Positive, unconditional support can make a huge impact on someone struggling with an eating disorder; however, sometimes it can be hard to know how to offer this kind of support. We live in a world where commenting on appearance and labeling foods as “good” and “bad” has been normalized, but can be extremely triggering for someone struggling with food or their body image. Therapists always have the best intention of supporting patients to make helpful and lasting change, but sometimes it’s easy to fall into old patterns. Our guide on how to encourage someone with an eating disorder can help you be more intentional with your language in sessions.

Four Important Reminders when Talking to a Patient with an Eating Disorder

While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach on how to talk to someone with an eating disorder, there are certain things that are helpful to keep in mind.

  1. Learn as much as you can about eating disorders.

Whether you are new to working with eating disorders or if you have been in the field for longer than you can remember, it never hurts to expand your knowledge and understanding of these complicated and sneaky illnesses. Being able to recognize the many ways that an eating disorder can affect an individual’s life is key to offering the best tools, techniques, and practices to make recovery possible.

  1. Be mindful of the language you choose to use.

Eating disorders are bound by rules. Rules on which foods are “good” and which are “bad”, rules about how you should feel after you eat, and rules that decide which bodies are beautiful and worthy of love and which bodies are not. Be mindful that the language you use doesn’t inadvertently reinforce these “rules”, as it has the power to set someone back in their recovery. Noticing these rules is a difficult task because they are often parallel to the messages society tells us about beauty, how much we should weigh, how much we should eat, etc. Be intentional as you choose your words and consult with an eating disorder specialist when you’re uncertain.

  1. Recognize that the eating disorder serves a purpose.

Every behavior has a purpose – eating disorders included. These behaviors develop to meet an unmet need. For some that might be control, while for others the behaviors might provide a sense of comfort or numbness. As you work alongside an individual who is struggling, remembering that these behaviors exist for a reason can help build compassion and understanding.

  1. Foster a safe, caring, and encouraging environment.

Recovery is a gradual process that takes time and dedication. For some, this begins by gently exploring past experiences and looking at them through new perspectives in the hope that the individual can separate themselves from their eating disorder. Recovery is a vulnerable experience. By choosing recovery, the individual is choosing to let go of the eating disorder behaviors that gave them a sense of safety. The best thing you can do for your patient is create a safe environment where they can let their guard down and be receptive to help.

Three Things You Can Say to Encourage Someone with an Eating Disorder

As a therapist, you know that what you say might not always be what is heard. This is especially true for those struggling with an eating disorder. For someone who has an intense preoccupation with their weight, distorting messages can be automatic. You may tell them that they’re looking healthy and they may only hear that they’ve gained weight. Knowing helpful ways to encourage someone can be tough.

If you’re at a loss for what to say to a person with an eating disorder, consider these suggestions:

  1. “Recovery is not linear. Setbacks are normal.”

Once an individual has found a therapist and made the decision to pursue recovery, the rest should be easy, right? Unfortunately, no; however, that won’t stop your patients from believing that’s how the process is supposed to work. Normalizing the setbacks is a great way to provide encouragement and the hope that recovery is still possible.

  1. “Your resiliency continues to amaze me.”

An eating disorder has the power to rid someone of values like pleasure and connection to make room for isolation and anxiety. Exploring one’s values becomes a large part of recovery for this reason. Praise that acknowledges when someone is living life in alignment with their values can be a meaningful way to offer encouragement.

  1. “It seems like mealtimes have been a little tougher lately. How can I support you?”

As the therapist to someone struggling with an eating disorder, you already know that checking in on mealtimes is important. This approach likely mirrors much of what you already do in session – notice themes and ask the patient how they would like to be supported. This approach empowers them to identify their needs. If the patient struggles to name what they need, you can always offer a few suggestions. Perhaps creating a plan for meals (i.e. determining where they plan to eat, who they plan to eat with, and what distractions might be helpful) or maybe scheduling appointments during a mealtime to provide extra accountability could provide the needed support and encouragement to overcome the tough moments.

These encouraging phrases are just a few of the ways you can help patients persevere through recovery’s ups and downs. Tap into values, offer hope, normalize setbacks, and most importantly, stay away from language that promotes diet culture. As you continue your work with eating disorder patients, remember to check in with yourself too. If this case were to leave your scope, how would you know? EDCare is always a resource you can turn to. Click here for more information on EDCare’s programs and services.