It can be difficult to know what to say when you’re talking to someone with an eating disorder, especially if you’re discussing the eating disorder itself. Many of us fear that using the wrong words will make things worse and it’s common to shy away from saying much at all. But if you put yourself in the shoes of the sufferer you’ll realise that would make for a lonely existence. There are things that you can say that are useful. Here are a few…
“How can I help you?”
It’s really, really hard to know how to help someone with an eating disorder. Maybe you’ve been wracking your brain to no avail. Well here’s a secret… the best way to find out is to ask them. This can be a real conversation starter and you’ll be amazed at some of the suggestions you’ll get back, anything from, “Sit with me when I eat, but please don’t talk” to “Don’t pretend there’s nothing wrong with me” to “Just keep asking, it’s helpful to know you care.” Don’t ask unless you’re genuinely willing to help and support though.
“How does that make you feel?”
It can be very valuable for someone with an eating disorder to explore their feelings. Often they are so numbed by the disease and taken over by the eating disorder that they don’t take time to stop and think about how they really feel about things. This can be an especially good phrase if you don’t know how to respond to a comment, or you can’t think of something positive to say – if for instance you’re told ‘I lost a pound today!’ Instead of launching into the ‘you’re already too thin’ diatribe that will build barriers and create friction, simply asking ‘How does that make you feel?’ and following up with some ‘Why?’s can be a really good way to start to understand. You don’t have to agree, but understanding is the first step towards helping, and taking time to listen is a great way to build trust.
“That must be very difficult”
Having an eating disorder is emotionally and physically draining every hour of every day. Empathising and demonstrating that you realise and care about the fact that things are difficult is a good way of showing you care. This phrase might come in response to something that is essentially a bad thing ‘I can’t sleep because I’m spending all night worrying about the calories I ate today’ or a good thing (in terms of recovery) ‘I haven’t been sick for 24 hours. I feel so disgusting.’
“It’s impressive that you…”
Similar to the above, this phrase is a great way of showing empathy and understanding and is especially helpful when a sufferer has overcome a hurdle of any size. Remember that for someone deep in the grip of an eating disorder, functioning day to day can be a tremendous task. Help them realise what they are achieving each day rather than dwelling on the less positive aspects of their current situation. “It’s impressive that you managed sit in the lunch hall today”, “It’s impressive that you were able to understand what we were talking about in class so quickly today” and so on. Find a way to pay a complement about something either eating disorder related or (ideally) not – no doubt, chronic low self-esteem is a major factor here and anything you can do to boost confidence is a positive step.
“What would your Mum think of…”
If you’re struggling to help a sufferer understand why what they’re doing (e.g. making themselves sick) or aiming for (e.g. weighing 6 stone) is inappropriate, step away from expecting them to understand your objections from their own point of view. Instead, ask them to step into someone else’s shoes and ask them what their Mum, Dad, best friend, teacher etc would think about what they’ve just said. This can be a great way to encourage a sufferer to express ambivalence about what they’ve stated. You can follow this up with questions exploring why the person you’re talking about would feel that way.
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