My Friend Just Told Me They Have An Eating Disorder... Now What?
Updated: Aug 29, 2019
As eating disorder awareness rises, chances are that more and more of us will find ourselves being told by at least one friend that they have an eating disorder. I don’t know about you, but I have not come across a lot of resources for the friends of people with eating disorders. I think it’s an important topic though for a couple of reasons.
For one, friends can be just as important, or even more important, in our recovery than our families. Also, when you don’t know what you don’t know, it’s easy to think that you’re missing something. That is an uncomfortable feeling. Especially when you really want to be a good friend. It can even be anxiety provoking. It’s hard to know how to maneuver in new territory. There is a learning curve, there are bumps and potholes and the way forward isn’t always so crystal clear. But that’s why we can be prepared now. I’m not suggesting that anything in this post is revolutionary. It’s basically ways to just keep being the good friend that you already are. As simple as it is, in new territory, it can be powerful to realize that you and your friendship are enough.
“My friend just told me they have an eating disorder. Now what?”
If your friend lets you know that they have an eating disorder you may not know how to respond. Let’s cover some of the unhelpful ways first. Here’s what I do not recommend. Judgement, making it all about you, comparing yourselves like you’re still diet-buddies, telling them how lucky they are to get to be thin, assuming you know exactly what they mean and what they are going through, shaming them for their weakness, brushing over it, and/or assuming that this won’t change your friendship at all. Just to name a few. These responses might sound farfetched to you, but any of these could easily happen. On the other hand, if any of these stuck out to you in particular, maybe take a minute and sit with that. See what comes to mind and check with a safe friend and explore together why that one stuck out to you.
Maybe you already thought your friend had an eating disorder. Or maybe you had no clue. Either way, this intimate confiding is a vulnerable sign of trust. If your friend told you personally, it is an honor that also comes with responsibilities. It probably means that they trust you. Or at least they are hoping that they can. Realizing and then accepting that you have an eating disorder and asking then for help on top of all that are all BIG deals. Each time is either a first or a whole new experience. Imagine yourself in your friend’s shoes. Each person you tell could react differently. You just don’t know.
So what responsibility am I talking about? I’m talking about being a safe person for your friend.
“How can I be there for my friend now?”
Now I’m assuming three things here. One. That you want to continue in this friendship. Two. You care about your friend in a way that wants what is best for them including safe people in their lives. And three. You want to be one of those safe people. Remember how I said, this unrevolutionary post is really about just being the good friend that you already are? Here’s where that comes into play.
Brené Brown, Ph.D., LMSW and Shame Researcher talks about the value of our Connection Networks in Building Shame Resilience. Our Connection Network (CN) is made up of a few safe people who we can trust to be there for us when Shame tells us to stay quiet because nobody will understand. The people in our CN are those who greet our shame experience with empathy and therefore healing. The opposite of our CN is our Shame Web. The people in our Shame Web are the ones who greet our shame experience with more shame.
I want to highlight an important note about Connection Networks and Shame Webs. First, just because we really want somebody in our CN, doesn’t mean that they are. Just because we really want to be in somebody’s CN, doesn’t mean that we are. People aren’t automatically the safe and empathetic people we need them to be. We can love them, and be loved, just the same. We just probably shouldn’t expect them, or ourselves, to be able to greet shame with empathy if we’re aren’t willing or able to do that.
As the friend reading this post, it’s good (but hard) to realize that even when we’re willing we might not be able to be that source of empathetic healing. If we have unhealed shame in this area still lurking in our shadows, even just hearing somebody else’s shame can trigger our own shame and a shame response that does damage all around. Ninety percent of women experience shame around our bodies and appearance. That’s why it’s so important for each of us to explore our own shame triggers and vulnerabilities.
“How do I know if I’m in my friend’s
Here are a couple of good indicators that you might be in your friend’s connection network.
1. They chose to tell you they have an eating disorder when they didn’t have to.
2. You have shared knowing laughter. Brené Brown describes knowing laughter as “acknowledging the absurdity of the expectations that form the shame web and recognizing the irony of believing that we, alone, are trapped and entangled in that web.” (1) In other words, you are on the same team. You’re not laughing at them, you are laughing with them. In that way, you both know that you both get it. You’re not alone.
3. You share mutual empathy. It is not a one-way street down empathy lane. Both you and your friend are able and willing to respond empathetically.
4. Your friend continues to share their vulnerable experiences with you and walk away from that encounter feeling more secure, free and connected to themselves and you.
Each person decides who is in their own Connection Network. So it's up to our friend to say whether they want us in their CN. But we can still consider our own hearts and minds. When it comes to eating disorders, bodies, food, appearance and mental illness, which one do you think you’d fall into? Connection Network or Shame Web? Not sure? You can learn more about both of them here and Brené Brown has amazing resources on all these topics and more.
“We’re having this conversation now, what do I do?”
Every friendship is going to be different so here are just some ideas to get you started…
1. If you value them and their friendship reassure them that you are there for them.
A non-verbal signal showing that you are there for them. A hand squeeze or a good hug can go a long way.
2. Give them space to speak if they want to. Silence can be really hard. I know. But it is so powerful. Plus it gets a little easier if you can remind yourself that you aren’t expected to have all the answers right now. Your friend probably doesn’t expect you to “fix them”. Your mere loving presence is what you are bringing in that moment.
3. Let them know it’s okay if they don’t want to talk about it more right now.
4. If you have questions, let them know that you have questions. Be patiently aware that they might not have all the answers or the words to explain what’s going on inside of them right now.
6. Ask them what they need. Again, give them the space to know or not know.
7. Thank them for trusting you enough to confide in you.
(1) Brené Brown, "I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn't)"