As parents, caregivers or friends of someone with an eating disorder, it can be difficult to navigate what is helpful or unhelpful to say. Many times, when caregivers think they are saying something helpful, sufferers may interpret what is being said in an extremely negative way, due to their disorder. An eating disorder has the tendency to twist what other people say or do into something that seems out of proportion and illogical to those who do not have an eating disorder. Unfortunately, this happens all too often.
In 8 Keys to Recovery From an Eating Disorder, Carolyn Costin and Gwen Schubert Grabb teach how to challenge one’s distorted thoughts. This may be a useful tool for you to use. There are things that are helpful or harmful to say that many people may not be aware of.
Here are 5 tips on what to do and not do in support of eating disorders:
1. Never mention anything about their weight. Stating, “You look like you’ve lost weight” fuels the eating disorder. Sadly, this has become a compliment in society and, eating disordered individuals never feel as though any amount of weight loss is enough. Hearing that they look like they’ve lost weight, only serves as positive reinforcement of the eating disordered behavior.
2. On the opposite hand, telling someone that they look like they’ve gained weight is never a helpful thing to say. Even if you think that you are complimenting a sufferer by telling them they look healthier, it will be interpreted as, “I look fat.” The feeling of fatness is one a sufferer knows all too well, and saying they look healthy may be a trigger.
3. Another unhelpful thing to say to someone with an eating disorder is, “Why can’t you just stop?” If it were possible for a person to just stop, they would, but it is simply not that easy. Eating disorders are so complex and multifaceted that saying this only makes someone with an eating disorder feel worse about themselves than they already do, considering this self-defeating illness.
4. While these are only a few tips on what not to say, there are also helpful things that can be said to someone with this disease. Though it is unhelpful to say someone looks healthy, it is okay to say, “You seem more like yourself lately." This has less of a chance of being misinterpreted as something hurtful or negative.
5. Another helpful statement is, “Your feelings are valid.” When asking for support, a
person with an eating disorder may sometimes feel invalidated, especially if they are told to “just get over it." Acknowledging their feelings, as obscure as they may sound, helps to foster trust, as well as helping them to believe their feelings matter.
It is difficult to know what to say to someone with an eating disorder, but it is my hope that these tips have helped you to communicate more effectively with your loved one with an eating disorder. For more tips you can check out my book, Just Tell Her To Stop: Family Stories of Eating Disorders.
Becky Henry, Founder
Hope Network, LLC