Understanding Eating Disorders for Family and Friends

July 11, 2018 Mary-Elizabeth Schurrer

Understanding eating disorders, for family and friends, is a challenge. It's also difficult to communicate what the eating disorder does. Read this to open a dialogue.

I have a slew of insights about understanding eating disorders for family and friends, but I often don't have the language to communicate it all. I suspect that I'm not alone in this predicament. My hunch is most people with disordered eating issues struggle to attach words to their experience. Because eating disorders are complex illnesses that oppress the body, mind and spirit, they are painful to discuss. And their secretive, withdrawn nature can make people on the outside feel confused, wounded or even angered. They might perceive the eating disorder sufferer's actions as callous, apathetic, disingenuous and selfish. But while eating disorders do perpetuate this kind of behavior, it's not indicative of the person's true character. Underneath that hard, stony facade is someone desperate to feel accepted and validated. So I need understanding--understanding about eating disorders from family and friends—and if you can relate, I encourage you to use these talking points with your loved ones too.  

5 Truths that Lead to Understanding Eating Disorders for Family and Friends

The reality is that unless someone has walked through an eating disorder firsthand, understanding eating disorders for family and friends is challenging. It's impossible to fathom all the nuances, intricacies and entanglements. I know this and I don't expect my friends or family members to relate with the inner turmoil I'm combatting on a daily basis. I recognize, for them, it's all foreign territory.

I'm not asking them to empathize or excuse my behavior when it turns reckless and temperamental. I just need my loved ones to understand these facets of my lived experience so our relationship can withstand—and even be strengthened—in spite of the eating disorder's attempts to undermine any human connection I am fighting to maintain. These five truths can add to the understanding of eating disorder for friends and family: 

  1. Activities that seem normal for you can be absolute torture for me: Skipping a workout to engage in a social function, going to a restaurant when I haven't checked the menu beforehand or ordering that sugary donut and frappuccino at Starbucks—these tend to overwhelm me. An eating disorder is often coupled with anxiety, so when my comfort zone feels threatened or challenged, I might respond with erratic behavior. If you notice me fidgeting more than usual, blinking incessantly to avoid tears and taking rapid or shallow breaths, then chances are that inner monologue in my head is punishing me for the "weakness, failure and loss of control" I just exhibited. You might view ingesting a donut as a triumph but my eating disorder is preoccupied with listing all the reasons I'm insufficient right now.  
  2. The eating disorder brainwashes me to prioritize it over anything else: I am excruciatingly aware of how conceited and self-absorbed I seem under the eating disorder's influence. You might feel rejected, offended or slighted when it appears that I'm choosing this illness over you for the hundredth time, but that decision isn't always conscious—and it never reflects how deeply I care about you. The truth is I despise when this neurosis toward calories, exercise, weight and body image supersedes our relationship. But the eating disorder has persuaded me to believe it's my one chance at earning the confidence, worth and affirmation I so frantically crave. The recognition that I have pushed you to the backseat in favor of an eating disorder causes me grief. I just feel powerless to reverse the damage sometimes.   
  3. Although I might feel overweight, I don't think of you in those terms: My body is held to unrealistic and unattainable standards that I need to remind myself are damaging. But this skewed perception of my own appearance does not mirror how I feel about yours. While eating disorders are notorious for teaching their victims to compare bodies with other people, I see you as a multi-faceted human being—not a sum of your external parts. When I describe the attributes I love most about you, weight, jean size or muscle tone are not even on my radar. I'm praising your kindness, devotion, integrity, compassion, enthusiasm and sense of humor instead. I don't base our relationship on how close to "perfect" you look. But the irony is, I still convince myself that perfection is how to obtain your approval of me.   
  4. There is nothing simple, linear or tidy about this process of recovery: You might experience anger, impatience and frustration when I backslide into my eating disorder tendencies. I realize that's a natural reaction and I don't blame you for it but I implore you to continue forgiving my lapses and encouraging me to persevere. When I encounter obstacles or defeats in recovery, I am prone to wondering, "What's even the point?" This is a dangerous thought process because it can seduce me back into the eating disorder's chokehold, so it's during these vulnerable times that I need your reinforcement. I concede this is asking an unfair amount of endurance from you but the knowledge that you're consistent in the face of all my mistakes and messiness is often the incentive I need to march into battle again.     
  5. I want to be honest about my struggles but I also hate burdening you: Eating disorders are at their most lethal in environments of secrecy and isolation. Even if there's a community of support around me, the illness can manufacture such acute feelings of detachment and loneliness that it's suffocating. I desire to recount my authentic experience with you but I'm afraid of encumbering you with the heaviness of what churns inside me. Sometimes my actions are mixed signals—I withdraw despite a longing to connect and I remain silent despite an urge to express myself. I want to be heard but I cannot stomach being viewed as a burden, so I fabricate a tough, independent and stoic bravado instead. Remind me that I have emotions and press me to talk about them, regardless of my agitation or discomfort.  

This is not an exhaustive list, nor does it account for how all sufferers of an eating disorder might feel. But if you're grappling with the right words to communicate this struggle to your friends and family members—or you're a loved one attempting to make sense of an issue which just baffles you—I hope this stimulates a compassionate and productive dialogue that fosters mutual understanding. The act of understanding eating disorders for family and friends is one of deep love--the same kind of love I feel for you, no matter what my eating disorder tries to communicate.

APA Reference
Schurrer, M. (2018, July 11). Understanding Eating Disorders for Family and Friends, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, April 15 from

Author: Mary-Elizabeth Schurrer

Connect with Mary-Elizabeth on Facebook, Instagram and her personal blog.

Rick Jonie
July, 12 2018 at 11:29 am

My daughter has an eating disorder and it is out of control. I'm considering a therapeutic boarding school but worry it lacks warmth.

July, 12 2018 at 12:26 pm

Hi, Rick
Thank you for reaching out, and I am sincerely grieved to hear your daughter's eating disorder has become so severe. In my experience, residential treatment centers can be massively beneficial—even life-saving—options when the illness progresses beyond the point of outpatient therapy. If you're concerned or unsure about where to start in your search for quality, nurturing treatment centers, my recommendation would be to visit the treatment resource page in the HealthyPlace Eating Disorder Community (…). The information there can help you determine which might be the most appropriate course of action for your daughter. Thanks again for taking the courage to reach out—my thoughts are with your entire family.

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