Helping a Friend with an Eating Disorder

For about a year, I’ve been surrounded with multiple close friends struggling with eating disorders. 9% of Americans will have an eating disorder in their lifetime. A much higher percentage of people will watch a loved one struggle with an eating disorder. They will worry, research, and question what’s best for their friend, partner, or family member. 

The first time I recognized that what my friend was dealing with was an eating disorder, I panicked. She wasn’t seeing a therapist and didn’t have intentions to do so. The whole conversation was messy. I was upset beyond words and struggling to keep my focus on her. My understanding of how dangerous eating disorders were left me with a bad case of information paralysis. Her vision was clouded, and mine felt disturbingly clear. 

I wanted to help. I wanted to offer to eat every meal with my friends. I wanted to never talk about clothes, body image, or food. I wanted to push my friends to seek treatment. I wanted to never say the wrong thing and always be able to offer full support. In my head, the situation was pretty cut and dry: my friends are suffering from eating disorders, and I am not, so therefore it is my job to do whatever I can to help. My tasks seemed infinitely easier than what they were going through. 

As it turns out, my job wasn’t that simple. And here’s why: doing the “right” thing for my friend was as easy as holding a marble. But I was trying to hold hundreds of marbles. By telling myself that I should have an easy time supporting each of my friends, I was undermining how much was trying to balance. Every now and then, a marble would slip. Instead of focusing on all the marbles still securely in my hands, that one that dropped felt like a devastating loss. 

The most important thing I have learned about supporting a friend with an eating disorder is not from a website or book. It’s from my friend. One night, after I was telling her about how I had just spent the last hour trying to encourage my friend to get treatment, she said, quite simply “you can’t save people.” I can listen, I can support, but only my friends can save themselves. 

There are websites and articles that put everything nicely- they may have some brief, seemingly perfect phrases to use when talking to someone about their eating disorder. What online resources are missing is that these conversations don’t always go to plan. Your friend might refuse to consider treatment. They might shut down mid-conversation. They might get angry with your concern. And you might react poorly. That doesn’t mean you can’t make a world of difference for someone, it just means you can’t expect yourself to turn the world for them. 

When I realized I didn’t have to have all the answers, it became clear having all the answers isn’t always what’s best for a friend dealing with an eating disorder either. If you are looking for “what to do,” here are some ways that have been effective for helping myself while supporting friends:

  1. Identify someone who it is safe to talk about concerns with: For example, a friend that does not have an eating disorder and feels comfortable discussing body image, food, and concerns about others
  2. Seek professional help when needed: Talking with a counselor, especially if you are the only person aware of the severity of a loved one’s eating disorder, can help you to feel supported and more prepared to help.
  3. Prioritize your mental health: Setting boundaries and watching for personal negative body talk is especially important when you are interacting with a loved one who has an eating disorder.  
  4. Say what you need to say: It is okay to voice concern (without offering ultimatums or referencing worrying weight loss) and discuss being worried about not knowing what to say or do.