When you know someone who is in eating disorder recovery, it’s only natural that you’d want to be an encouragement to them—to say something that boosts their spirits, rallies their confidence, or simply reminds them that they are not alone.
The difficulty is in knowing exactly what you should say. Even well-intentioned comments can sometimes be hurtful, and when you’ve never dealt with an eating disorder yourself, it can simply be difficult to know how best to broach the issue.
It is vital to be careful and judicious in what you say—striving always to speak words of empathy and compassion, and to never say anything that could be triggering. This may sound daunting, but our intent is not that you wouldn’t say anything. Words of assurance matter greatly during the recovery process. Rather, we simply invite you to think about some of the ways in which well-meaning comments can actually do more harm than good.
The Wrong Phrases
Here are just a few key examples.
You don’t look like you have an eating disorder. For one thing, a comment like this one betrays a lack of real understanding of what eating disorders are; they come in many forms and have many symptoms, and not everyone who has an eating disorder is going to look a certain way. Moreover, it draws attention to physical appearance, body image, and weight, which can all be triggering for the person in recovery.
You look great/ you look thin/ you look like you’ve lost weight/ you look like you’ve put on some weight. Comments like these are doubtless intended to be encouraging—but as with the last entry, they can actually be triggering, and are generally unhelpful.
Wow, you eat a lot/ wow, you should eat more! Those who are in recovery are likely eating from meal plans recommended by their dietitian, which is to say, meal plans intended to restore them to normalized eating. It’s generally best not to comment on what the person in recovery puts on to his or her plate.
Oh, please, have another helping/ oh, please, try this food! See the previous comment; those in recovery need to stick to their meal plans, and being pushy about food will not help them do that.
You’re lucky to be so thin! An eating disorder is a mental health disease that can do immense psychological damage, and in some cases can even be deadly. It is never anything to be thankful for or to esteem.
Can you choose to be better? While those with eating disorders can choose to seek recovery, it’s not something that happens overnight—and it’s important not to think that the individual can simply will himself or herself into overnight results.
What Should You Say?
Those phrases are all ones that we’d urge you to avoid—but what, then, should you say to your friend or loved one with an eating disorder?
The best thing you can do is also the simplest: Simply offer your support. Let your loved one know that you love them, care for them, want to see them get better, and want to help in any way you can. Make it clear that you’re willing to talk with them about what they’re going through, but don’t be pushy about it. Let them open up in their own time.
Compassion is the order of the day—and that starts with recognizing what to say, and also what not to say.[cta] Learn more about the recovery process; explore our blog archives! [/cta]