders are still ambiguous, suspected to be varying combinations of psychological, hormonal, genetic, social and environmental factors. Read, apply and tailor accordingly.
1. Don’t take it personally
Eating disorders include episodes of extreme guilt, shame and frustration. Not every day will be easy and close friends, family members and partners are usually the first ones to be snapped at when a loved one is feeling irritated or overwhelmed. Develop a thick enough skin so that you are still capable of support at the end of the day. Your love is greatly appreciated. Whether you are able to provide direct comfort daily or better suited supporting from afar, never waver. You’re doing great, I promise.
2. Don’t be a therapist or doctor
When someone you love is struggling, all you want to do is take the pain away. With good intentions, we can’t help but give our own two cents of advice and instruction. But our loved ones don’t need another doctor, therapist or coach. Though we may think we understand the situation, we often only see the tip of the iceberg. As stated above, eating disorders are spurred on by a multitude of complex factors that the average person can’t possibly comprehend (otherwise, we wouldn’t be struggling with these issues in the first place!). Assume the position of a caring friend: listen, comfort and direct them to the real experts.
3. Treat the disorder with serious respect
Eating disorders are mental illnesses. Such cases should be treated with the same respect and sincerity as anxiety, depression or schizophrenia. Turning the disorder into a laughing matter or “no big deal” is the last thing your loved one wants to hear in a time of crisis. People want their feelings to be recognized and confirmed by others. When the bad days roll around, comments such as, “You were fine yesterday, what gives?” or “Just eat already, you look fine” will get the two of you nowhere. Don’t question, dismiss or judge. Though you may not understand every step or second of the journey, sometimes a crying shoulder is all you can and should be.
4. Be mindful of your words
In our first world culture, food and fitness are all the rage. We love to build ourselves up, talking about our latest diet fads, weight loss journeys and healthy food Instagrams. Entire friend groups and identities are built over these topics. However, none of these exchanges ensure that we actually feel good about our bodies or confident in our nutrition. Whether it’s on purpose or not, inserting topics of body image or diet trends into every conversation is not the golden key to your loved one’s recovery, despite what you may perceive from the media. In fact, sometimes, it only triggers patients to continue their disordered eating. There is nothing wrong with being excited over pursuing health, but if you do decide to bring the subject up, try channeling it into a casual, open invitation for the two of you to start a new food plan or workout class together. Opt for the inclusive route over isolating statements. Keep the humble bragging and/or mindless gushing to yourself.
6. Set boundaries on how much support you can give
Be clear about the extent your abilities. How can you best be reached? When are the best times for your loved one to call or come over? What do you feel comfortable talking about with him or her? Be honest and concise, so that when the time comes, your loved one knows exactly what to do. Don’t feel as though you must give yourself away in order to be of any help. You are allowed to have your own space and alone time. After all, if you aren’t able to take care of yourself, how can you successfully love and support others?
If you or a loved one are struggling with an eating disorder and need further guidance, The National Eating Disorders Association has a toll free, confidential hotline at 1-800-931-2237. The organization can also be reached at NationalEatingDisorders.org.