It can be overwhelming to know how to support someone you care about who is struggling with their relationship with food or body image. Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses that are often misunderstood. You do not need to be an expert in order to provide support, the important thing is to listen to the individual’s experience and to avoid making assumptions or judgements. Eating disorders are not a choice and they are no-one’s fault.
There are caring, respectful and meaningful ways to intervene and support someone who is struggling. Intervening doesn't mean "fixing" the problem, but rather indicating the true strength of your relationship and being there to provide ongoing support and encouragement. This can make all the difference in the world.
How Can I Best Provide Support?
The best way you can support someone who is struggling with an eating disorder is to let them know you are there, you care for them and you want to support them in a way that feels right for them. Absolutely every case is different so it’s essential that you listen to their experience and don’t make assumptions, however it may be helpful to do some research or talk to someone who is knowledgeable about eating disorders before approaching the individual with your concerns. Our team at Looking Glass can help.
The important thing is to start by gently opening up the conversation. Choose a time and place that will feel most supportive to the individual, one where you can talk freely without being overheard or interrupted.
Express your concerns. Be prepared to "speak the unspoken" - the truth that you might both know, but neither of you want to say out loud.
Encourage dialogue so you can explore these concerns together. Try not to tip-toe around the issue for fear of setting them off. Your discomfort or hesitation can be construed as a reason for the other person to withdraw, and that won't help either of you.
Avoid focusing on food, weight or appearance. Instead share your concerns about their general health, happiness and wellbeing.
Avoid placing shame, blame, or guilt. It isn't anyone's place to judge another person, nor is it helpful. Passing judgement, evenly subtly, will push someone away rather than draw them near.
Avoid asking for explanations. This isn't something you need to completely understand right away, nor is it your loved one’s responsibility to be accountable to you for answers.
Avoid giving simple solutions. However well meaning, attempts to gloss over or put a positive spin on the situation isn't actually helpful and may feel dismissive or diminishing.
Express your continued support. This is the most valuable thing you can offer - and deliver on consistently. You are not the expert here but your care and presence will be hugely supportive in the long run. It’s normal to be anxious about your loved one’s suffering. Be sure to prioritize regulating your own anxiety and emotions so that you can provide support throughout the entire journey to recovery.
Be prepared for resistance. Despite your best efforts to approach the conversation from a loving place, this is going to be a difficult conversation for your loved one. Their eating disorder may function as a “comfort” or protective mechanism in their life and they may not be ready to let that go. You cannot make someone choose recovery. Try not to argue with them if they get defensive, instead remain curious about their experience and keep the conversation open. Having someone they can talk honestly to about their eating disorder may be more valuable than you know.
Remain calm and don’t lose hope. Recovery from an eating disorder is possible with time, care and the appropriate supports in place.
Supporting a loved one who is dealing with an eating disorder can be challenging and painful. It’s important that you are taking care of yourself and looking out for your own needs too. Find someone you trust to talk to or decompress with. You can’t pour from an empty cup so be sure to take time for yourself and your own needs as you navigate this journey.
“There is comfort in knowing there is always someone there for me who is on my side, understands what I am going through, and will cheer me on throughout my recovery process — someone who will not judge me and who shows me compassion when I don't always show it to myself.”
What Treatment Options Are Available?
Our world is not an easy place for someone struggling with an eating disorder. It delivers a constant barrage of triggers, confusing messages, and unrealistic expectations. Getting past an eating disorder is a process rather than a matter of resolve. There isn't a quick-fix or one-size-fits-all solution.
Recovery requires a lot of support through programs and services that feel safe and fit the needs of the person suffering. There are a variety of treatment options available, including:
Usually, recovery comes from experiencing several of these kinds of support - often over time, and always with the genuinely caring support of other people.
Looking Glass Foundation exists to provide a community of support and a non-judgmental, safe space for individuals of all backgrounds and lived experiences to explore their own unique recovery journey.
If you are supporting someone who is struggling with an eating disorder, it’s a good idea to educate yourself about the nuances of this disease so that you can approach conversations from a place of empathy and understanding. Keep in mind that every case is different, however having a baseline understanding of eating disorders may help you when it comes to understanding certain behaviours and attitudes.
Visit our Blog to hear about the experiences of individuals who have battled an eating disorder, as well as advice, tips and strategies for individuals on the road to recovery, which may be helpful for your own learning or to share with a loved one.
Caring for someone who is struggling with an eating disorder can feel overwhelming at times. It’s normal to feel anxious and to not have all the answers. Our list of resources for caregivers may be helpful as you navigate this journey and care for both yourself and your loved one.
Looking Glass Foundation respectfully acknowledges that our work takes place on the unceded traditional territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations.
For resources and information
about eating disorders contact the Looking Glass Foundation: