Food issues ActNow: When you want to be supportive, but you don't know how
" It's not talking about will power and sticking to a diet. It is her struggle, not yours, but you can dwell on the positive and not feed negativity." -Sue Babcock
by Kathy Magnuson
Have you ever avoided a friend in crisis because you didn't know what to say? Have you ever not called or stopped to see someone who was hurting because you couldn't find the right words?
For some people, a friend or family member with food or body issues can present that kind of situation. You want to be supportive but you don't know how.
Licensed Psychologist Sue Babcock of the Emily Program, which offers treatment for eating disorders, gave practical advice. "I always encourage people to look at what is concerning them. Are they starting to notice that someone doesn't eat with them anymore or seems sad at mealtime or makes excuses to not be with them? Whatever the concerning behavior is," she said, the point is "to be able to talk about it from that point of view." She suggested saying, "'I'm worried that I don't see you any more at dinners.' Or 'I noticed that your weight is dropping so I just wondered what is going on with that?' 'It seems like you are avoiding eating. Do you want to talk about that?'"
Babcock also suggested saying, "I noticed that you make a lot of derogatory comments about your body and I'm just wondering if you want to talk a little more about that." She has heard some clients say that no one has ever talked to them about food and eating in that way.
Maybe your loved one has told you she/he is in treatment for an eating disorder. How do you support that person? Or as Babcock said, "What does it really look like to be supportive in the trenches?" It looks like honesty. You might say, "I really want to be supportive and I don't know how to best do that. Are there things you'd like from me or would you let me know if I say something that isn't helpful?"
It's not talking about will power and sticking to a diet. It is her struggle, not yours, but you can dwell on the positive and not feed negativity. Babcock suggested if "someone makes negative comments about her body or how she eats, you could ask her, 'How would you like your behavior to be different?'"
Support can include focusing on the person's other qualities or how you connect with her aside from eating or exercising. It can be as simple and as powerful as letting that person hear that even when you know about her eating disorder, you still care for her and love her.
Talking about food issues with a family member or friend
Accept your limitations; e.g. you can't make her/him want to get better.
Accept the person for who she/he is. Remember that she/he is an individual; she/he is not her/his eating disorder.
Compliment strengths that have nothing to do with appearance, eating or food.
Don't make excuses for the person with the eating disorder. Remember that each person is responsible for her/his own behavior.
Be a good role model when discussing food and weight-related issues. Having compassion for another does not mean being manipulated by them. Do not comment about someone's weight and looks.
You can't speak for her/him, but you can listen. Convey that you believe in her/him and know that she/he will find the answers she/he needs.
Recognize that recovery is a process. It takes time; it's seldom logical or linear.