Do’s and don’ts for creating safe spaces.
We have undeniably entered the holiday season. From pumpkins and turkeys to menorahs and twinkly lights. Festive music, delicious scents, and holiday decorations create a spirited feeling all around. The irony is that studies have shown that depression, anxiety, and other mental health concerns spike in 50-60 percent of persons affected by mental illness during the holidays. For individuals struggling with eating disorders, disordered eating, and body image issues, the nine-week stretch from Halloween to New Year’s Eve can also be quite stressful and intense. Here are some tips for those who love someone struggling with eating disorder issues to support him/her/them through the holiday season.
Do not… make casual comments about your loved one’s physical body related to weight or size. If you haven’t seen your loved one in some time, it is easy to fall into the trap of commenting on weight gain or weight loss. This can be done in the right setting at the right time; however, the wrong setting or wrong time can feel threatening and triggering to someone struggling with an eating disorder.
Do… Let him/her/them know you would like to talk about your concerns in private at a convenient time. Create a safe space for the conversation and lead with your love and concern. It may be helpful to start with an intention for the conversation. When you have created a safe space, share your concern directly. Pause to listen and hear their struggles. “I love you. My intention is to create a safe space for us to have a conversation about my concern for you.”
Do not… casually comment on, critique, or nag about their eating or food choices. Statements like “Just eat some turkey” or “Why don’t you skip the dessert?” never cured an eating disorder. Eating disorders are only about food and weight on the surface. When you peel back the layers, eating disorders are about deep challenges in tolerating difficult feelings. Comments that oversimplify or minimize the depth of the individual’s experience leave them feeling invalidated and unseen. These are just as silly as “Why don’t you just cheer up?” to someone with clinical depression. Comments like this only highlight that you don’t understand and will put you in the “unsafe person” category.
Do… focus on support and coping. Statements like, “I am here for you when you are ready.” “I noticed you struggling. How can I support you?” Even something like, “I’d like to be a safe person for you if you struggle with… (the meal, after the meal, the family, grandma’s comments about your body).” Ask what you can do to support, then… listen.
Do not… Call him/her/them out at the table or in front of others about their behaviors. They are struggling enough without being in the spotlight or on the spot. Attention to their struggles will feel like an attack.
Do… Pull them aside if you notice your loved one is struggling with eating disorder symptoms. Let him/her/they know you are concerned and that you love them. Family dinners on Thanksgiving or other holidays that center around food can be terribly triggering and anxiety-producing for individuals struggling with Anorexia, Bulimia, and other eating disorders. They are likely battling demons in their heads around food choices and acutely aware of the family’s focus on their eating. A client once shared, “Imagine standing naked on a stage in front of your high school class with people giving you feedback about what they see. This is what someone with an eating disorder will be feeling at the Thanksgiving dinner table.”
Do not… If you fear your loved one is purging or using laxatives, please do not respond in a way that can be perceived as attacking or judging. You will be categorized in the “not helpful” box and risk being cut off. So not ignore this behavior but be cautious not to shame your loved one.
Do… Make yourself available to listen. Share your concerns, as discussed above, and educate yourself on the risks of these behaviors. Educate your loved one about the risks of purging and laxative abuse and suggest visiting a professional for lab work to check electrolyte levels. Eating disorders are dangerous and have a variety of medical complications that are not apparent by someone’s size or shape.
Do not… lecture and try to approach the situation as if you know what they are experiencing and you know how to fix it. Eating disorders are not as simple as fixing the food piece or fixing the weight. They stem from a deep psychological discord that needs to be addressed by a multidisciplinary team of professionals. A well rounded multidisciplinary team will include a trained medical doctor, a CEDS therapist, a registered dietitian, preferably a CEDRD, a support group, and potentially a psychiatrist who understands eating disorders.
Do… have some resources prepared, like the contact for a CEDS and CEDRD, as well as a free support group. CEDS is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist and CEDRD is a Certified Eating Disorder Registered Dietitian. Center For Discovery has free support groups at every one of their Outpatient Program sites weekly, as well as virtual support groups. Encourage, listen, support, and provide direct communication until you get your loved one into the hands of a specialist.
So, while the turkey is cooking and the holiday music is playing, let’s not forget that this can be a triggering and challenging time of year for many individuals struggling with mental health issues. So let’s support our loved ones who might e struggling this holiday season.