Four Ways to Support Friends with an ED
I’ve never been confident in navigating others’ emotions. Don’t get me wrong- I tend to be pretty intuitive when it comes to picking up what people are putting down, but when it comes to consolation? Definitely not my forte. I remember when my grandma died- the first death I was old enough to understand- I didn’t know how to process the event. At the funeral, I stared and asked hundreds of questions, because I couldn’t make sense of it all. Even though my other family members were crying, clearly not in the mood to answer the pestering young girl I was, I couldn’t help it. Not only did I not know how to feel, but I didn’t know how to support them. What could I possibly say or do to make anyone feel a little bit more okay?
Since then, I have come to terms with the fact that I process my emotions pretty differently than most people. What you think would make me cry never does. And the stuff that should definitely not make me cry? Oh, I become an open dam. (This list includes, but is not limited to: reading a happy book, reading a sad book, talking about old animals, talking about old people in love, food splattering across the walls of my microwave.)
I also have come to realize that this isn’t just me. Everyone processes everything differently. Yeah, it may be weird that I sometimes start crying mid conversation, when all I am doing is expressing how happy I am, but I am sure you do something that I would consider “abnormal” too. This is why navigating others’ emotions is so dang tricky: because every single person needs something different when it comes to emotional support.
Something that has been on my mind a lot recently is whether or not I received the support I needed during my eating disorder and my recovery ever since. In a lot of ways, I definitely have. I’m incredibly fortunate to have friends and family that have taken the time to listen to me and truly learn about what I have gone through. I know that these are people I can go to whenever I feel upset or like I am heading down that path again. I am very grateful for all of the support these individuals have given me.
However, I didn’t always feel this at the beginning. A lot of people doubted me- they were in disbelief that I had any sort of exercise or eating disorder. I was skinny and I worked out… what was wrong with that? On the opposite side, I learned later on that quite a few people assumed I had a disorder (for months), but never knew how to address the topic with me.
Again, I don’t think there is a “right” way to show support for someone in any situation. Just like everything, it truly depends on the individual and what they need most in that moment. But I do think there are some simple questions and actions that go a long way, even if they don’t seem like it at the time. And because I know it can be scary or daunting to bring the topic up, especially when it is so important to, I thought it might be useful to share some of those questions and actions on here.
Between what was and wasn’t done for me and many others that I know during both the height of the disorder as well as the recovery, the following actions are ones that can make a world of difference:
For starters, don’t ever judge the individual for what they order when they go out to eat. This may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people still give me glances when I order a salad. No, me ordering a salad does not mean that I am practicing disordered eating habits. Some days I just am in the mood for a salad. In a lot of cases, going out to eat is incredibly difficult mentally. I used to plan for hours before I went out, most of the time cancelling last minute to stay in and eat what I knew. The fact that this individual has accepted and gone to eat with you is a huge deal in of itself. Be proud of them and give them that much needed support- meaning let them eat what they want to eat. However, if you think it truly is a moment of concern, think about the best time and place to discuss it with them.
Try to not compliment their physical attributes. Our society is geared towards complimenting individuals when they look skinny, or their skin clears up, or their tan is glowing. Instead of focusing on the outside, compliment them on how they seem to you: do they seem happy? Confident? Tell them this instead. I promise you, to anyone, this could be the most important compliment they ever receive.
Don’t walk on eggshells. If something is said or done that causes a negative reaction, use it as a learning experience. This is especially important because your friend may have something that always causes them to be upset, no matter the situation, and discovering what this is can be a great way to better understand how you can support their needs. For example, seeing calories or sugar content listed on menus at restaurants can still be hard for me to process at times. Plus, since people think of me as a conscious eater and cook, they tend to ask me how many calories or how much sugar is in whatever they are considering ordering. (Please, stop.)
Finally, and most importantly, ask them what they need, how you can support them, and what you can do to show your love and care for them. Check in with them time to time, because sometimes their answer will change. One day they may want to talk to you all about it, another day they may wish you never brought it up. But that’s okay- one day I am sure they will come to you, grateful that you were there for them and made it incredibly clear that you were.
Nobody is perfect and when your loved one has an eating disorder or is recovering, it can be really easy to feel like you can’t talk about it with them. That may feel true, but I know that I wish my friends had made it clear to me that they thought something was wrong. Yes, I am glad how I came to terms with it myself… but I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t. Would they ever have said anything?
Also, remember: if you don’t know where to start, there are always people to reach out to for that help. I even suggest calling the NEDA (National Eating Disorder Association) hotline number if you want a professional’s advice: 800-931-2237.
And if any of you reading this are struggling with disordered eating, exercise, or body dysmorphia personally, I am always here to chat and want you to know that I genuinely mean that.