Telling someone else about your eating disorder is scary, perhaps one of the most anxiety-inducing steps of your recovery journey. Here are a few tips to help make that first conversation a little easier.
Choose someone you trust
With a sensitive topic such as mental health, it can be difficult to identify the best person to confide in. It might be helpful to think about some of the following when considering who you could start the conversation with.
Is there a particular person who you trust? Telling someone that you think you might have an eating disorder is incredibly personal and sensitive, and so it is important to go to someone you feel you can speak to in confidence. Of course, you need to be aware that someone might need to notify others of your conversation if they feel there is a real risk, but they should always discuss this with you first.
Secondly, is there someone you have confided in before, perhaps someone you have talked to about mental health? If you have a friend or family member who you have spoken to about difficult subjects before, and they have supported you, it could be a good idea to take this conversation to them.
Knowing that the person hearing you will be supportive and non-judgmental can make starting the conversation a little bit easier.
Find a good time and a safe space
It is best to organise a time with the other person, so you know that they will be able to listen. Furthermore, try to choose somewhere you know you are unlikely to be interrupted – the worst thing would be to build up to telling someone only to have someone else walk in.
Whilst a conversation in person with someone is, I think, the best way to build trust, if you find it too daunting, then that’s ok. Perhaps you could organise a time to call or message a friend. Whilst it can be difficult to read someone’s reaction over messages, you are still making the brave step of starting that conversation. Perhaps doing it over the phone will give you the confidence to speak to them about it in person later on.
Prepare what you want to say
Discussing your eating with someone for the first time can feel like a journey into the unknown, so it’s best to have an idea of the main things you want to achieve from the conversation. What are the main points you want them to understand?
Firstly, how have you been feeling? Perhaps you could make some time in the days before you speak to someone to pause and reflect on your emotions. How is the way you feel influencing your diet and exercise? Are there any habits or behaviours that you notice yourself doing to cope with those feelings? How long have you been feeling this way? Jotting down short answers to some of these questions and taking them into the conversation means that you won’t need to recall difficult memories or experiences in the moment.
Finally, what can the person you are confiding in do to support you? Sometimes people don’t know how to respond – that’s ok, as it is not an easy thing to hear that someone you care about it facing these difficulties – so it can be helpful to provide them with some suggestions about how they can help you going forward.
Offering some ideas or actions can also help move the conversation towards a conclusion, and finish on a more positive, forward-looking note.
Be prepared for questions and reactions…
We can’t predict how someone is going to react. Try to be prepared for the other person to be surprised, or even upset – remember that they are hearing that someone they care about has been dealing with some really tough thoughts, feelings, and experiences. I remember my mum would say ‘I’d noticed you weren’t eating as much’, or ‘I thought you looked thinner’, which not only made me feel like I’d let her down, but also made my eating disorder panic about the fact that she was ‘watching me’, bringing on all sorts of paranoia.
If you do face a negative or unhelpful reaction, try to go back to your list of ‘it would help me if you could support me by…’ statements. If they say something triggering, or ask you questions that you don’t feel comfortable answering, or try to force you to do something you aren’t ready to do, don’t be afraid to gently tell them. You could even have a few resources in mind to give them, so that they may start to understand things better.
It’s also okay to take a break from the conversation if you need to - the door isn’t closed.
Sometimes people will react out of surprise, shock, or even shame that they have let this go unnoticed, and once these initial emotions have passed, they may be willing to talk about things more calmly and constructively. Take the example of my mum. She wasn’t making those comments because she was ‘watching me’; those remarks actually came from her own guilt at seeing the daughter she cared for rapidly lose weight and not stepping in to help. Once she had dealt with those initial feelings, she learned to become a wonderfully positive part of my support network. So, give the other person time and space to process their own emotions about the situation, and summon the confidence to continue the conversation later on.
… but don’t let them throw you off
If you do receive a reaction that is unhelpful, or you face questions that you don’t feel happy to answer and need to take a pause, don’t let that experience dampen your recognition of your bravery. You have taken a bold and courageous step by opening up to someone else. As much as the eating disorder will try to make you feel guilty, or use a bad experience to stop you from opening up again, try to see the positives. You can always open the conversation up again at another time, or go to another person that you trust, whether that is someone you know personally or a Helpline service like Beat.
Plan some time for recognition and self-care afterwards
So, you’ve had the conversation. Did it go well? Did it go terribly? Whatever the outcome, make sure that you put in some time to do something you enjoy. You have just achieved something that takes an incredible amount of bravery and courage, and taken the first step towards recovery. That deserves recognition. So, watch some Netflix, fill out your journal, walk the dog – choose an activity that relaxes your mind and helps you to slowly calm the adrenaline and anxiety of the conversation.
I hope these points will help you to plan how you might talk to someone else. However and whenever you choose to make the courageous choice to tell someone about your eating disorder, you have taken recovery into your hands. The eating disorder no longer has full control, and you are no longer alone.
-Contributed by Georgia
If you've been affected by any of the issues raised in this story, or are concerned for yourself or a loved one, you can find support and guidance on the help pages of our website.
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