The Do’s and Don’ts: If someone tells you they have an eating disorder

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If someone confides in you that they have an eating disorder, it may be difficult to know what to say. Even those with the best intentions may accidentally say something triggering or painful.

From the sufferer’s standpoint, there’s nothing worse than telling someone and receiving a poor reaction. Just the act of sharing that huge secret is courageous and terrifying.

They are extremely vulnerable after sharing this information and the last thing they need is to feel insulted or misunderstood. If you want to be helpful, start by trying to understand a few basics facts about eating disorders:

1. It is not the sufferers fault.

Many people struggle with eating disorders for various reasons. Most start with an innocent diet and exercise routine that became too extreme. Many people who suffer with bulimia are afraid of gaining weight and being judged for their appearance. I’m sure everyone can relate to those fears, as well as the desire to be accepted and loved. Realize that nobody would choose to have an eating disorder and they never intended for things to get out of control.

2. You can’t fix them.

No matter how hard you try, if that person just isn’t ready to recover, there’s nothing you can do to force it. If it was easy to ‘just stop’, they would.  Recovery is a process that takes some time, so be patient.

3. They aren’t trying to hurt you.

It may make you feel bad that they are struggling, but they aren’t out to cause pain for you or anyone else.  Even if they are dishonest about eating, they are just ashamed and embarrassed about their disorder. They’re still the same good-hearted person, but they just need some compassion and understanding.

4. It took some serious courage to tell you.

There’s a good chance this person has been suffering in silence for a long time. If they finally reached the point of telling you, please respect the courage it took to come clean. They are risking criticism and blame, so make sure they know you appreciate their honesty.

5. They are truly suffering.

Eating disorders should be taken very seriously. Even if a person tells you they ‘only throw up sometimes’ or they ‘have a small problem with food,’ they are probably suffering beyond what they’re sharing. Eating disorders consume a person’s thoughts, time and energy. They cause great emotional and physical pain. Acknowledge the suffering that person is enduring each day and try to show empathy.

Now that you have a greater understanding of what they’ve just shared, here are some Do’s and Don’ts to help you react in a supportive, caring way.

Don’t act shocked and horrified.

This person is watching your reaction very closely to see what you think of them now. Avoid saying things like, “Wow that is really gross!” or exclaiming, “I can’t believe you do that!”

Do stay calm and reassure them.

Try saying something like, “I’m so sorry you’re dealing with this right now. I’ll support you in any way I can.” Stay positive and caring.

Don’t blame them.

Never say, “Well why did you start in the first place?”  You won’t accomplish anything by making them feel worse.

Do offer understanding.

You can say, “Don’t feel bad about it; just tell me how I can help you.” Always give your full attention and support while they are sharing their secret.

Don’t increase their shame or embarrassment.

Stay away from saying things like, “Wow, I’ve never known anyone who does this.” Or “How could you do such a thing?”

Do your best to reduce their shame and guilt.

Even if you’re just listening to them, it means a lot for them to know that you care.

Don’t try to scare them into recovery.

It’s not helpful to mention someone who had serious health problems or even death from an eating disorder. This will only cause worry, not inspiration.

Do remind them that they aren’t alone.

You could tell them, “I’ve heard that eating disorders aren’t all that uncommon.  You aren’t alone in this, so don’t feel ashamed.”

Don’t talk about their weight.

Avoid things like, “You should gain XXX lbs to be healthy” or “You look better after losing weight.” Weight is a very touchy subject for someone with an eating disorder. In fact, avoid talking about your weight or anyone else’s for that matter. They don’t want to hear about how you or anyone else lost or gained a few pounds while they are struggling each day.

Do compliment them for things besides physical appearance.

Complimenting their ability to solve problems, their taste in music or an accomplishment of theirs will make them feel more loved as a person, not just for their appearance.

Don’t pressure them to talk about it.

If they want to talk, they will. Otherwise just give them some space or you’ll end up pushing them away.

Do listen when they talk.

Offer your undivided attention as they discuss these sensitive issues. Try being an active and empathetic listener by using eye contact, attentive body language and showing understanding by nodding or offering thoughtful remarks.

Don’t ask inappropriate questions.

If you are curious about how or why they do something, google it. Never ask them things like, “How do you make yourself throw up?” or “How much food do you eat at a binge?” Also, avoid questions about their weight fluctuations or purging habits. If you are only asking out of curiosity, you don’t really need to ask.

Do ask helpful questions.

Like, “Do you want to talk about it?” or “How long have you suffered?” Questions that show you care are appropriate, but don’t be offended if they choose not to answer.

Don’t tell others.

Unless you feel that their life is in immediate danger, there’s no need to tell anyone else. If you suspect that they are suicidal, seek help immediately. Otherwise, never gossip or share what they’ve told you in confidence.   

Do respect their privacy.

Let them know that you take this seriously and can be trusted.

Don’t make jokes.

Even a well-intentioned joke is inappropriate. Never say, “I wish I had an eating disorder, maybe I would lose weight!” or “I was bulimic one time when I had the flu.” First of all, things like that aren’t funny. Secondly, they just show that you aren’t taking this seriously.

Do show that you are willing to learn about recovery.

Offer to do some research about eating disorder treatment options or find some recovery books.

Don’t offer unprofessional advice.

You may mean well, but giving advice that you aren’t sure about isn’t going to be helpful.

Do encourage them to get help.

If you aren’t able to help them, they need to find someone who can.

Don’t suggest recovery books you haven’t read.

You may see a book that relates to eating disorders and buy it for them as a gift. Although well-intentioned, this act can be very detrimental if the book is triggering. Look for books that don’t contain details about purging methods, calorie counting or specific weight numbers.

Do show that you still accept them and are willing to help them overcome their eating disorder.

The very best thing you can do is to reassure them that you still respect and care about them.

And the last great thing you can do for them is to provide hope.

Here at Bulimia Help, we’ve supported many people who have made full recoveries.

Share some success stories with them.  Remind them that a full recovery is possible! Tell them you believe that with the right support and an effective recovery strategy, they can leave this dark secret in the past and move on with their lives.

For more information please check out our guides on how to tell someone you have an eating disorder

Perfection is not necessary in order to recover.

For those who don't know me, my name is Jen Knaebel. I'm a recovery coach here at Bulimia Help. I've made a full recovery from bulimia and now spend my time coaching others through the process.

You can listen to my story or check out my coaching page if you're seeking support.



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The information provided in this website is for information purposes only. The information on this website is NOT a substitute for proper diagnosis, treatment or the provision of advice by an appropriate health professional. Please refer to the full disclaimer and copyright. If you do think you might suffer from an eating disorder, it is important that you talk to your General Practitioner, as there are many physical complications that can arise from being at an unhealthily low weight or from losing weight very quickly, or from purging. We advise you to seek professional help with working on an eating disorder.


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