Watching close friends suffer is never easy, but eating disorders make it even more difficult. Eating disorders are a very internalized and isolating issue. For this reason, outside relationships cannot have a direct impact on the disorder. Any true help must come from the struggling individual. However, there are ways that friends can help an individual reach a place where they feel good enough to seek recovery. There is no one way to help a friend who has an eating disorder, but here are some important support points:
1. Understand you cannot force them to change.
There is so much more to eating disorders than the food. Pushing someone to eat more may actually make the situation worse. Confronting someone head on usually also acts as a trigger, and asking them to change brings up a tremendous amount of guilt. The way to change is not through coercion, it is through love and support.
2. If your friend claims to have an eating disorder, believe them.
Don’t assume just because someone looks healthy or even overweight that they couldn’t have an eating disorder. The real support is needed before the physical signs show. When someone becomes noticeably thin, it is very late into their struggle and much harder to recover. Also, don’t brush off your male friends. While eating disorders are more common in women, it is very possible for men to have them as well.
3. Help them to form healthy behaviors.
Eating disorders are just as much about self-image as they are about stress and control. Without any mention of the eating disorder, you can help your friend through moments of stress and work with them to find new ways to work out their feelings, even if its just talking with you for a while.
4. Understand their triggers.
If going clothes shopping can trigger guilt and self-consciousness in your friend, avoid the activity. Don’t think that bringing them clothes shopping with support can help. No matter what, you cannot change the individuals’ internalized view of themselves. You can really only tackle these triggering kinds of activities late in recovery.
5. Know how to confront them, if needed.
A lot of the time it is best to just provide support for your friend. But if the situation is getting dangerously life threatening, you might need to step in. Talk about how the eating disorder effects the relationship you have, not the individual. Steer clear of blame, and don’t talk about looks. Be clear that health is the main focus. You might not be able to reach a concrete solution, but you may be able to ask them what you can do to help.
6. Have patience.
When you see a close friend struggling, it is hard to not want to shake them and get them to snap out of it in order to be happy again. You will feel frustrated, and there will be times that will make you feel horrible because there is nothing that you can do directly. Be patient with your friend, understand that you aren’t running by their side, but rather walking. Sometimes it may even seem like a tip-toe. The issue has nothing to do with whether you’re a good friend or not. An eating disorder is a very personalized, internal struggle. Just provide as much support as you can and be happy for the times when you can bring a smile to their face. Your friendship itself will give them a reason to seek out recovery.