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Supporting Someone with an Eating Disorder

Over the years, many people have come to me trying to figure out the best way to help their child, partner or friend when they are struggling with an eating disorder.

It can be an absolute minefield trying to get everything right and offer support in the best way you can. One helpful thing to remember is, that no matter how much you want to, you can't recover for them.

There are a few thing that I have put together that may be of help to you if you are supporting someone you care about with an eating disorder.

  • They are not their behaviour...this can be a really challenging one when somebody is standing there hurling all kinds of insults at you. It can be really difficult to look beneath the words to hear what is really being expressed. Acknowledge the words but ask them about the emotion they are feeling. Often somebody with an eating disorder has so much emotion built up inside them that it just needs one opportunity to find a window to escape and sometimes that window of opportunity might be you simply having spoken too loud or sighed heavily. The outburst never matches the situation and that's because the outburst isn't really about the current situation it's about every situation until this point, every situation that the person hasn't been able to express emotion for in a healthy way.

  • An increase in behaviour doesn't mean that the person is not trying. In fact, it can often be the opposite. Sometimes a person is trying so hard and putting so much pressure on themselves that they cannot cope and they slip into more behaviour as a way to ease the suffering. Try to look underneath the behaviour, look at the progress outside of the behaviour, acknowledge any little changes they are making, changes in thinking or doing something that couldn't be done before and yes, of course if they have a meal or snack they they couldn't eat before that should be acknowledged, it' s just not about putting all of the value on this as a measure of how well they are doing in recovery.

  • Focus on the positive ,small, subtle, almost hidden changes and be careful not to criticise. People with ED tend to be deeply critical of themselves and will latch onto anything that you say that is in anyway critical even if it's not intended that way. If it transpires that you seemed to have said something that has deeply impacted them, check for clarity and ask them what they heard and explain what you actually meant. Miscommunication is very common, like sending a text message during an argument can be misconstrued to mean something that it actually doesn't. It helps to remember that the person that is experiencing the eating disorder experiences and sees the world through a distorted lens so they are only waiting on an opportunity to further the evidence they have in their hate campaign against themselves. Focusing on the small changes helps to chip away at the hate they have against themselves. In their mind, with distorted thinking, it can be hard to see any positives, in this case it can be helpful for you to feedback the changes you see.

  • Best not to mention anything about appearance! Even though eating disorders are not about appearance, there is a deep obsession from the person about how they look. No matter what you say, how you say it or what your intention is behind it, you most likely will never get this right, you will never be able to mention the appearance without it hitting on some kind of nerve, and one that most likely won't be tolerated very well by your loved one. Something as simple as "you look great" can be translated to "I've put on weight" remember the piece about the distorted lens and how they view themselves, most people struggling with ED don't like themselves and will look for every piece of evidence they can to support their dislike...putting on weight or the body changing in any way from the plan they had in mind is usually terrifying for them. Even being noticed at all can be terrifying, even if it is in a positive light. Telling someone they look awful and they look like they are going to end up in hospital, that's ok right? That's just a reality check, right? That can be very dangerous territory also! I remember my G.P. telling me that I looked scrawny and I remember walking out of that surgery feeling on top of the world because I felt like I was doing something properly... that my vendetta against myself and my body was working...this actually had the opposite to the desired effect and motivated me more to keep going with raging war against my body.

  • Take care of yourself! Anybody that has worked with me knows, that I stress this a million times and I will stress it again! You are absolutely no good to anybody if you burn yourself out. Know your limits, there is only so much that you can support someone before you have to step back a little and examine your own needs. It can be a juggling act trying to discover where your limits are. It is really important that you have support, that you continue to do the things that are good for you and allow yourself the space you need. There is a beautiful quote "You can't pour from an empty cup, take care of yourself first". This is certainly not easy but definitely one to be held in the front of your mind.

These are just some of the points that come up again and again. You might be familiar with them or they might be new to you. Either way I hope maybe they can help you to support others and to support yourself. Nobody expects you to be the expert. Learning helps but putting pressure on yourself to know everything won't!

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