Bulimia is a severe mental health disorder and one that is associated with a number of serious medical concerns. Supporting a loved one with bulimia can be a very challenging task. Your support may well be one of the things that helps them finally tackle this horrible eating disorder. Often it can be hard to know what to say and when to say it and with such a controversial subject, you may be concerned about saying the wrong thing, making it worse or even pushing them away. Below are some tips on how to speak with someone about bulimia at different stages of their recovery process.
The behaviors might get downplayed or even flat out denied by the person who is trying to sustain them. — Lisa Ferentz LCSW-C, DAPA
The First Conversation:
Talking with a loved one about bulimia can be extremely difficult. Not only is this a very controversial and often ‘touchy’ subject, due to the feelings your loved one is likely experiencing (such as shame or embarrassment), it is hard to approach this subject without them becoming defensive or very upset. Below are a few do’s and don’ts to help you engage in a productive conversation without pushing your loved one away.
- Speak in a non-judgmental and caring way.
- Use “I” statements to communicate this. For example, “I noticed……. and I am worried about you.
- Give them time and space to communicate how they are feeling. This is not something that will be fixed with one conversation. It is also important to understand the feelings that are underneath the eating disorder, so giving them this time and space is very helpful.
- Encourage them to seek help and let them know you will be there to support them in any way they need.
- Be direct and honest, but in a caring way.
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
- Avoid language that places blame or suggests that you are criticizing them or their behavior.
- Try not to be a therapist and remember it is okay for you not to have the answer to everything. It’s more about letting them know you are concerned and offering them a chance to discuss their feelings.
- Don’t focus the conversation on food and instead keep it centered on their feelings.
- Never try and threaten them or manipulate them. This will likely only increase their anxiety and make it worse (as well as making them less likely to approach you in the future for support).
What if they deny it?
For people suffering from bulimia, it has often become their way of coping. So denying that their eating disorder is a problem, or that they even have one is a way that they protect themselves. As tackling the eating disorder will require taking a coping strategy away from them, you need to continue to offer them lots of love and support. Be non-judgmental in your approach and let them know you will be there every step of the way if required.
In order to understand how to treat, understanding what we are treating makes sense. — Judy Scheel Ph.D., L.C.S.W., CEDS
While They are Going through Treatment:
- Praise – Let them know that you have noticed they are making changes. Tell them you know how difficult it is for them and that you are really proud of how they are going.
- Separate – Separate them from the eating disorder. Often they can feel as though they are one and the same, and reminding them that this is not the case is very helpful. Separating the two helps them to see that there is a possible future where they can exist without the bulimia.
- Tell them to rest – Let them know that it is okay to take a break. Tackling the bulimia is likely to take a significant emotional toll on them and this takes a lot of energy. They may feel the need to continue with their normal goals and tasks, but sometimes they may just need a little break. Let them know that this is okay, and sometimes it is necessary.
- Be normal - Invite them to do tasks you used to do together and try not to focus on the bulimia or food every time you see them. This will again remind them that they are not the disorder.
- Compliment – Give them compliments to boost their confidence. Don’t focus these on their body or weight. Try and ideally choose personality traits that you can praise. If this doesn’t work, focus on other aspects of appearance such as their hair, color of their nail polish or even their new bag.
For further guidance on talking about bulimia or talking to someone who is fighting bulimia, please see the links below.