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Maybe he’s your partner or brother, maybe she’s your sister or friend or daughter. No matter the relationship, if someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder or appears to have an unhealthy relationship with food or with their body, it can be difficult to know how to help.Because eating disorders are complicated. They’re diseases with no sole cause. Multiple factors–biology, psychology, society–contribute to their development. But the cause doesn’t matter to you so much. What matters is that you’re seeing your loved one struggle.

Often those who are supporting loved ones as they struggle only see the behaviors associated with the disorders–starving, isolating, self-criticising, vomiting, bingeing, over-exercising, etc. But eating disorders are so much more layered than just behaviors. The thoughts and emotions that the struggling individual are dealing with are just as important to understand as their physical manifestations.

It can help to put yourself in your loved one’s shoes.

We all have an inner critic, a voice in our heads that springs up to tell us that we’re not smart enough, not good enough, not attractive enough. For the most part, most of us have found ways to dismiss that voice or logic the voice away. But imagine that voice being different in three very important ways:

  1. The voice is loud. Really loud.
  2. The voice won’t go away. There’s no off button.
  3. You believe the voice, and think you need it to motivate you to change.

Obviously having to listen to a dominating voice like that–so loud and so often, saying such painful things–is exhausting. The voice also makes it hard for your loved one to focus on other areas of their life. It can even make it hard for your loved one to remember their values–to remember what’s really important to them beyond what their inner critic says.

Knowing this, and being able to imagine what their daily struggle with their eating disorder must be like, can be helpful for you. Empathizing with their experience will make you much better equipped to understand their thoughts, their emotions, and–yes–their behaviors. Putting yourself in their shoes will help you be patient in those moments when your loved one is consumed by their eating disorder.

There’s your loved one. And there’s the disorder. They’re separate.

It can be difficult to remember that your loved one is not their eating disorder. Even though your loved one may feel consumed by it–you know that they’re separate. By separating the disorder from your loved one, those behaviors that seem uncharacteristic and confusing can be understood for what they are–the eating disorder. Eating disorders are self-serving and may lie, sneak, push away, or act with aggression. They take all of your loved one’s strengths and use them to fuel the eating disorder. Reminding yourself that your loved one would not be doing these things if it were not for the eating disorder will help you persist in your aim to support their health. It will help you not blame them. And, it will help you remain compassionate.

There’s you. And there’s your loved one. They’re separate.

Maybe you’ve been looking forward to going out to dinner with some friends all week, but you know that your loved one has a fear of eating in public. You know that your support is an important ingredient in the recovery process, so you consider canceling dinner.

Don’t. It’s important to recognize when you need a break from focusing on being supportive, and to set healthy limits with the eating disorder. Remember that the goal is to support your loved one–NOT the eating disorder. So, ask how you can support them during the meal. Or, acknowledge that they might not be ready for this step, and give yourself permission to go alone and enjoy yourself. Seeking a healthy balance between providing support and taking breaks will help you stay strong. And the more strength you have, the more supportive you can be.

In a future post, we’re going to get into the specifics of how you can be supportive through your words–the kinds of things you can say so that you’re really helping and not hurting.

Until then, remember that recovery from eating disorders is possible. Preparing yourself with as much information as you can from as many credible sources as you can find will help you provide the best support to your loved one. There are many resources available online, including through National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA). Talk to your loved one, to those who are recovered, and read as many articles and books as you can. The more knowledge you gain, the more you’ll be able to actually support your loved one as they struggle with their disorder.