What Not to Say to Someone in Recovery from an Eating Disorder & How to Give Support
If you have a friend or family member in recovery from an eating disorder, you probably know that the road to recovery can be bumpy. Deep-seated negative thoughts and behaviors don't change overnight. Sometimes there are good days, sometimes bad days. Did you know that what you say (and avoid saying) around a person in recovery may determine how bumpy thatroad is for them? Eating disorder sufferers are often very conscious about what they perceive others think about them. A comment (even well meaning) on their weight, appearance, or diet has the potential to send them spiraling into disordered behavior. The more frequently this happens, the more likely they may relapse, putting their health,happiness, & life in danger.
"Ok, I understand that I need to be careful about what I say around someone in recovery, but what should I avoid saying?"To answer this question, I did my research, going directly to the source. I sent out an inquiry to my Instagram followers who are in recovery. I asked; "What do friends & family say to you that is meant with no harm yet triggers your disordered thinking?”
Here are some responses I got:
1) Comments directly about the person in recovery...
"People saying I look healthy." (Implying that they have gained weight after being previously underweight, and look healthy as a result- it is triggering as it implies you have noticed their weight gain.)
"People saying I've grown, even if they mean in height."
"People saying how good I looked at my smallest, even though I was severely malnourished and underweight."
"When people comment on what I'm eating, classifying it as ‘bad’ or ‘unhealthy.’”
(This may make them want to compensate for the ‘unhealthy’ food by calorie restricting or purging (throwing up the food).)
"When people talk about gaining weight and how they need to go on a diet, and then say, 'Oh, I'm sure you can relate.'”
(Implying that you feel the person in recovery also needs to lose weight.)
"I find it triggering when people tell me I've lost weight. It used to make me feel happy but now it only makes me sad because I'm only losing because I'm sick with this mental illness."
2) I also got replies about comments & behavior that are not directly about the eating disorder sufferer, but arerelated to food and weight...
"People talking how thin someone is."
"When people talk about how much weight someone has put on in a negative way."
"When people talk about how they haven’t eaten all day but just didn’t have time to eat. I feel jealous that someone can go a full day without thinking about food.”
"People talking about dieting or losing weight."
"When people on diets ask me how many calories are in something because they know I know a lot on the topic."
To you, these comments or behavior may seem normal or harmless, but they may be triggering to the eating disorder sufferer because they affirm a belief that they have that fuels their disordered behavior.Eg. A comment about their weight or appearance (or the weight of someone else) might affirm their belief that people notice and judge their appearance, and that it matters what they look like. This might cause them to think critically about their body and/or attempt to lose weight. Eg. Other people talking about how they are dieting or watching their weight might affirm that this is something the person in recovery should be doing, too.
Do’s & Don’ts
-Don’t comment at all on the appearance, weight loss, or weight gain of someone with an eating disorder,
even if it's intended as a compliment.
- Don’t skip meals or talk about skipping meals
-Don’t go on a diet (if you need to for health reasons, eat healthier, rather than restricting your food intake.) At the
very least, avoid talking about your diet or calorie counting around the person in recovery.
- Don’t verbally criticize your own appearance or weight.
-Don’t comment on what someone else is eating, classifying it as “bad”, unhealthy, fattening, too much, or not
- Understand the seriousness of eating disorders.
Eating disorders aren't glamorous, they aren't a “phase”, and they aren't a choice. They are a serious mental illness
that can result in severe health problems and even death.
- Practice unconditional love.
You have the power to make a difference in the life of someone struggling with an eating disorder by accepting
them as they are. Always avoid commenting on their appearance, positive or negative. If they ask you directly what
you think of their appearance, just express that they are beautiful, as always, but their outer beauty does not define
them: their inner beauty does.
- Be a role model for strong self-esteem and positive body image.
You can teach by example that inner beauty is what truly matters. If you want to start eating healthier or exercising
more, do it for health and self-care: not to change your appearance. Don’t criticize your body; appreciate it. Feed
your body when you are hungry, and don’t deprive it of the calories it needs. Use food as fuel, not as a coping
mechanism for dealing with emotions. Above all: show the person in your life who is in recovery that self-love and
self-acceptance IS possible, by learning to love yourself unconditionally. It’s not about our bodies; it’s what we
think about them- and what we think about ourselves. Think positive thoughts and they may spread to others. ♥
The Project HEAL blog intends to provide some help, acceptance and inspiration to those suffering or who have suffered from eating disorders. We realize that every experience is unique and some readers may find things that others find helpful or inspirational, to be triggering. Please keep this in mind when reading our blog, and be sure to visit our website for information on how to help others who are affected, to find acceptance.