“Why can’t they just eat a cheeseburger? I mean, it’s simple. You open your mouth and you eat. You’re hungry. You need food. Eat.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say that about someone who may have an eating disorder. So many people think it’s about weight and food.
If only it were that simple.
Before you try to force feed someone you love, or gauge their progress by the scales, wait up. There’s something more you should know.
Eating Disorders Aren’t Really About Weight
Eating disorders are about worth, how you see yourself, how well you are assessed by others, and most important of all: whether or not you feel that you did your best. If you’ve ever put your heart and soul into a science fair project as a kid, only to get a less than stellar grade, you may be able to relate.
The majority of those who experience eating disorders are extremely successful people. They make good grades. They work hard. They are determined. They are caring people. They seem like they are confident and have it all.
But to them, they either aren’t good enough and somehow feel like they fall short. Or maybe they feel like while they did pretty good, they could have done even better.
Have you ever had a coach pay you a compliment on how well you played, while inside you knew you weren’t giving it your all? It’s kind of like that for someone who has an eating disorder. No matter how well they did, there’s always room to improve or new heights they feel like they can achieve.
Eating disorders are about being your best, being in control, and not falling short or making mistakes.
You get an A- on your exam. What happened on that test? You knew those answers! You could have earned an A+ if you had studied just a little bit harder.
You accidentally hurt your friend’s feelings. You knew better. How could you say that?
You kept eating even though you were full, so you wouldn’t hurt your husband’s feelings. Just go throw up some of it, and you’ll feel more comfortable.
You didn’t want to be rude and not eat your own birthday cake. But now, you’re not going to look great in that dress. Go to the gym early in the morning and get in an extra long workout.
You spoke up for yourself and said no to someone. How could you do that? How could you be so mean and rude? You shouldn’t think about yourself first.
For most people, an A- would be something to celebrate. You’d apologize to your friend and try to make it up to her. You’d view it as one meal and then reduce your portion sizes. You only have one birthday a year- it’s OK to indulge in one slice of cake. You have the right to say no.
Eating Disorders Are About Being As Perfect As You Can Be- Always, No Matter What
While everyone may have an off day, for someone who is a bit of a perfectionist, an off day can feel really bad. Remember that children’s book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day? Well, even small oversights and errors can seem like a terrible, horrible, no good very bad day to someone who’s striving to be perfect.
In order to heal and to move forward, loved ones should pay less attention to how much someone is eating or how much weight they are gaining, and instead focus on helping them to trust their abilities and successes. This is not to say that physical health isn’t important.
In order for the physical health changes to happen and to stay in place, it is important for the mental and emotional outlook to change. Taking two steps forward and one step back can make things more difficult in recovery. Those constant steps forward and back can also make them wonder if they can ever kick that eating disorder to the side. Doubt always takes hostages, and makes the path to recovery even harder.
So What Can You Do to Help Someone You Love Who May Have an Eating Disorder?
1. Be genuine and real. Don’t go overboard or give compliments for every little thing. Sincerity goes a long way towards building trust- trust in your caring and trust in their real abilities.
2. Ask them for feedback. If they ask you, “Does my butt look big?” or “Do you think I was mean to her?” instead of replying back right away, get their insight. Say something like, “What do you think a butt in those jeans is supposed to look like?” or “How do you think you could have been nicer?”
Another great technique is to ask them what they think they did well, and what they would do differently in the future. That helps them to see things in a more realistic way AND to have a plan ready on how to keep from doubting in the future.
3. Listen. It can be hard to see someone you care about so much hurt. It’s natural to want to jump in and do everything you can to help. No regrets, right? Don’t underestimate the power of listening. Often, by talking it out and by sharing with someone who doesn’t try to offer advice or judgment, you will help them more than you know.
What things have you found that help with eating disorders? Are there other phrases that have worked for you? Others ways to help support them? Or, if you have experienced an issue with food, what is something you can share with others that would be helpful? Share your thoughts in the comments below, and feel free to use a cartoon name or “Anonymous” if you prefer to not use your real name. That’s just fine!