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Communicating with an Eating Disorder

Eating disorders can create tensions within families, causing arguments about food and treatment. This blog aims to help improve the communication skills between eating disorder sufferers and their families.

If you are supporting someone through an eating disorder
It is important to focus on open communication and trust when talking to a person with an eating disorder. Focus on who you are talking to, what they may be feeling and remember to remove any blame you have placed upon yourself.

The importance of open communication

If you are feeling upset, you must be able to communicate this in a way that doesn't overwhelm your loved one who is suffering with an eating disorder. Don’t lie about how you feel but also be mindful that you are communicating with someone who is unwell. Choose your words carefully and mindfully. By keeping open and honest in your conversations about emotions, allows the person to reciprocate in being honest about their own feelings.

Some (not all) eating disorders restrict food intake for long periods of time in the sufferer, causing malnourishment side effects including forgetfulness, numbness, ‘brain fog’ and short temperedness. Keep these symptoms in mind when talking with a loved one who has an eating disorder because these will often dictate how that person communicates. Be kind and patient with lots of reassurance. Subtly emphasise key words and phrases if your loved one is having a particularly hard time communicating and be aware of the tone you are using to speak to them.

There may be a lot of frustration if your loved one seems unresponsive or appears to be ignoring what you’re saying, but this could be due to a lack of nourishment to the brain. The loved one may be physically unable to respond the way they used to and it’s going to be frustrating to them as well.

It’s okay to admit that you don't understand what it’s like to have an eating disorder, and it’s okay to tell a loved one who is suffering from one that you don't know how to help them. What is important is that you remind them that they are loved no matter what and that you won’t leave their side, even through tough times.

Trust is vitally important in your loved one’s recovery as it is a very difficult emotion for them to feel. Trusting anything outside of a manipulating eating disorder can be excruciatingly hard for them and so any trust placed with you must not be taken for granted.

Sneaking high calorie foods, spying on them when you suspect they may be overexercising, binging or purging can betray that trust, which might result in a complete breakdown of trust and communication.

Remove the blame
You should also remember is that it is not your fault that someone you love has developed an eating disorder.

A person with an eating disorder is often very self-conscious about the effect they have on the people around them. If they see you blaming yourself, they will feel like they have placed this suffering onto you, making them feel even more guilty about their illness

Who are you actually speaking to?
Try to separate your loved one from the eating disorder that they are suffering, they are not in control of the awful side effects caused by the illness. Try to see past the eating disorder and speak to the person like you would have done before they became unwell. They are still the person you used to know.

If you and a loved one are having an argument about food, remember that you are probably talking to their eating disorder, not them. Eating disorders can become so strong that at times, they completely inhabit a persons’ thoughts, this can lead to the person with an eating disorder lying, shouting and making nasty remarks. Ask yourself ‘would they be saying this if they were well?’.

Try not to hold those arguments against the person. They are unwell and most likely feel stressed, highly anxious and under constant attack from both their eating disorder and those who are trying to help.

If you are suffering from an eating disorder
Working on your honesty, responsibility and placing focus on recovery techniques can make talking about your eating disorder less difficult. Learning how to rephrase words in a way that can effectively reflect how you feel is also another way to communicate better with the people around you.

In recovery, trusting another person can be difficult, especially with regards to food and treatment. Things are made easier when you know there is a space to be open and honest with those who are supporting you.

But just as trusting others is important, the ability to be trustworthy is equally important. It may be tempting to be dishonest about your eating disorder and the actions you do because of it, but this will cause a lack of trust between you and your supporters, which could potentially lead to conflict.

If you have not been truthful about your eating disorder, it can be hard to admit this, but doing so will allow you to build trust with those around you and in return, they should be equally as honest with you. Respect is gained through trust and can be important to your recovery.

‘I’ not ‘You’
When communicating with the people who support you, try using ‘I’ statements to avoid casting blame onto them which can trigger them to act defensively.

If you feel hurt by someone's actions, try saying ‘I feel hurt’ rather than ‘You have hurt me’. Other
examples include:

You have betrayed me → I feel betrayed
You’re making me very angry → I feel very angry
You’re so annoying! → I feel annoyed
You always upset me → I feel upset when I talk to you a lot of the time

What helps you?
The people who want to support you are not mind readers, they also don't necessarily know what it’s like to have an eating disorder. They may be trying their best with very little knowledge about what you are experiencing, so it might be helpful to think about the ways in which they can help you. Make a list of the words and phrases you find triggering or useful and write down the coping techniques you find helpful. If you can think about the different ways in which people can help you and communicate these effectively, then this can help you in your recovery and reduce frustration and misunderstandings.

If you find it difficult to communicate verbally or through lists, have a think about the other ways in which you can communicate. Voice notes, letter writing, sign language or finding songs or movies that describe the way you are feeling might make a difference in the effectiveness of your communication skills.

It’s your responsibility
Your parents, friends and family are not solely responsible for your mental health recovery, so don’t put all the pressure on them. Recovery and change come from within you. It might be helpful to remind your supporters of this too, especially if they are going into ‘rescuer mode’ and trying to take responsibility for your thoughts, feelings and behaviours.

Final thoughts
Communication is a two-way process and places responsibility at both ends. Listening to one another and being compassionate allows families to strengthen their relationships and tackle eating disorder related issues more effectively.

Whether you are an eating disorder sufferer or know someone who is, taking the time to utilise some of the key points in this blog could help improve your communication skills around this topic.