Someone who is struggling with an eating disorder may attempt to eat “normally” in the presence of others, and then look for opportunities to be alone to find ways to binge or purge. — Lisa Ferentz LCSW-C, DAPA
Everyone struggles with something, whether it be stress, anxiety, depression, or other specific mental disorders. When you watch someone you care about struggle with something serious, like an eating disorder, it can be hard to decide how to act around them. It can be hard to act normal, especially when you’re worried that the situation has become life-threatening. While it’s important to treat the person like you usually would, it’s also important to recognize what they are going through and be honest with them about your concerns.
Here are just a few tips to handling the situation when you’re concerned about a friend or family member.
Mental health should be a judgment-free zone. Always. The first step to interacting with someone you believe is suffering from an eating disorder, such as bulimia nervosa, is to acknowledge that it’s being done as a way to cope with stress or a traumatic experience. Mental disorders usually result from a negative experience, something that can be extremely painful on the individual. Eating disorders in particularly usually revolve around body image and self-esteem, which can be influenced by past relationships and interactions.
If your friend or family member is suffering, don’t make them feel bad because of it. Don’t treat them like a failure or a mistake, because they’re not. They’re simply going through something difficult and having a hard time coping.
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
Talk It Out
If you feel like someone you know is struggling, pick a time to discuss your concerns with them one on one. This should be at a time when neither of you have other obligations because you want to divert your full attention to the conversation. You should be gentle when you reach out because they could potentially react negatively due to the secretive nature of eating disorders. Make sure that first and foremost you detail your love and warmth towards the person before diving into the serious issues.
Be prepared for the individual to deny that anything is wrong. Eating disorders are all about control and your knowledge of their condition takes away control from the person with the disorder. Be patient and try to understand what they are going through. It’s easy to get frustrated, but keep a calm and level head because it’s the only way you’ll get anywhere in the conversation.
Some important things to avoid include blaming the person for having a disorder. You can’t shame someone into changing and becoming healthier. You have to offer support and understanding to make progress. Also, avoid giving ultimatums because it will just make the individual feel stressed and guilty. You can’t make them feel like they are losing control because it can lead to furthering the eating disorder.
When we shift our focus away from the numbers on the scales and towards a more global sense of health, we can achieve genuine wellbeing by nurturing—not fighting against—our body. — Alexis Conason Psy.D.
By far, the most important part of reacting to someone you love who has bulimia is to offer your full support. Help the person realize that they need to seek treatment because of the lethal nature of the disorder, but be sure they understand you love and care about them.
While it may be easy for you to have confidence in your appearance, realize that no two people are the same. You can’t simply say, “Well, just eat.” It doesn’t work like that. Eating disorders are complex and complicated and twisted in ways that can be difficult to comprehend. Offering your support is better than offering advice. Encouraging your friend to seek professional help will be a much greater support to them than empty words. Remember that it’s harder for them than it is for you.