What NOT to Say to Someone Recovering From an Eating Disorder

Posted 15/08/2017

I'm pretty sure everyone knows that you don't tell someone who is recovering from an eating disorder "oh my gosh you look like you've put on weight" because it's pretty obvious that it's not an easy thing to deal with, putting on weight. However, there are a lot of less obvious things that often trigger people recovering from an eating disorder. I know that people often mean it well with the things they say. And to be fair; there is no understanding of an eating disorder, it's far too complicated to understand. I don't even understand why some things trigger me. So when someone is unable to explain why they can't deal with you saying certain things, please don't just laugh it off - we'd love to know why "we" are triggered by whatever it is that triggers thoughts.

Here are 10 (less obvious) things that you should try not to say to someone with an eating disorder! 

1. "But... you're eating well, so you're doing better, right?" 

Wrong. Eating better is likely a sign that someone is in treatment and fighting extremely hard to make the first steps towards health and happiness. They're trying to fight the thoughts that they're not allowed to eat, so pointing out that they're eating is quite unhelpful. It doesn't mean they're doing better, the thoughts are still very much present. The thoughts are likely even stronger than usual and it's quite possible that they're feeling like hell about even taking the smallest bite. The fact that they're eating is extraordinarily brave and for them, it's really difficult. You'll know when they're doing better, because they will be smiling, happy, asking about food and saying they're starving and craving chocolate or a sandwich. Just eating is not a sign of someone being better.

2. "So are you still... you know... do you still have an eating disorder?" 

Yeah, probably. Having a healthy weight and eating doesn't mean that the urges to restrict or binge or purge have all disappeared. It might even be that they'll be much stronger than usual because they're a healthy weight. Someone has an eating disorder until they are deemed "recovered" by a therapist. How long this takes? From the point that someone enters recovery, the average is 3-8YEARS. It's not like a cold; putting on weight and eating is funnily enough not the "cure" to an eating disorder. It fights the symptoms, not the disease. Food and getting to a healthy weight is certainly a medicine, but it's not going to cure someone just like that.

3. "I just work out every day to not feel bad about my body."

Okay you cannot possibly understand how difficult it is to hear this. Someone in recovery has tried to make their body into something they liked, it didn't work and they ended up ill and destroying their body. They just want to accept their body the way it is, not go along with the whole fitness madness going on. They just come from an addiction surrounding food and body image, talking to them about things like "eating clean" and "working out loads" is likely going to trigger a relapse into another form of an eating disorder. 

4. "I wish I was as devoted and strong as you are, I could finally lose a couple of pounds!"

Haha, no. Just no. There isnothing strong about having an eating disorder. You feel out of control and like everything around you is falling apart. It's not "strong" to be able to starve. It doesn't take "dedication". It's suffering through hellish thoughts and nights of crying, sitting by a plate of food and sobbing and screaming because you so badly want to have that food right there but you just can't. There's nothing strong about that. You've been taken over by a disorder and it never stops. You can't stop.

5. "Well I'm not a great example, I completely forgot to eat breakfast this morning." 

Great... So... why are you saying this? Not eating breakfast is not exactly an accomplishment and it's not helpful. It stirs up guilt in people with an eating disorder that they have eaten breakfast, it makes them feel greedy. But they should be proud, because it's so intense to keep lifting a fork to your mouth when everything in you is saying you shouldn't. We don't wanna hear how you accomplished not to eat something. Nor do we want to hear about what diet you're on. It's not helpful. Someone in recovery is trying to find balance, trying to eat things that are perceived as "unhealthy". So when you say that you've stopped eating sugar, having to eat some chocolate instead of just a piece of fruit has just gotten a whole lot harder for your friend/child/sibling/etc.

6. "But people don't like it when you're skin and bones." 

Surprise surprise, neither do we. But here's the thing: An eating disorder isn't caused (solely) by wanting to look good for someone. For some it can be the trigger, but for some people, like me, an eating disorder was created to deal with trauma or something else. And besides that, no one with an eating disorder, no matter how small they are, it's likely that they don't see their bones, they likely don't see how thin they are. And if they do I can assure you; they hate it. 

7. "You've been in recovery for so long now, surely you're better!"

Nah mate, we might be doing a lot better. Probably going out for dinners without thoughts about calories and restricting. But it's never really gone. And sometimes, sometimes the urges just are far too strong and someone relapses. Recovery isn't a straight line up. It's up the hill and down the slopes, stumbling and falling both ways. It's a long process and for many it will have countless ups and downs. Sometimes the up holds on for very long and there will be a sudden downfall. This doesn't mean someone is weak or failing, there's a stumble. And that's okay. Give people time and stick with them, at some point they'll get out.

8. "The story is getting a bit old now..."

Believe it or not, but we too are sick of having an eating disorder. The never ending guilt over 10 extra calories feels ridiculous and stupid. We feel silly and pathetic for still being stuck in this place and if we could stop it right now, we probably would. But letting go of an eating disorder feels like you're having to let go of a little part of yourself. It isn't, but it truly feels like it. It's incredibly difficult to get out of a self destructive cycle like this. The eating disorder has become a coping mechanism to deal with every day difficulties. And probabilities are that we don't know how to cope without it. We need to learn how to do that, but it's so difficult. 

9. "It's not that hard." 

Well, it is, actually. It is far more difficult than "just eating" or "ignoring the thoughts". It sounds so simple and basic, but the act of eating itself is far more difficult than it seems. It's a battle, continuously, no matter how simple it is for you. An eating disorder gives you an incredible fear of food. Some don't even dare to touch it with bare hands. Eating disorders make no sense. They are ridiculous, but that doesn't make us ridiculous. We're just as confused as you are about it. And we do feel guilty to make a fuss about eating when there are so many people in this world without food. Pointing out that there are worse things won't help in any way, it will just make us feel guilty about telling you.

And last but definitely not least: 

10. "But you're not actually that thin..?"

Contrary to popular belief, eating disorders are not weight disorders. Weight loss is merely a consequence of the actual disorder. Telling someone they're not that thin is not going to help them, in fact it won't help anyone. They probably already feel far too big. But in the end... we do know that you mean it well, and if we respond cold and annoyed we aren't actually annoyed at you, as a person. We're annoyed that this stupid thing makes us feel so terrible when all you are trying to do is to be kind and helpful. And I can't say it enough: eating disorders make no sense, they have no logic. Someone with an eating disorder probably doesn't even understand what they want or why they do what they do. So what can you do, as a friend or family? It is quite simple; stick with us. We know it's getting old and boring and we know how annoying we are. The person in recovery probably beats him/herself up enough about how they react sometimes. Apologize when you make a mistake, because although it may seem stupid to you that this could be a trigger, an apology could be the difference between choosing further recovery or relapse. Family and friends are everything in recovery.

Contributed by Hannah. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, have a look at our information about eating disorders and treatment or access our support services

The views expressed in this blog are those of an individual and do not necessarily represent the views of Beat.