So you know someone in recovery from an eating disorder. Or you’re in recovery yourself, and are looking to help your support system understand what you need. If the latter is the case, congratulations on the complicated but ultimately empowering decision to choose recovery. I might or might not know you (it’s tough to tell through the computer screen), but I’m proud as hell of you.
Recovery can be an incredibly lonely process. Being inherently isolating disorders from the get-go, EDs (standard shorthand for “eating disorder”) might seem like an impossible subject to talk about for friends, family, or acquaintances wanting to help. It makes sense that issues and roadblocks will pop up when well-meaning supporters, online or in real life, want to reach out.
Unfortunately, conversations during and about the recovery process can be difficult. The person may be feeling alone, overwhelmed, confused, angry, remorseful, even afraid… Bust out the ol’ feelings chart, close your eyes, and point: you’re likely to hit on an emotion recovery has called up. What’s the best way to navigate this often-charged, always-important process?
To help out those beginning or re-defining these conversations, here are three things you should probably not say to someone reaching out for support in eating disorder recovery, and three things you could say instead. (Of course, support will be different for each person. Just as no two people are alike, no two EDs are identical either.)
1. Don’t Say:
“You’d look so much better if you gained a little weight” or other appearance-related comments
There’s a misconception running rampant that eating disorders are “vanity illnesses.” EDs are for people who look at the Hollywood ideal of the slim, perky A-list actress and take their diet and exercise plans to an unhealthy extreme to achieve it. In short, they’re diseases for people too obsessed with the way they look to think rationally.
I shouldn’t need to explain why this is offensive.
I can’t repeat this sentence enough (if I didn’t have a crippling fear of needles I might consider getting it tattooed somewhere): Eating disorders are mental illnesses with physical side effects. They are not lifestyle choices or beauty regimens. Treating them like a terrible haircut that should be grown out will not help to challenge this myth.
“You’re a beautiful person who does beautiful things, and I want you to see yourself that way.”
Here’s the thing: when you say “you don’t look fat,” or “I know you’ve gained weight, but I still think you’re beautiful,” this sets up a dichotomy with beauty on one side and fat on the other. There’s nothing that says beauty can’t come at any weight, except, you know, the manipulative diet industry and the fat-phobic mass media. I don’t know about you, but that’s not the place I look for inspiring and supportive messages.
Individualized, personality-based compliments go much farther than those about physical appearance, particularly when working with someone struggling with self-image. Traditional standards of beauty are often (unfortunately) discussed in terms of weight and size, so focusing on them can feel insecure and patronizing through an ED’s distorted lens. Self-worth exists outside of appearance, and that’s where you should be focusing.
Recovery can do a number on self-esteem, but keeping your support and reassurance focused on things the disorder is not directly targeting is worth more than a hundred thousand “no, I don’t think your [body part] looks [adjective].”
2. Don’t Say:
“I know this is hard, I’ve struggled with my weight for years.”
Fact: there is a difference between dieting and eating disorders. If you’re unclear on the difference between diets and anorexia, I recommend this article from Everyday Feminism, or this extensive list from Something Fishy. As for the difference between Binge Eating Disorder (BED) and occasional overeating, check this article, or this explanation. A quick Google search will do wonders for anyone wanting more.
Unless you’ve had an eating disorder, your personal experiences with Weight Watchers or a critical family member are not the same thing. And, as mentioned, every eating disorder is different. While the attempt at sympathizing is appreciated, what you are doing with comments like this is derailing the conversation with an “I-statement.” In basic terms, you’re making the conversation about you.
You’re awesome. Your willingness to provide support to someone in recovery is proof of this. But this is not the time.
“I know this is hard for you. Is there anything I can do to help?”
It’s important to recognize the difficulties of recovery, which was the goal of relating their experiences back to your own life. Validating your loved one’s struggles and experiences adds external context and makes them feel heard and appreciated, not dismissed. From there, allow them to set the conversation according to their needs. If there’s something you can do to help, they’ll let you know. If not – and accept that there may not be! – just be there as quiet support. Listen, and reiterate that you are there to support them in whatever way they will find most helpful.
Don’t press. Don’t force. And try not to re-direct focus on yourself.
3. Don’t Say:
“What you need to do to make this work is X”, unless asked
For anyone providing support, this can be a tough one. The motivation for being a support-giver is to help those we love overcome something that is making them miserable, afraid, and often hard to be around. Stepping back and admitting, “I have no idea what to do” can feel disempowering and scary.
But here’s the thing: unless you’re asked for your opinion on recovery strategies or coping mechanisms, you’re not obligated to provide them.
We know you mean well. By being willing to provide support, you’re proving that. No one expects you to have all the answers. Don’t feel pressured to fix the world. You’re human, with all the knowledge gaps that includes. If you were a superhero, don’t you think someone would have caught on by now and asked you to save Gotham City?
Unless, you know, you’re really good at this whole “secret identity” thing. In which case, props to you.
It’s hard to know that someone you love is suffering. But in the end, recovery is their journey, not yours. Sometimes just listening is the best thing you can do.
“What would you like from me right now?”
Sometimes, particularly when making a big decision in recovery, having someone to bounce ideas off and get guidance from is exactly what’s needed. At other times, what’s more useful is someone to listen while they shout and scream and otherwise vent. Let the person in recovery set the agenda. There’s nothing worse than turning to someone for support only to feel like a kid in the principal’s office, subject to a tirade of orders and guilt-inducing suggestions.
If the NSA listens in on my phone conversations, they’ve heard their fair share of calls that begin with “I don’t need you to give me any answers, because realistically I know what those answers are. I just need to complain for twenty minutes. Is that okay?” For the person on the other end of the line, this can be a strange and confusing experience at first. But sometimes a twenty-minute complaining session with sympathy instead of solutions really can help.
If you’ve noticed a common thread through this list, it’s not an accident: “What would you like from me right now?” is the most valuable question you can ask someone in recovery (or any person who is suffering). Everyone’s experience is different, and no checklist will ever adequately address everyone’s needs. Particularly not when the range of kinds of eating disorders and the people who get them is so broad.
But remember, you’re speaking to someone you care about. They know their needs and their wants. Give them an opportunity to tell you. Let them know you’re there when they want you to be, and give them space when it’s requested. Just knowing you’ll be there through the process will make a world of difference.
What would you add to this list, from your experience or a loved one’s? Share your suggestions in the comments.