How to Be There for Someone Who Discloses an Eating Disorder
Disclosing an eating disorder can be uncomfortable—even downright scary. In fact, research shows the prevalence of those who suffer from eating disorders is vastly underrepresented. A 2019 estimate from the Global Burden of Diseases reveals that as many as 41.9 million eating disorder cases were unreported over the course of just one year.1
Lack of eating disorder disclosure can result from numerous factors—the mental health stigma that continues to pervade some cultures, systemic barriers that often hinder access to treatment in marginalized communities, or intense shame that forces many to endure their pain in silence are just a few. This is why it's crucial to be there for someone who discloses an eating disorder to you. Here's how to do it in a way that communicates both safety and support.
It's a Brave and Vulnerable Step to Disclose an Eating Disorder
When someone discloses an eating disorder to you, chances are, they have not taken that step lightly. The fear, shame, insecurities, trauma, and self-loathing at the core of this illness often lead to a pattern of secrecy. It can be a harrowing experience to voice the truth of an eating disorder when thought distortions, which play on a continuous inner loop, urge the person to remain silent. If someone chooses to trust you with such sensitive information, pause to recognize just how brave and vulnerable it is to disclose an eating disorder in the first place. This affirmation will let the other person know it's safe to confide in you.
Once you establish the tone for a supportive discussion, here are a few other tips to be there for someone who discloses an eating disorder to you. I have been on the receiving end of many disclosures, so I can tell you firsthand that these strategies work for me. Due to the complex nature of eating disorders, as well as the fierce emotions that come along with them, I think it's useful to have at least a general blueprint to help guide the conversation.
5 Tips to Be There for Someone Who Discloses an Eating Disorder
- Lean in with compassion and validation. You might not be able to empathize with the specific kind of pain your friend, or family member is in the throes of, but everyone can relate to the universal human experience of suffering. Show the other person that you validate their emotions and you have compassion for their circumstance.
- Avoid mentioning any possible triggers. Even well-intentioned comments about food, weight, calories, exercise, or body image can cause severe anxiety for someone with an eating disorder. It's important to be aware of this and steer the conversation away from distressing topics that could further intensify harmful behaviors.
- Listen to understand, not just to respond. Resist the urge to formulate your response while the other person is talking; otherwise, you can miss valuable information that will clue you into their current emotional and mental state. Your role is not to judge this person's choices or to fix their situation but to make sure they feel heard.
- Be patient, even when you're frustrated. Your friend or family member's behaviors might seem irrational. It's normal to experience confusion or frustration when someone actively harms their own body. But no matter how you feel about their actions, continue to extend patience and celebrate each small step in the direction of healing.
- Offer to help—but try not to overwhelm. Communicate that you will lend support if the other person wants it. Offer to help them research treatment options and resources. Ask if they need someone to accompany them to a counseling session. Make yourself available, but don't heap on the pressure, or your loved one might shut down.
How do you navigate the conversation when someone discloses an eating disorder to you? What responses have been the most helpful in situations when you chose to disclose your own eating disorder? Please share your insights in the comment section below.
- Santomauro, D., et al., "The Hidden Burden of Eating Disorders: An Extension of Estimates from the Global Burden of Diseases Study 2019." The Lancet Psychiatry, April 1, 2021.
Schurrer, M. (2022, March 31). How to Be There for Someone Who Discloses an Eating Disorder, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2023, June 1 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/survivinged/2022/3/how-to-be-there-for-someone-who-discloses-an-eating-disorder