The person restricting calories, bingeing, purging, or excessively exercising may become anxious about getting caught or irritable when accusing a loved one of being unfairly suspicious or “controlling.” — Lisa Ferentz LCSW-C, DAPA
When you find out that a loved one is suffering from bulimia it can be confronting and overwhelming. When this occurs, you will likely feel a strong urge to do anything that you can to support them. Supporting someone through treatment for an eating disorder can be taxing on yourself and will certainly take some effort on your part. However, if you are able to provide this support and understanding to them it might be that extra help they need to conquer the bulimia.
Having the conversation:
It can be very difficult to know where to start when supporting a loved one through bulimia, but having a conversation about your concerns is a good place.
- Research – Come to the conversation prepared, with a good understanding of what bulimia is and how it works. It is not simply just unusual eating behaviors based on body image issues and may often have a lot of emotions tied up with it. These can include strong feelings of shame, anxiety, embarrassment, guilt and even denial. Keep these in mind when approaching the conversation.
- Location – Choose a time and place where you can have a conversation in private and one where you are unlikely to be interrupted. Avoid places where there is a focus on food and try to choose somewhere that you know they will feel comfortable.
Because patients deny the severity of their condition they cannot accept the effects of malnutrition on heart, brain, organ and bone health. — Judy Scheel Ph.D., L.C.S.W., CEDS
- Express your concerns – Keep in mind that they may not feel as though they have an eating problem or they might be very embarrassed by it. Try and approach it in a caring and non-judgmental manner. Be careful not to put any blame on them or criticize them as they may already be feeling embarrassed. This will only make them more defensive and unlikely to listen to you. Head on over to our other article (how to talk about bulimia) for some guidance around the type of language to use when having a conversation about bulimia.
- Encourage – Let them know that you are there to help support them in any way that you can. However, it is also important to encourage them to seek professional support (medical and psychological). You can certainly provide them support alongside their therapist, but this is not a battle that can likely be fought without therapy. Not only this but due to the severe medical concerns that can occur due to bulimia, it is important to get a doctor involved.
Model Good Habits:
Try and set a good example for your friend or loved one by focusing on healthy eating and balanced meals opposed to dieting or restricting food. Watch how you talk about appearance and body size, and avoid being self-critical and critical towards others.
Try and Boost Self-esteem:
Focus on the personality strengths that make your friend or loved one the wonderful person they are. Give them encouragement around these and emphasize these to them in conversation. This obviously has to be subtle. For example, if they expressed concern about their weight, you wouldn’t simply reply “but you’re a really nice person” as they will likely take this as a way to confirm their insecurity. Rather, find ways and examples to praise them on their strengths.
Balancing serotonin levels with nutrition is central to managing the range of symptoms that occur along the eating disorders continuum. — Leslie E. Korn Ph.D., MPH, LMHC, ACS, NTP
Watch out for Triggers:
These could include talking about food, weight, eating, dieting and making judgmental comments about your or anyone else’s bodies. This doesn’t mean you have to avoid eating in front of them (actually this would make things worse). Just try not to have entire conversations centered around food.
Watch out for You:
Supporting a friend or loved one through bulimia can be a very taxing process. It is important to make sure you take the time to look after yourself as well. Keep up your own support networks and take time away for you to relax and recharge as you won’t be any help if you are also very stressed or anxious.
For further information on supporting a loved one through bulimia, please see the links below.