1. Don't take it personally.
We sometimes take it personally that our loved one is struggling with an eating disorder. We feel guilty, angry, offended, frustrated, neglected, hurt, and confused.
Know that all these feelings are normal and okay to experience, but remember that eating disorders are complex illnesses that almost never come from a place of ill intent. They have a way of manipulating people into making the eating disorder the priority. It's not about you.
2. Don't assume you can heal them on your own.
Eating disorders can be one of the most challenging mental illnesses to treat — for a professional. So don't assume that because you are close to the person you can heal them. You'll end up overwhelmed, lost, and frustrated.
Plus, in assuming responsibility, you might be preventing your friend or loved one from getting professional help. Finally, many cases require a team of individuals, such as a therapist, nutritionist, and psychiatrist. It usually involves education, helping patients improve their relationship to themselves and others, and finding purpose. A treatment center is often your best resource for covering all these bases.
3. Don't tell them they're "not fat."
An eating disorder tells a person that they're never thin enough. When a person with an eating disorder looks in the mirror, they are repulsed by the image before them. So telling them they're "not fat" can just reinforce their belief that they need to be thin to be loved, and keeps the attention on their body.
Instead, try something like, "I love when you're present with me and the eating disorder isn't coming between us. I love when we can share a meal together or sleep in on a Sunday morning."
4. Don't shame or monitor them.
I had a client whose mother told her "You're smarter than this. You're being childish and ignorant keeping yourself at this sickly weight." But shaming someone for their struggle is an avenue toward disconnection.
And because an eating disorder is often a way of dealing with difficult feelings (shame being a very common one), shaming a person is just likely to reinforce the illness. Similarly, "watching" someone during or following meals breeds distrust, judgment, resentment, and control in your relationship — all things that might inhibit recovery.
5. Don't forget about yourself.
When someone we love is struggling, it's a heartbreaking and exhausting place to be. So it's very important to set boundaries, practice your own self-care, and seek help yourself.
Consider seeing a therapist, or joining a support group for people with a family member with mental illness. If putting yourself first is hard for you to do, think of it this way: you will be a better support to your loved one if your own mental health is in balance.