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How to help a friend or loved one

How to help a friend or loved one

Living with someone suffering from an eating disorder is often very difficult. An eating disorder is a complex illness that brings a lot of negative emotions to the person who suffers from it, but also to the sufferer’s loved ones. Family and friends often go through incomprehension, a sense of powerlessness, and frustration. Nonetheless, it is not useful to blame the person going through the eating disorder. Strangely, the eating disorder can be comforting to the sufferer. Be sure to put aside your guilt. Many external factors also contribute to the origins of the disorder.

What should you say? How should you act?

First, it is helpful to better understand eating disorders. Get as much information about them as possible. Don’t let the sufferer’s problem become your problem, too! If you can’t seem to guide the sufferer in the right direction towards recovery, you can still support them by listening and trying to understand what they’re going through, without being judgemental. Eating disorders are often a cry for help; deep inside, your loved one is sensitive to your concern and thankful for your openness.

It may come as a surprise, but eating disorders have nothing to do with food. It is important to avoid pressuring the person to eat, offering rewards for eating, or thinking that the situation is improving because the person has gained a bit of weight. Comments regarding food and weight are not only futile, but they can even worsen the problem by reinforcing the sufferer’s obsessive behaviour.

Avoid conversations that focus on appearances and comments that can reinforce body image obsession.

Express your feelings without being judgemental. Make sure you speak in the first person, using “I” statements. Do not start these discussions during mealtimes. Choose a time when everyone is calm. Then, you can say, “I worry when you isolate yourself” rather than, “I think you have an eating disorder and should seek help.” It is crucial to avoid reinforcing the person’s feeling of powerlessness. Instead, focus on their ability to make their own decisions. More than anything, the person is entitled to their privacy.

If you have reason to believe that the person’s health is seriously threatened, seek help. It is often necessary to consult specialists, as many people with eating disorders can deny having a problem or refuse help. Even if your loved one accuses you of betrayal, remember that confidentiality no longer applies when there is evidence of potential physical harm.

Do not attempt to take on the role of a therapist; you will almost certainly fail. You may unintentionally reinforce negative behaviours related to eating disorders. Do not hesitate to seek help for yourself. Eating disorders affect everyone connected to the sufferer, so it is important to have support during this difficult period.

Since our society fosters the development of eating disorders, question yourself about your own attitude about this global obsession with thinness. Are you on a diet? Do you exercise just to lose weight? When you meet someone for the first time, do you think about their weight and body shape? If you gained one or two kilograms, would your self-esteem be affected? What role do negative and positive comments about appearance and weight have in your life? It’s helpful to gain insight into your own fears with respect to thinness.

ANEB offers many services to provide support to you during this difficult time. Don’t hesitate to contact us for more information about eating disorders or to share what you’re going through.