The holidays are upon us, and despite appearances, the season is not always full of joy and cheer. Approximately 30 million people of all ages and genders are living with an eating disorder, and nearly half of all Americans know someone who has struggled. For those of us with a loved one who is impacted by an eating disorder, it can be tricky to navigate how to be helpful – and more importantly, how to avoid doing harm – during this heightened time of year. To address some common questions, we’ve created this simple guide with suggestions for supporting your loved one throughout the course of the season… and some mistakes to avoid.
- Engage in power struggles around food or behaviors. At the end of the day we cannot control others’ actions, and power struggles will only lead to a state of futile exhaustion for both parties. The key to thriving in the holiday season is to minimize stress. A battle accomplishes the exact opposite.
- Talk about your diet, “good” or “bad” holiday foods, or any New Year’s resolutions related to weight, food or exercise. Though these topics might seem mundane, for someone struggling with an eating disorder, they aren’t. Conversations centered around food, weight and body image can be immediate triggers for dangerous and disordered thoughts and behavior. Besides, aren’t we all sick of talking about diets anyway?
- Neglect yourself or other friends and family members. Yes, a loved one with an eating disorder may require some extra care and attention, and you want to illustrate as much support as you possible. Remember your flight safety rules: put on our own oxygen masks before helping others. Self-care and boundaries help ward off depletion and resentment from others who might not receive as much attention. When the whole world seems to spin around a loved one’s illness, a reset can be refreshing.
- Take things personally. Eating disorders are complex illnesses, families are complex systems, and holidays are piled high with expectations and emotions. The combination of all three can be explosive at times. You, your loved one, and impacted friends and family may feel hurt or hopeless at times. Remember that an eating disorder is no one’s fault, and that frustration is perfectly normal. When those waves of intensity arise, a mantra or some other gentle reminder can help re-center you around the fact that this is not personal.
- Ask in advance how you can help. Many folks actively working on eating disorder recovery have worked out a plan in advance with their treatment team for managing holiday activities. Check in with your loved one and ask specific questions about how you might support them in accessing these coping strategies when needed.
- Educate yourself. A deeper understanding of your loved one’s journey will give you perspective, will cultivate your patience and compassion, and will help your loved one feel seen and heard. Equipped with knowledge, you can also offer yourself up as an ally. If your loved one wants help with explanations to family or friends, you can ease that burden by offering some insights from your own educational endeavors.
- Respect boundaries. Your family member may say they can only join the holiday party for a few hours before they get overwhelmed. They may ask that you not disclose particular information to extended family or friends. Trust that your loved one worked carefully with their team on what boundaries to set and what language to use. Be consistent and mindful of that direction.
- Reach out. Eating disorders can lend to isolation. While you shouldn’t force a loved one to push themselves too far on social outreach, there is no harm in reaching out with a loving, supportive gesture. Simply remind your friend that you are there, that they are loved, and that you want to include them in the festivities to the extent that they feel ready.
And last but not least…
- Embrace a holistic view of the season, and of your loved one. Though the holidays are often centered around food and mealtimes, there are a myriad of other sentiments and traditions to embrace. Many of the less food-centric traditions can feel far less stressful to someone working on eating disorder recovery. And just as the holidays are not defined by food, your loved one is not defined by an eating disorder. Celebrate the totality of the holidays and celebrate aspects of your loved one (and everyone else!) that are unrelated to appearance. When you approach the holidays with a more expansive, holistic perspective, who knows what new joys and memories you can create together along the path toward recovery.