by Tasha Castor, MSEd., LPC
National Eating Disorder Awareness (NEDA) Week ended on Saturday, March 1. We hope the infographics we’ve posted here have been helpful, informative, and perhaps even instrumental in changing how you think about eating disorders. Maybe the NEDA campaign even sparked you to say to yourself, at some point in the week, “I had no idea…”
A week out of the year to raise awareness for one of the most deadly mental illnesses is powerful. However, it is not long enough for our clients, who deal with it every week of the year. Our clients deserve for us to continue to change how we think and what we do about eating disorders every day.
So what does this mean in a practical sense? As a therapist, it means I continue to challenge the societal myths about eating disorders that parents and loved ones of my clients hold. It means that I educate myself about the latest developments in eating disorders research. It means that I advocate for my clients and teach them to advocate for themselves, too.
However, if you’re not a therapist, what can you do? The possibilities are as limitless as your ideas and resources. Here are just a few ideas: Write letters to government representatives, advocating for better mental healthcare coverage; boycott brands that glamorize unhealthy bodies; mentor a younger person who may be at risk for disordered eating; research scientific developments in understanding eating disorders for yourself. You don’t have to be a therapist to make a difference!
You can also change our society’s perception of eating disorders one person at a time, just by the way you talk with a person who suffers from the disease. Many of my clients are frustrated and annoyed with how often they hear comments like, “I wish I had your problem,” or “I don’t understand why you just can’t eat,” or “You look fine to me.” While the rest of the world can hear these statements and brush them aside, to someone with an eating disorder, they can make the disease worse. People who suffer from eating disorders are already fighting a battle with the eating disorder voice in their heads. Because of this vulnerability, an off-hand comment is usually taken personally. Someone with an eating disorder is a harsh critic of her or himself, so outside comments (even if they are meant to be helpful) only validate the negativity the person feels.
If you struggle with “the right thing” to say to someone with an eating disorder, you may want to borrow a page from Imago Therapy, which was developed by Drs. Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt. The therapy was created to heal relationships with one of its core tenants being a rubric for communication. This rubric is composed of three parts: mirror, validate, and empathize. It is designed to honor listening above proving a point.
In everyday life, perhaps one where you live with someone who is recovering from an eating disorder, it looks something like the following scenario. Your loved one complains she is fat. (This is the eating disorder voice talking.) You can clearly see that her weight is healthy, and you say, “No, you’re not. You look just fine. You’re beautiful.”
While there is nothing “wrong” with your comment, it is not something your loved one can hear. She may think you’re just saying it because “it’s what you’re supposed to say.” Inside her head, all she hears is that you don’t have the nerve to tell her she’s fat and so you avoided the topic altogether. Instead of trying to challenge the eating disorder voice (because that’s her job anyway), try this:
(Mirror) “I hear you saying you are fat.”
(Validate) “It makes a lot of sense that you would think and feel that way when you are recovering from an eating disorder.”
(Empathize) “I certainly don’t know what that feels like, but it has to be very hard to have those thoughts and feelings.”
While it may feel awkward and forced at first, with a little practice, you will find that it takes a lot of pressure off responding to your loved one. By simply echoing and affirming her or him, you are strengthening your bond as a safe and supportive person. And any person recovering from an eating disorder will tell you that having safe and supportive people is key to recovery.
It’s time to put it all together. Now that you have a lot of information from NEDA Week and a few thoughts on how to put that knowledge into practice, you likely have an idea of how to help someone with an eating disorder. You may never suffer from this biologically-based mental illness, but with a little awareness and empathy, you can make a huge difference to those who do.