Advice by Kaela: How to Support Someone Who is Struggling
By Kaela Scott
Knowing someone who struggles with an eating disorder can often leave us feeling unsure of how to help and afraid of making it worse. While the responsibility to get well ultimately lies with the individual there are a few things you can do to support them in their journey to wellness.
- Express Your Concern: It is normal to feel afraid or worried about bringing up a loved ones’ eating disorder. It is critical, however, that you do. Eating disorders thrive in secrecy and not talking about it won’t make it go away (nor will it make it worse). When you express your concerns be careful of the language you use. For example, for someone with anorexia or bulimia there is no such thing as “too thin” and using language similar to this (ex: “you are so skinny” etc) only reinforces their need to work harder at starving themselves. Instead, comment on your concern for them because they look like they are suffering. Reinforce that you care about them and that you just want to make sure they're okay.
- Listen Attentively: People struggling with an eating disorder often carry around a lot of painful emotion. If you hear them talking about their pain, really listen to what they are saying, it takes a lot of courage for them to share their pain. Instead of offering advice on how to get better, focus on how you can best understand the feelings and experiences they are having right now. Try to be as non-judgmental as possible so that they feel safe opening up. This will increase your ability to eventually get them the help they need.
- Focus On Their Accomplishments Not Their Eating: Although someone who struggles with an eating disorder is hyper-focused on food, trying to force them to eat (or, in the case of binge eating, prevent them from eating) won’t make the eating disorder go away. In fact, it will likely cause them to turn towards their eating disorder instead of away. Underneath the eating disorder is a deep hurt that is causing anxiety. Rather than trying to control their food, show them you care by reinforcing what they are doing well. Tell them how much you love them and how proud of them you are. Support them in developing a healthy relationship to themself first and foremost.
- Help Them Feel In Control: One of the most common things that someone struggling with an eating disorder will tell you (if they admit they are struggling) is that the eating disorder is the only thing they can control. What they don't realize is that the eating disorder is actually robbing them of all control as their health becomes more at risk. If they mention control to you, ask them in what areas of their life they feel they have the least control and how this is impacting them. Speak to their strengths and abilities and help them see that with the right resources they can regain control of all areas of their life not just their eating.
- Seek Professional Health: Trying to help someone with an eating disorder can be very emotional and at times exhausting. It’s important not to take on the responsibility for someone else’s wellness. While they may beg you to keep their secret, sharing your struggle with a professional can alleviate your anxieties and help guide you in how to best support them. Don’t delay in seeking help for yourself as you go through this.
Kaela Scott is a Registered Clinical Counsellor who specializes in Eating Disorders. She runs her own private practice and works with the Looking Glass Foundation in both their summer camp and their Hand In Hand Program. She has been passionate about working with eating disorders since freeing herself from her own struggle and realizing what it is like to be happy and well. When she isn’t working, you can find Kaela either cozying up with a cup of tea and her friends or up in the mountains going for a hike.