4 Tips for Supporting a Loved One Through their Eating Disorder Recovery
By: Gabby Morreale M.A., LPC, C-DBT
Eating disorder recovery is challenging, brave, exhausting, and lifesaving. As someone who is personally recovered, I will never be able to thank my support system enough. So, what do we do when a loved one or a friend is struggling with an eating disorder? This is a question I get asked often, and also one that our family therapist, Becc Leatherman, helps people navigate all the time. Eating disorder recovery can be taxing on families and relationships in general, as recovery can be exhausting and overwhelming to try to love someone through it. We get that! To help with this, below are some of our top tips that we give to parents, as well as loved ones and friends, who may be struggling to support someone in their life with an eating disorder.
Tip 1: Education and awareness are key in helping someone recover from an eating disorder.
Therefore, it’s important to know and be able to recognize the signs. Before we jump into some of the many signs, I want to remind everyone that eating disorders do not have a size! I repeat, eating disorders do not have a size! Yes, weight loss, weight gain, and especially rapid weight changes can be a sign, however, it is not the only sign to look out for, nor is it the most important one! I just wanted to get that out of the way.
Some additional warning signs include, but are not limited to:
Excessive exercise, or obsessions around exercise
Increases in perfectionism
Rules or compulsions around food and mealtimes
Withdrawal from activities and those they love
Decreased body satisfaction/increased body checking, and poor body image
Cold hands, swollen cheeks, extra fine hair developing on their body
Emotional dysregulation, ex: increased anxiety or depressed mood
For more information on signs and symptoms check out this piece that I was featured in by Main Line Parent!!
Tip 2: Share your concern with kindness and with a non-judgmental stance.
It can be terrifying when our loved ones are suffering. We want to fix things, but it’s important to remember that your loved one is not a project, they are a person who just needs your support and compassion. Eating disorders are complex, and I am sure they can be frustrating, but please remember to proceed with kindness. Although watching your loved one struggle can be stressful, remember, coming from a place of judgment and anger will not help your loved one who is suffering. Also, NO ONE, I repeat, NO ONE, chooses to have, or engage in their eating disorder. People who are struggling are not manipulative or attention-seeking. They are human and deserve safe, supportive people around them to heal.
When you lead with judgment, it will only make matters worse. Eating disorders are often fueled by guilt and shame cycles, which means that your loved one probably already feels bad enough, and you should not add to their struggle. It is 10000% ok to have intense feelings around this, and to even be triggered yourself, but please do not take that out on your loved one.
In DBT, there is a skill called a “non-judgmental stance” which allows us to communicate our feelings while still remaining neutral in our language and attitude. Again, your feelings matter, and the way you communicate them to your loved one can make all the difference! There is a nice formula we like to teach clients when using this skill, and it starts by turning the judgment into a more general description of how you are feeling, or what may be occurring. Try your best to avoid words like good, bad, right, wrong, etc. Try making a statement using the following: When X happens (describe the situation,) I feel X (use a feeling word.) Remember feelings are not facts, and they can go a long way in developing vulnerable and important conversations. After using a non-judgmental stance, do your best to follow it up with curiosity and compassion.
For example: “When I see you struggling at mealtimes, I feel helpless. Is there anything I can do to support you?” Or “When I see you avoiding social situations, I feel bummed and worried. Would you like to do something you enjoy together soon?” Statements like these can allow your loved one to know you are there for them, to help them feel less alone, and to know you are on their side. When someone is struggling with an eating disorder it can feel incredibly isolating and their world often feels unsafe. Statements like these can cultivate warmth and hopefully allow you and your loved one to build trust and create a safe space together.
Tip 3: Check your own internalized weight bias/stigma, food rules, and avoid appearance-based comments.
One key thing you can do when helping a loved one through an eating disorder is checking in your attitude towards food, weight, and your own body. We all have biases, it’s ok, but what is important is that we check them, and do the work to make sure they don’t impact our loved ones.
First you may ask what is a “weight bias,” and how do I check this? Great question, a weigh bias, according to the World Health Organization, can be defined as “A negative attitudes towards, and beliefs about others because of their weight. These negative attitudes are manifested by stereotypes and/or prejudice towards people in larger bodies.” This weight bias can also be internalized, which can make us judgmental about our own weight as well. One way to check your own weight bias is to first admit that we all have one. Second, check in with yourself and examine what your beliefs are around weight, and where they came from. To do this, you can connect with a HAES (Health at Every Size) professional or do some research on your own to learn more about how you can work to change this bias. Challenging these beliefs could be lifesaving for you and/or your loved one. Additionally, lay off the appearance-based compliments. Trust us, we have been there, and your loved one does not want to hear how great they look! They don’t believe you, and they will obsess about what this means, and could even reinforce their eating disorder behaviors. What they really need to hear is how wonderful they are aside from their appearance, and all the other things you love about them. Some examples of non-appearance-based compliments are:
Your laughter is infectious
You are incredibly brave
You light up a room
I love what a great friend you are
You inspire me
You are so insightful
I love spending time with you
Although it may take time to change your language and thoughts around food, your own body, and other people’s bodies, this can be a game changer when you are supporting someone in recovery.
Tip 4: Keep showing up and taking care of YOU!!
This one may be the hardest tip, as it can be beyond difficult to watch a friend or a loved one suffer, but it really means the most! I know from personal experience, and from the experiences of many of our clients, that having even one supportive person who continues to believe in you and your recovery journey can make a world of difference! We are not meant to live this life alone. I know that I say it all the time, but there is SO much healing in community! SO MUCH!!! If you can remember the other 3 tips, and continue to show up for your loved one, you can make a huge impact. It’s important if you are someone’s safe person that you are taking care of yourself, too. As they say, “you can’t pour from an empty cup.” Please know that your needs matter too, and it’s ideal to be clear about what continuing to show up will look like while still prioritizing taking care of yourself!! Setting clear boundaries from the beginning can help both of you get through this tough time together. You do not have to do this alone, either. Supporters need and deserve to be care for, too! It’s always ok to ask for help.
Wow, that was a lot! I hope you found these tips helpful, and that you know that both you and your loved one are not alone! Below are a few more resources that may also help guide you during this difficult time. Also, if we can help, please don’t hesitate to reach out. My team is always willing to assist in any way we can. As a recovered person myself, please know that your support matters, your love matters, and your compassion can make all the difference! Be encouraged.
Other Mental Health Services Offered in PA, NJ, DE, SC, and FL
We offer a wide variety of services related to eating disorder recovery including trauma therapy! We offer Weekly Support Groups, Nutrition Services, and Family and Parent Therapy as well as Coaching, all tailored to meet the specific needs of the individual. We offer our services for Anorexia, Bulimia, Binge Eating, and Orthorexia online in New Jersey, Delaware, South Carolina, and Florida! We are here to offer our support and understanding in a safe and non-judgmental environment.
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Recovered and Restored is an eating disorder therapy center founded by Gabrielle Morreale. We specialize in helping teens and young women heal from eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, orthorexia, and binge eating disorder and treat disordered eating, anxiety, depression, and PTSD. We provide eating disorder therapy in the towns of Horsham, Upper Gwynedd, Lower Gwynedd, North Wales, Lansdale, Hatfield, Blue Bell, Doylestown, and nearby towns with eating disorder therapy. Also providing virtual eating disorder therapy in New Jersey, Delaware, and Florida. Some towns served virtually but are not limited to Pittsburg, Lancaster, Harrisburg, Center City, Cherry Hill, Haddonfield, Mount Laurel, Cape May, Avalon, Brick, Dover, New Castle, Bethany Beach, Marydel, and Oceanview