Social justice activist Malcolm X once stated that “When ‘I’ is replaced with ‘We’, even ‘Illness’ becomes ‘Wellness’”. Eating disorders often manifest as a result of external criticism or social standards that evolve into internal conflict and subsequent self-punishment. The loneliness felt in this experience is also seen in the mechanics of language-internal, individual, isolation – all words beginning with “I”.
Eating disorders originate from the outside, and thus, we must return their healing to the collective identity as well. If we follow Malcolm X’s philosophy of moving towards a “we” mindset, it moves these struggles from loneliness to togetherness.
Understanding the Behavior
For those with a lack of experience or knowledge, the common thought is that eating disorder behavior is a lifestyle choice rather than a dysfunction of emotion or mental regulation.
You might wonder, “If eating is something we all have to do several times per day, why don’t those who struggle just ask for help to change their habits? Why the secrecy?” While there are many reasons an individual could be keeping symptoms disguised, a large component of treatment and prevention is the pervasive stigma around this specific type of disorder.
Eating disorders are wrapped up in shame – shame over body size, shame over behaviors and thoughts associated with the disorder, shame over beliefs of achievement, or shame over manipulation of a vital human need. Asking for help from others can feel counterintuitive to the process. For example, someone with an eating disorder might think, “If I can control this part of my life, other things will start to feel in my power, as well”.
For this reason, eating disorders tend to be a lonely path that is governed by the internal expectations of being capable of handling stress, distress, and trauma all on one’s own. Coupled with shame, those who live with eating disorders may develop a sense of guilt in burdening others with their struggles.
Healing is Better Together
Just as an individual struggling with disordered eating or body image is often fearful of giving up their worrisome behaviors or entrusting another person for help, it can be incredibly difficult for a family member to witness or help navigate. Turning the “I” into “We” is a profound first step in the healing process for the person suffering, and your support for your loved one is a crucial ingredient to empowering sustainable change. To create this type of atmosphere, we must first begin to ask ourselves, “How should I best approach this?”
How to be Helpful to Someone with an Eating Disorder
The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) advises loved ones with helpful points that are worth remembering in order to create a loving, open conversation, which is condensed here:
1.Learn about eating disorders.
Reading about weight, nutrition, exercise, and the dysfunction of the three will lead not only to educated conversations with your loved one but might also pave the way to help them dispel myths or incorrect beliefs that drive maladaptive behaviors.
2. Communicate your honest perception, reflect theirs, and come together.
Sometimes the most powerful tool we have is our perception of how others impact us. Communicating your feelings and experiences of the other person, using I-statements, can cause the other person to accept that they are not completely alone with their disorder. In tandem with I-statements, reflect back to your loved one what they are saying and possibly feeling; for example, “I hear you saying that you feel ashamed when you purge after your meals, and when I come to check on you, it feels worse. Am I hearing that correctly?” This type of communication allows the other person to either confirm, correct, or adjust what they meant to communicate. This reciprocal process of communication reinforces the idea that you are invested in wellness and collaboration rather than shaming or blaming.
3. Remove stigma.
Affirm their experiences by validating the commonality of mental health struggle and detaching shame from those who seek to treat it.
4. Commend their bravery.
The ability to speak up about an invisible struggle is an incredible feat in itself – celebrate their strength of uplifting their voice and finding support.
5. Provide tangible support.
Often shame will remain a factor in help-seeking behaviors. Offer to help schedule individual therapy or health appointments, treat your loved one with equal respect, and above all, ask how you can best be supportive, and challenge when necessary. Allowing them to maintain some control over their health increases feelings of power, empowerment, and worth.
6. Find a meeting point.
Relationships and support should always be an exchange of energies and reciprocal process. If your loved one requests someone to hold them accountable for their intake, agree with appropriate boundaries. In the same vein, be careful not to shame or overburden your loved one by asking too many questions or talking solely about their eating disorder.
Honest communication (see #2) works in tandem with knowing what to expect of one another via appropriate emotional boundaries. Remember, the best thing you can do to care for your loved one is to also care for yourself.
If you or a loved one is struggling with symptoms of an eating disorder, please find more information on individual and family therapies by visiting our website at www.purehealthcenter.com