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How To Tell Someone You Have An Eating Disorder

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What To Do When You Realize You Have An Eating Disorder

You’ve noticed food is terrifying for you.  You’re feeling lost and out of control with food and you don’t know what to do.  How do you tell someone else you have an eating disorder?  

While you may notice that you are struggling with your relationship with food, most people with an eating disorder are very reluctant to straight up identify with having an eating disorder. 

The key here is that if you are struggling with your relationship with food, you are having disordered thoughts about eating and you DESERVE help! 

But who do you tell about your eating disorder? And how do you do it? 

These are some people you may choose to tell about an eating disorder: 

  • Parents
  • Siblings
  • Spouse/Partners
  • Doctors
  • Therapists
  • Co-Workers
  • Teachers

Telling someone you have an eating disorder can be incredibly scary.  

So let’s walk through who you should include on your eating disorder recovery journey and who it might be best to leave out of it.

Can You Have An Eating Disorder And Not Realize It? 

Yes. In fact many people who have an eating disorder do not have an official diagnosis.  

While there are some obvious signs of eating disorders such as 

  • Bradycardia (slow heart rate)
  • Weight loss
  • Dry Skin
  • Lanugo 
  • GI distress 

There are no universal characteristics of an eating disorder.  Most people that feel a disturbed relationship with food would not consider themselves to have an eating disorder. 

Many people that meet clinical definitions for eating disorders do not feel they are “sick enough” to have an eating disorder. 

If you find yourself with any of the following symptoms you may have an eating disorder: 

  • A List of Fear Foods
  • Constant Body Checking or Body Dysmorphia
  • A persistent negative self about your body or food choices (eating disorder voice)
  • Loss of menstrual cycle 
  • Frequent binge restrict cycles
  • Thinking about what to eat or what not to eat most of the day
  • Preoccupied with how your body looks
  • Thinking about exercise frequently for the purpose of changing your body.
  • Noticing rapid shifts in your body weight/shape/size
  • Noticing a pre-occupation with the scale
  • The doctor tells you your labs or vitals are not normal
  • You feel tired or agitated most of the day. 

If you identify with any of these symptoms, it might be time to tell someone you have an eating disorder. 

You deserve to get the help you need to recover and live your life to the fullest. 

Why Should I Tell Someone About My Eating Disorder? 

If you have an eating disorder, it’s very difficult or even impossible to recover on your own. A few reasons for this are: 

  • Your brain is starving. It cannot make rational decisions about when to eat. 
  • The GI tract isn’t working like it should. We cannot trust your hunger/fullness cues. 
  • We may require an eating disorder recovery meal plan specifically designed by a haes dietitian for safety
  • Your eating disorder voice will constantly tell you that you’re “just fine” and play down the eating disorder
  • You are likely to engage in eating disorder behavior without support for symptom interruption (for example puging, restricting, body checking). Engaging in these behaviors even once makes them more likely to occur. 
  • Support during eating disorder recovery offers your eating disorder a “prescription like” strategy for recovery. It can make the eating disorder feel like it has permission to eat more, stop purging, or reduce other symptoms of the eating disorder. 
  • You may require medical monitoring as your eating disorder might be life threatening. Your eating disorder will not likely allow you to seek this out on your own. 

How Do I Make Sure I Talk To Someone Who Is Understanding About Eating Disorders? 

Who we tell about our eating disorder can be important to make sure we get the right support.  

Unfortunately, diet culture is pervasive and sharing our eating disorder with someone who has a diet mentality may offer more triggers for the eating disorder than support in recovery. 

Here are some cues that a person you tell about your eating disorder will be supportive: 

  • They listen without judgment when you’ve discussed other difficult situations
  • They have a reputation in the community of offering weight neutral support or have a history of working with eating disorders (therapist, doctor, dietitian)
  • They have a reputation of asking you how you would like support versus trying to solve the problem through their own lens 
  •  They are unlikely to react to the news eating disorder with rigidity, urgency, and panic. Instead you are confident they will utilize resources you have to get you additional support. 

Feeling scared when you tell someone you have an eating disorder is completely normal. It also is completely  normal to feel like you want to recover “with conditions” or feel like you want to keep many eating disorder behaviors alive. 

Even if you are feeling this way, you should still tell someone about your eating disorder.  It is normal for your eating disorder voice to compete with the voice to compete with your desire to recover. 

How To Tell Your Family You Have An Eating Disorder

A few ways to get the conversation started about your eating disorder with a family member you trust include: 

  • Setting up a safe place and time to talk about your feelings and behaviors around food
  • Writing your feelings/behaviors around food in an email or letter if a conversation feels like too much to start 
  • Make a list of some of the ways you feel they could support you (for example sharing meals together, removing mirrors or scales from your home etc.)
  • List out your fears in seeking support. This can help it feel a little less scary being vulnerable.  
  • Be prepared for the person you are telling to have strong emotions

Listing out your fears can help your family to support you in the most gentle way possible. 

However, it is important to expect that in many cases additional support will need to be sought out.  Seeking professional help for your eating disorder can feel less scary with the support of a family member at your side. 

If you have a family you believe will be willing to support you in your recovery journey, they can be your greatest ally though this difficult process.  It’s important to include your family in your eating disorder recovery journey if you feel it’s safe to do so. 

Telling your family you have an eating disorder can be the first powerful step in your eating disorder recovery journey. 

What Happens If The Person I Tell About My Eating Disorder Reacts Poorly? 

Eating disorders are scary for both the person who is experiencing them as well as for those who they seek support from. 

Unfortunately, we cannot always know how someone we tell about our eating disorder will react.  

This can cause triggers for the eating disorder. 

THIS DOES NOT MEAN YOU SHOULD STOP SEEKING SUPPORT! 

If we tell someone we have an eating disorder, they could potentially respond with: 

  • Fear
  • Urges to fix the problem quickly
  • Misunderstanding that this is not simply a “food disorder”
  • Suggestions for ways to “fix your body”
  • Diet plans (not provided by a HAES practitioner)
  • Shock
  • Self-blame

As triggering as these reactions might be, this person may still be able to support you with the right guidance from an eating disorder treatment team. 

Their reactions do not mean they don’t care about you or what you are going through. It simply might mean that they haven’t been educated on the ways to support someone with such a complex problem. 

It’s okay to let someone know that you aren’t finding the support they offer helpful.  If they are willing to receive this information and seek out education in how to support you they could still be a great asset in recovery. 

The important thing is that we ground ourselves in the potential for a negative response to telling someone we have an eating disorder.  We also cannot let a negative response deter us in our mission for recovery. 

How To Tell Friends or Coworkers About Your Eating Disorder

It is not mandatory that we share our eating disorder with anyone who isn’t part of your treatment team.  However, it may be helpful in your recovery journey to share certain aspects of your relationship with food with those who are around you frequently. 

If you feel a co-worker or friend could be an ally in recovery, working through the same steps as we did with disclosing our eating disorder to family members is appropriate. 

We can utilize a friend or co-worker in our recovery journey by seeking out support for certain behaviors even if we don’t want to fully disclose our eating disorder.  For example we might say: 

  • Would you mind joining me for lunch, i’m trying to create positive experiences around food
  • I’d really appreciate it if you didn’t discuss diets, weight, or food rules around me
  • I’m healing my relationship with my body, would it be possible to refrain from making comments about my body size? 

For many, a part of recovery may include following a meal plan or tracking food using an eating disorder app.  

This can be difficult to do around friends and co-workers that are not aware we’re suffering from an eating disorder. 

If you’re not ready to fully disclose your eating disorder recovery journey to them, you might just say you’re working on creating a more positive relationship with food.  Most people won’t dig further into this and it will help them to accept the behavior without questions. 

Taking Care Of Yourself After You Share Your Eating Disorder Story With Someone  

It’s very important to be fully prepared that getting support for your eating disorder will NOT feel comfortable.  While there may be some relief in telling someone about your eating disorder, this goes hand in hand with discomfort. 

Be ready for this.  It’s important to take care of yourself even if you receive a positive response to disclosing your eating disorder. 

Ways to take care of yourself after you tell someone about your eating disorder include: 

  • Taking a hot bath
  • Take a walk in nature 
  • Journaling the thoughts and emotions that come up
  • Sitting with hot tea
  • Playing a video game or watching a movie
  • Meditation or breathing

We can often feel vulnerability fatigue once we share our eating disorder with someone. We will also likely feel scared that they will force us to do things we aren’t comfortable with. 

Even if all of these things occur, you should push through the discomfort and continue on your recovery journey.  You’re worthy of recovery and deserve a life of food freedom. 

Who Should I Tell About My Eating Disorder?

Someone you trust and who you have experienced responds with empathy rather than judgement. This can include a doctor, therapist, parent, teacher, friend, spouse or other support person.

How Do I Tell Someone About My Eating Disorder?

Have a face to face conversation or write down your thoughts and concerns in a letter. Be sure to discuss your fears, how long it has been going on, specific behaviors you are engaging in, and how that person can support you in the moment.

What Should I do If The person I Tell About My Eating Disorder Isn’t supportive?

Understand you still deserve care. The person may be experiencing a lot of their own emotions and may be unsure of how to respond. Seeking support from trained professionals can help you on your recovery journey as well as help your chosen support person. It’s important to ground yourself just in case your support person says something triggering.

Is It Necessary To Tell Someone About My Eating Disorder?

Yes. While you don’t need to (and should not) discuss your eating disorder with everyone, having a support team is critical to safe and effective recovery. An eating disorder brain cannot make decisions to support recovery on its own.

 
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Shena Jaramillo. Registered Dietitian

Hi I'm Shena. I'm an eating disorders dietitian in Washington state. I hold bachelors degrees nutrition & dietetics, cultural anthropology & psychology. I believe in honoring your hunger, having your cake whenever you want it, and that critically analyzing diet culture can change the world!