Many young women suffering from eating disorders build up the courage to tell their friends and family about their ED, but then what? How do you keep the conversation going to help your recovery?
Dealing with your ED all by yourself can be overwhelming. “You have to reach out to people other than your eating disorder to get well,” says Carolyn Costin, an eating disorder therapist, author and speaker. “Their eating disorder symptoms become the way they cope with things.”
*Kaitlin, a junior who struggled with an eating disorder, feels the same way. “Eating disorders thrive off secrecy, manipulating your thoughts and isolating you from those around you,” she says. “As soon as you start to discuss what you’re feeling with someone else, it’s a lot easier to see how the disordered thinking is irrational.”
With that being said, just winging it might not be the most beneficial way to have these conversations. Keeping the following six tips in mind might help make these talks easier and more effective.
1. Set goals for conversations
It can be difficult to precisely plan conversations with such an emotionally charged topic, but thinking about why you want to talk to the person can help keep the conversation going in a productive direction.
“Have a goal in the conversation. Then, as you have that conversation, stop and ask yourself if you’re approaching that goal,” Costin says. “What’s important is to make sure that the person who has the eating disorder knows what they want to get across. That doesn’t mean they have to know the answer. It can be something as simple as ‘I’m confused’ or ‘I don’t understand myself very well.'”
You don’t have to map out the entire conversation, but you can make a few mental notes, or literally take physical notes, before going into it.
“Write down your thoughts ahead of time so you’ve planned out what you’re going to say,” says Kaitlin. Planning can help make sure that rather than letting your emotions control the conversation, you’re talking with intent.
2. Say as much or as little as you need to
*Marissa, a sophomore, says even though she didn’t talk at length to her friends about her eating disorder, she did send them a simple text to communicate how she was feeling.
“I remember texting the few friends I sat with at lunch and saying, ‘Hey guys, this really isn’t something I want to talk about, but I have had some issues with eating lately and I’m currently seeing a therapist. I really don’t want to answer any questions, but could you keep in mind that when people comment on my food, portion sizes, exercise habits, or my body, it makes me extremely uncomfortable? Hopefully, this will be over soon, but as of right now I just wanted you to know. Love you guys and thanks for always being supportive!’, Marissa says. “That was really all it took and they were super supportive and never asked me any questions.”
Short and sweet and to the point. There’s no need to pour your soul out if you don’t want to. But if you feel the need to elaborate and have found someone you feel comfortable opening up to, you shouldn’t be afraid to say more.
3. Refer to an outside source
There’s nothing wrong with letting someone else do the talking sometimes. “I found a lot of helpful information on www.recoverywarriors.com that I would send to my family to help them understand,” Marissa says. “There are also a lot of really good TED talks.”
Books like Costin’s 8 Keys to Recovery from an Eating Disorder, co-authored by Gwen Schubert Grabb, can also be helpful reads for loved ones. “It was written for clients, but parents really tell me it helps them communicate,” Costin says.
Additionally, Costin explains that reading the book gives family and friends a better idea of how eating disorders work, without the person struggling to have to explain everything to them. For example, Costin talks about the difference between the healthy self and the eating disorder self in her book—something that probably doesn’t immediately make sense to loved ones. Understanding concepts like this can help friends and family who have trouble wrapping their minds around your ED become a stronger support system.
4. Bring your loved ones to therapy
Costin says that she brings a patient’s family or friends into sessions with her all the time so that she can help them navigate the conversation. For example, Costin says, “I suggest that they use a talking stick, because conversations can get very heated. Whoever is talking holds the talking stick and tries to express what they’re feeling, and only when they’re finished do they put down the stick and someone else can pick it up.”
You shouldn’t be afraid to ask the people who play a big part in your life and recovery to come in. “Anybody who’s in your life, who you’re close to — why not?” Costin says. “People need help with how to support each other, how to best talk about it.”
Having a professional mediator there to keep the conversation on track and help you talk to your loved ones might help alleviate the discomfort or stress that often comes with these talks.
5. Choose who you talk to wisely
While it would be nice if everybody could be open and helpful, the reality is, some relationships aren’t built for these kinds of talks. Not only should you talk to someone you’re close enough to (i.e. probably not that girl you’re working on a group project with), but even among your close friends, you should try and choose someone who you think would contribute to a healthy conversation.
“You have to know what friend,” Costin says. “Some won’t know what to say, some will feel burdened. It doesn’t mean they’re a horrible friend, they just aren’t suited to talk about it.”
Family members can struggle too. “For example, I have situations where there’s a mother who’s filled with anxiety and gets more anxious or upset when the daughter talks to her,” Costin says. “If it doesn’t work out—who else can you tell this to?”
Kaitlin also realized some people had a more difficult time talking about it than others. “One thing I will stress is that everyone reacts differently and you have to allow them that as well as time to come to terms with what you tell them,” she says. “Not everyone is going to be able to support you 100 percent in the ways you’d like them to, but having the conversation is important regardless.”
Marissa says she preferred talking to people besides family. “I absolutely hated talking to my parents about it. I couldn’t get a word out without crying, and they just never understood and it was awful,” she says. It would be unreasonable to expect that you can control how everyone you talk to reacts.
“It will keep getting worse until you tell someone,” Marrisa says. “I told my school counselor first and had her talk to my parents. Eventually, I had to have some conversations with my parents, but I tried to keep them to a minimum because I just really didn’t enjoy them.”
It might take some trial and error, but finding the right circle of people is key.
6. Use “truth without judgment”
Costin emphasizes one phrase to keep in mind when talking about your ED. “Use truth without judgment — take all the negativity and all the blaming out of the conversation,” Costin says. “If you’re feeling angry or tearful you have to get yourself back to the neutral to communicate.”
If everyone in the conversation remembers this idea, it can help make these talks a conversation — not an argument.
“In my book it talks a lot about how you want everybody on the same side, so it’s not the parent against the daughter for example — it’s both the daughter and the parent working to understand and combat the eating disorder,” Costin says.
As far as the truth part goes, there’s really no point to talking about your eating disorder if you’re not going to be honest. “Honesty was the best policy, and while it was so hard at first to open up, down the line it was such an important tool of release being able to talk about how I struggled,” says Kaitlin.
Your eating disorder will probably never be your favorite thing to talk about, but no one should have to face an eating disorder all alone. Therapists are a good resource, but outside of that time, you should have a supportive group that knows about your ED and can listen and help when you need someone else to lean on.
*Names have been changed