Practical Advice: Unhelpful Things to Do and Say to a Person Who Struggles with an Eating Disorder

You know the telltale signs of an eating disorder: skeletal bodies, gaunt face, thinning hair, rotting teeth. No matter how much regular people want to be thin and in shape, anorexia and bulimia take that drive to dangerous levels. When we see someone who is clearly suffering from an eating disorder, the impulse is to say something that will fix it. The motive may be well intentioned, but a lack of understanding of the root causes of eating disorders leads people to say things that are not only unhelpful, but even damaging.

Unhelpful Approaches:

Relating what you do and how well it has worked for you. Unless you have personally experienced an eating disorder and are in eating disorder recovery, your experience is not even remotely like hers. Your success in a diet program or your personal exercise regimen will not resonate with someone who suffers from an eating disorder. Despite appearances, eating disorders are not motivated by a desire for fitness or even weight loss. Eating disorders are based in fear and the desire for control.

Cajoling statements like “Just eat something!” Eating disorders do not bend to pleas and suggestions. She does not restrict food to exasperate you or because she isn’t hungry or because she doesn’t like to eat. Attempting to pressure her will only further unsettle her in the midst of a precarious emotional and spiritual state. She will eat and she will get well on her timeline, never yours.

Comments about body size or weight, i.e. “Have you lost more weight?!” For normal individuals trying to lose weight, comments about weight loss are welcomed compliments. For the eating disorder sufferer, they only draw attention to something that is painful and complicated-not joyful. These comments also bear a connotation of shame and accusation. No one appreciates this-especially for something they legitimately cannot control.

Criticism about the appearance of excessive thinness, i.e. “Being that skinny isn’t even attractive.” She’s not trying to be attractive. She’s not even really trying to be thin. Her mind is set in such a mode that she cannot cease doing what she’s doing. Your criticism will not help her to see the ugliness of her condition. And she already hates herself anyway.

Threats. Not only is this compassionless, it’s also futile. She’s not afraid of your anger, your actions, or the consequences of her disease. Save your breath.There are several common treatments for bulimia and anorexia. Some find cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helpful, while others require nutritional counseling. Many patients are also being prescribed medication to help them cope with the obsessive thoughts, anxiety, and depression that comes along with disordered eating.

What You Can Do:

Express your concern. Be honest and let her know that you are genuinely worried about her. Reinforce that if there is anything you can do to help, you’re there for her. Let her open up to you if she chooses, but accept that she may not. Once you have relayed what is in your heart, let her go. Realize that she may choose not to get help, and she may not want to get well. In the end, loved ones are sometimes forced to accept that there is nothing more that they can do to reverse an individual’s decision to self-destruct.

Tell her how much you love her. Reinforce your love, compassion, and friendship for the sufferer without any attachment to her condition. Be the friend, sibling, parent, etc. that you have always been. Help her to know she is loved and supported.

Release expectations. Bulimics, anorexics, and food addicts are famous for making promises they cannot keep. Though in their mind they may believe they want to get well and that they have a plan for doing so, the disease is stronger and will foil the best of intentions. Expect this. If a friend asks for your help with accountability, provide it. But remember, you’re not her food police.

Keep your mouth shut. You are not responsible for fixing your friend or loved one. While you may feel a sense of responsibility, ultimately she must want recovery for herself. It’s okay if you don’t bring the issue up every time you are together. Once is enough.

If you suspect that someone close to you is suffering from an eating disorder, take the time to learn more about the condition. Understanding why the sufferer does what she does will help to inform and guide your words and actions. You must also accept that eating disorders have a powerful hold on their sufferers. There may not be anything that you can say or do that will fix your friend or loved one, but you can ensure that your words and actions bear compassion and sensitivity for a very serious and painful condition.

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