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Just Because Your Friends and Family Do It Doesn’t Mean You Should, Too

I find I have a relatively easy time rejecting pundits and even so-called “experts” who promote dieting. Harder, much, much harder, is thinking critically about what friends and family do and say.

As my blog is growing, I’m interacting with more people who are much earlier in their recovery than I am. And I wanted to address something I’ve noticed a lot of folks struggling with: being triggered by close friends and family.

It makes complete sense that interactions with those we’re closest to can be among the most upsetting in recovery. So much of who I am is influenced by the people I love the most: my immediate and extended family, my closest friends, and my boyfriend. These people influence everything from my political and religious views to the way I clean my house. And of course, they influence what I believe about food, exercise, health and body.I’m very fortunate that my parents have been very supportive of my recovery efforts and are excellent models of what it means to have a normal relationship with food. I’m also very fortunate that they empathize with what it feels like to struggle with a mental illness and take seriously its importance in my life.

I know that some people in recovery, however, face the challenge of having close family members who are themselves disordered eaters or don’t acknowledge just how dangerous and devastating eating disorders can be.

What’s more, even the most supportive friends and family members can innocently do things that may be very upsetting to someone early in recovery, like saying ‘no’ to dessert or mentioning their clothing size.

With that in mind, here are a few specific tips for what to do if friends or family say or do things, however innocently, to hinder your recovery.


Try not to compare

Comparison is the bane of recovery. One of the most important things to remind yourself, at every single meal and snack if you have to, is that you are different than everyone around you. You are different because you are in recovery.

  • People recovering from restrictive eating (aka starving) have higher calorie needs than healthy people.
  • What’s more, in the early stages of recovery, you aren’t yet ready for intuitive eating. You need to follow a meal plan to restore your body’s hunger cues, whereas if your friends and family are listening to their bodies’ hunger cues, then what they eat probably varies considerably from day to day.
  • Finally, lots and lots of people are restrictive eaters. Just because someone hasn’t been diagnosed with anorexia or bulimia does not mean they’re modeling a normal, healthy relationship with food.

You are also different simply because every person is different and no two people–even healthy, intuitive eaters–are going to eat the same thing or exercise the same amount.

So try try try not to compare. It’s really hard, but try. In the early stages, I think it’s even okay to eat by yourself to avoid that comparison temptation as long as you make it a goal to become comfortable eating around others later in the process.


Speak up for yourself

If someone close to you is saying or doing something that’s really unhelpful for your recovery, it’s 100% in your rights to be your own advocate and talk to that person. This may simply mean explaining, if you haven’t already done so, that you are working to overcome anorexia, bulimia, EDNOS, etc. But if your loved one knows you are recovering and doesn’t see their actions as problematic, you might try something like this:

“I think you know that I’m currently recovering from an eating disorder. It’s probably hard for you to imagine, but I’m very sensitive at the moment to discussions of dieting, exercise, and weight. I know you’d never say something hurtful on purpose, but when you _____________, it’s actually very upsetting to me. Would you be willing to avoid this topic to support me in my recovery?”

I think it’s important to mention here that you don’t have to deliver a lecture. You don’t have to explain the details of your emotional turmoil. Nor do you have to lead them to the non-diet light and tell them twenty reasons why their plan to get “bikini body ready” is BS. You just have to say, “This is what I’m going through; please help support me.”

Plan B

I’ve had a couple of the above-described conversations that totally flopped. I went in trying to politely ask someone at work to please not describe herself (and several of our colleagues!) as “fat.” I left with an earfull about how most people in the world needed to lose weight and how it was unreasonable of me to ask to be “protected” from that “reality.”

I’m fortunate, again, that this conversation did not take place between me and someone really close to me. That would have broken my heart! But it was still very upsetting.

If someone close to you isn’t supportive, have a back-up person to talk to. If your dad is being really insensitive, go to your sister. If your aunt is spewing triggering diet BS, go to your best friend. And remember that your treatment team is always there to help talk these things through, too.


The exit strategy

The final option? Get out.

Usually, when people are saying something upsetting in my vicinity, I keep my mouth shut. If it’s really upsetting, I just walk away. I don’t even give an excuse–just leave.

Is it really pervasive and nothing else is working? In extreme cases, ending relationships is an option. If your girlfriend or boyfriend, for example, isn’t supportive, doesn’t seem receptive to your needs, and doesn’t change their behavior, that is totally legitimate grounds for a breakup. Remember that eating disorders can be deadly and that no guy or gal is worth your life–nor are they are a good choice of partner if they won’t support your recovery efforts!

And of course of course of course I don’t promote shunning family members, but if for instance your mom is really insensitive to your needs and saying really upsetting things, I frankly think it’s a-okay to spend less time together or arrange it so that you don’t have to be alone with her until you’re in a more stable place.


Linking up with Amanda to share these thoughts for Thinking Out Loud Thursday.

What do you do if friends or family say or do things that aren’t helpful?

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  1. Cora says:

    Agh. One of the hardest and potentially most hurtful aspects of recovery.

    My biggest difficulty was hearing others say things like, “I haven’t eaten all day!” (at 5:00 pm) or not seeing them eat when I was eating (at “normal” times). I had to really learn that a) “not eating all day” to someone without a history of EDs probably means they HAVE had something/snacks, just not a full sit down meal and b) a lot of people eat at weird times and just because I don’t see them eating doesn’t means they aren’t making up their calories later that night or in one or two single instances.

    The comments just take a whole bunch of inner strength and resilience to ignore, speak up against, or internally have a self talk that combats them. I’ve definitely had people I knew I couldn’t enforce a friendship upon because of how they spoke about food and their bodies. Even some of my closest friends now I have had to learn a delicate way of listening to their comments, and while not ignoring them, speaking back in a way that separates my own health and opinions.

    1. Joyce says:

      Comments like that are so hard to let go. My boyfriend will sometimes just not eat a meal because he’s not hungry. I’m like, “Whaaaaaa?!”

  2. Emily says:

    It is SOO essential to communicate. Realizing that God made us to be with other people and to communicate with others was hard for me at first. Truly God has done a work in my heart through the Lord Jesus Christ because it was really hard to talk to my family about my struggles. Yet now they do understand, and they are sooo kind and sensitive about not talking about food or exercise or calories very much.

    1. Joyce says:

      So glad your family have learned to be kind and supportive. <3

  3. Diane Wahto says:

    I’m not in any kind of recovery, except from old age. I doubt if I’ll recover from that. However, I hate it when people tell me what to eat or how to eat it. I finally “recovered” enough to tell a friend that I didn’t want her commenting on my food choices when we went out to lunch because at my age I was old enough to make my own decisions. I also told her I had never become ill from anything I ate, this after I listed some of the strange food your late Grandpa Curt and I ate. I learned to like many different foods from him, but I could never eat a raw oyster–something he took pride in doing. Also, I would never comment on anyone’s body shape. As I’ve said before, people who come to the Y come in all shapes, sizes, physical conditions. I limp, so people want to help me even when I don’t really need it. I do appreciate that people are kind, however. By the way, I ignore most of the food advice I get at TOPS. I refrain from talking about food when I give a program. Now I must go downstairs and eat some lunch, which I will have to share with Annie. She’s very spoiled.

    1. Joyce says:

      Annie’s lucky to have you. <3

  4. Evangeline says:

    Thanks for talking about this, Joyce. It’s one area of recovery that many people seem to gloss over, and it can be a big, hurtful hindrance to recovery. I love that you brought up comparison and the importance of focusing on what your needs are versus what other people’s needs may be.

    Communication has been difficult for me in those situations, especially with family. I end up feeling like I’m too sensitive and respond too harshly to the person making the comments. Also, I know there are people who don’t purposely say triggering things, but they’re dealing with their own insecurity and unhealthy body image. It’s so very difficult to want to help THEM heal while simultaneously trying to heal yourself too. I can’t control people or what they say, as much as I’ve tried, so I’m working on changing me first. I can talk about food and bodies in a way that’s gentle and healthy, and hopefully, other people see how freeing it can be and join in 🙂

  5. Kaylee says:

    HA! Yes to that comparing trap! I find myself comparing what I’m eating–because I want to be ‘normal’–to people who don’t eat ‘normally’ to begin with. As my dietician says, compare & despair.

    Urgh, I am so tempted to send this to my friends/family. As blessed as I am to have an incredibly supportive family, there are times when they’ve said things that aren’t triggering per se. Rather I expect them to know better somehow than to say/do those things in front of me. For example, my dad sometimes forgoes carbs during his meals because he’s trying to lose weight. And I’ve tried to say something about it but it just doesn’t register with him.

    I have a hard time standing up for myself and using my voice to communicate what I want/need. This is something that I noticed I’ve been struggling with more and more as of late; I’ve gotten the urge to say something but never know how to speak up. Your post came when I need it the most. Thank you ❤️ Now I just gotta use your advice.

    1. Joyce says:

      It’s really, really tough, Kaylee. As Cora said, I honestly think it’s one of the hardest things about recovery. Hang in there, gal. Know you can always email me, too. <3

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