Author: Michael E. Berrett, PhD
One of the most difficult tasks any of us face is watching the struggle and suffering of those we love.
It is especially difficult and heart wrenching to watch a loved one suffer with an eating disorder. What makes it so difficult are its far reaching effects: physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual damage, confusion, and chaos. With anorexia that chaos and confusion can be hidden under rigid perfectionism and an illusion of control. With bulimia and binge eating disorder, the confusion and chaos may be more obvious to us on the outside.
It is hard to watch suffering which seems initially deceptively “avoidable” or “fixable”. It doesn’t take long, however, to see the complexity.
In helping a loved one suffering with anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder, I offer a few ideas to consider:
1.) Remember — eating disorders are complex and most often require many kinds of help. Don’t try to deal with this problem alone. Reach out to other professionals and other loved ones while searching for answers.
2.) What’s not said can be as damaging, or more so, than what is said. Don’t pretend, deny, or avoid the issue — that won’t help at all. Don’t “walk on eggshells.” Do address your observations and concerns to your loved one in a direct manner with kindness and respect.
3.) Ask your loved one for specifics about what they would like you to do and say and what not to do or say to best support their recovery from an eating disorder.
4.) Ask questions about “the person” rather than questions about their “eating disorder”. Have a relationship with them — not their eating disorder. Even if they act as if 90% of their life is their eating disorder, treat them as a person — not a behavior or an illness.
5.) Provide hope. Discouragement, fear and at times feelings of hopelessness are common to those suffering from eating disorders. These feelings don’t need fuel — but correction. There is hope, there is something worth encouraging. Find it and do some coaching. After listening, acknowledging, empathizing, and validating feelings, move on to ideas, hopes, and positive possibilities.
6.) Don’t blame yourself. It’s not your fault. Whatever your mistakes or weaknesses as a parent, spouse, or loved one, you did not create this eating disorder. Take ownership for your weaknesses and frailties, take stock of your talents, gifts, and resources, and get to work providing love, support, and open invitations for them to come into a safe relationship with you as they are ready.
As you implement these and your own ideas to help your loved one, put yourself in their shoes, try to see the world from their model, listen to your heart and follow those impressions. Don’t give up. Since the fruits of your influence and efforts may not be fully recognized and seen for a while, patience and hope need to become friends of yours. Recovery can be a reality!
Written July 2008, Revised July 2014