Eating disorders are not easy. They are the second deadliest mental illness in the world. Approaching someone who is battling an eating disorder isn’t a simple task. But, knowing how can make a huge difference for someone who is in need of support.
In America, an estimated 30 million people live with an eating disorder. Despite how prevalent eating disorders are, there is still limited education on how to approach someone you know that may be struggling.
One main reason is that eating disorders are not all the same. There are 5 eating disorders recognized by medical doctors, with at least 7 more eating disorders identified by mental health scientists. Also, anyone struggling with an eating disorder has their own unique story and relationship with their disorder.
More often than not, we make a lot of mistakes approaching someone with an eating disorder. That’s ok – there isn’t a perfect science to it at all. But, there are some essential tips that will help you present yourself as a friendly and supportive figure.
Key Tips for Approaching Someone who is Battling an Eating Disorder
Know that It’s Not Just About Food
One of the biggest misconceptions about eating disorders is that it’s about the food.
Eating disorders are like an addiction – one does not engage in the behaviors because they absolutely love a substance. Instead, the behavior or addiction is a habitual coping mechanism. The reasons for needing a coping mechanism vary from person to person. Everyone has their own history of trauma.
So, if you are looking to approach someone living with an eating disorder, don’t bring up food first. In fact, do not even comment on the food! It is already a sensitive subject.
The best thing you can do is ask that person how they are feeling. Don’t expect an intricate answer. Just the simple thought of asking about them, rather than their behaviors, can mean the whole world to someone dealing with an eating disorder.
Avoid Physical Engagement
The body is often an extra sensitive subject for someone with an eating disorder. As much as a hug or nudge may be a natural form of engagement, it’s best to refrain from touching someone who may be dealing with an eating disorder.
Always ask before you touch the person. A hug may be ok! However, if they decline any physical affection, do not react harshly. Know that this choice is not about you – it’s about the person and their comfort with their own bodies.
Now, we are not saying to be cold as ice! Try to place your affection into your listening skills, questions, and overall attentiveness.
Don’t Make It a Joke
Cracking jokes, especially about the person’s behaviors, eating patterns, or looks isn’t a great idea. It makes a person struggling extremely uncomfortable.
Imagine someone making fun of your biggest insecurities – that’s how joking with someone battling an eating disorder feels. You feel exposed and belittled.
There is also the chance the person could laugh and brush off your joke. But, inside, they may be deeply hurt. Worst of all, they may feel triggered to engage in behaviors.
Now, this doesn’t mean you need to speak to the person like a robot. You can still be lighthearted about things outside the person’s experience. Just remember that the person is not in the same mental space as you.
Don’t Mention ‘Eating Disorder’
Those battling an eating disorder are still people. So, don’t label them by their disorder. Just like anyone, being put into a box is never comfortable.
As worried as you may be, it is not your place to give someone a diagnosis. This goes even if you are a professional doctor or psychologist. Unless you’re in a professional environment, don’t go listing out diagnoses.
If you do bring up any diagnoses or eating disorder-related terms, you run the chance of that person isolating themselves mentally from you. Oftentimes, those dealing with an eating disorder are very protective of their disorders. This may sound strange. But, typically an eating disorder is a way of maintaining control.
The best thing to do is avoid mentioning ‘eating disorder’ or any form of it whatsoever. This will show the person that you are not judging them. This will make them feel a little more comfortable speaking with you.
Be a good listener. This may sound obvious. But, try your best to listen to the person with the intent to understand them, not to put your perceptions in their head.
With listening, comes patient. Allow the person time to speak. It may take them a while to open up! That’s ok – just affirm that you will always be there to listen to them.
These tips on how to approach someone battling an eating disorder are essential to helping someone on their journey to recovery. Eating disorders are never going to be an easy subject. A person struggling needs patience, consideration, and kindness.
Remember, you can’t cure an eating disorder for someone else. But, you can be a major ally to someone who needs your support.
If you or someone you know may be deeply struggling with an eating disorder, do not hesitate to contact the NEDA Helpline at (800)-931-2237