I’m often asked, “How can I help my friend who’s struggling with an eating disorder?” Here are eight ways.
I’m bundled up here in Knoxville, TN, sipping warm Starbucks without the cup sleeve, trying to thaw my fingers so I can type. It is seriously colder here in TN than it is in NY this weekend. That’s just wrong.
I’m here for a couple events before escaping to Atlanta’s warm embrace, and after Friday’s event, person after person asked me the same question I’ve received countless times for the past 7 weeks of tour:
“How do I help a friend?”
Whether their friend be struggling with body image, disordered eating, or unhealthy relationships, they want to know how to reach out when they see a friend struggling, even if the friend hasn’t shared the struggle.
To be honest, every time I hear those words, I freeze. I’m like, “Oh Jesus, what do I say??” Because there are SO MANY things you can say, but it all depends on the person, and I don’t know the person or situation.
So I’ve decided to try my hand at a blog, not to answer that question (because I’m not sure I can answer that question as a blanket statement), but to give some thoughts that will hopefully help those who are looking to find their own answer to this question.
So. Here goes.
1) First, make love deposits.
Author, pastor, and speaker Peter Haas says relationships are like bank accounts, in which you can make “love deposits.” In order to make a “withdrawal” by bringing up a serious issue or speaking truth that someone doesn’t really want to hear, you need to have made enough love deposits to cover your withdrawal. In other words, the person needs to know how much you truly care for them before you bring up something difficult to hear. So my first question would be: Am I truly loving this person, and being a good friend to them, just as they are, without wanting anything or any change in return?
2) Speak truth — to love.
If you’re concerned about a friend, start noticing specific reasons why you’re concerned (i.e. behaviors, certain situations where you get a weird vibe, relationship changes, etc.). Pray about those things and for your friend, and then when you feel it’s the right time: Share those concerns with your friend in such a way that opens the door for a conversation, in a way that makes it clear you’re sharing these concerns not to judge, but to love. Find what works for you, but I usually think of something like this as a good, generic conversation starter: “I’m worried about you because I’ve been noticing…(share the specific behavior observations here; i.e., you’ve lost a lot of weight // you seem to be pulling away from your close friends since you started dating So-And-So // etc.). I want you to know that I’m here for you if you ever want to talk, and I’m wondering, how are you doing?” It’s good to ask open-ended questions that let your friend know how sincerely you care.
3) Encourage your friend to build a support system.
You cannot be your friend’s solution. Even if you’re an adult, you can’t be the sole support system. It’s unhealthy for a person to rely on just one other person. To overcome these struggles, a person needs a support system, a team. Different people on that team play different roles, from confidants to advisors to mentors, and sometimes even medical staff. Some are soft and easy to talk to, and others “lay down the law,” but all are important for any kind of recovery. There don’t need to be 1,038,584 people on that team; just a few people are needed, but it can’t just be you on your lonesome helping your friend. Trying to be a person’s solution and only support leads to codependence and unhealthy boundaries for both people involved. So see how you can help your friend start to put together a support system of a few trusted people — some peers, and some older and wiser people to give wisdom and advice. (Especially if you’re a young adult or teenager, it is important to involve an adult that you both trust.)
4) Take advantage of resources, like counseling!
I’m a big fan of counseling and think it can be helpful for anyone! But particularly if your friend is struggling with something really serious, or something that seems like it might need someone professionally trained to help, (i.e. an eating disorder, abusive relationship, depression, etc.), offer to help your friend find a counselor to talk with, and offer to go with your friend to talk with that counselor. At different points in my struggle, I saw a counselor who gave me great, practical resources along with insights to help me work through my struggles. (Side note: If you’re in college, you have free counseling services available to you! I’m a big fan of taking advantage of great resources like that. :))
5) Help your friend see who s/he is: big picture.
Sometimes while struggling through something difficult, we become so caught up in overcoming the struggle, that the struggle becomes all we can see. We’re drowning in it; it begins to define us. Help your friend see who s/he is outside of the struggle. When your friend is defining him/herself by the struggle, point that out, and then share the things you see in that friend. Who are they apart from their struggle? What are their strengths, what do you like about him/her? Call those things out of them; speak that truth over them. Take a break from focusing on overcoming the struggle by going to do fun things together and talking about life as a whole, not just focusing on the struggle.
6) Ask how you can help.
The answer will be different for everyone. For example, when I worked with adolescents in recovery from eating disorders, some wanted a friend to sit and eat lunch with them, others wanted a friend to text and see if they’d eaten as a source of accountability, and others would have been annoyed with either of those options and wanted something completely different. So ask how you can help your friend. Make sure it falls within healthy boundaries for you. (Especially if you’re a girl helping a guy or vise versa, certain ways of helping the person can lead to an unhealthy emotional connection on one or both ends.) If it is a healthy way of helping for both of you, go for it!
7) Be patient.
Just seeing that there’s a problem takes time, let alone asking for help, let alone wanting to recover. When I was struggling through an unhealthy relationship and disordered eating, SO MANY people told me something was wrong and offered help, but I refused it. I didn’t want help. I didn’t want to admit there was a problem, and I certainly didn’t want to recover. Those struggles suck you in and promise illusions of great things; it’s hard to let go of them. It takes time. If your friend isn’t ready to look for help or recover, pray for him/her, and be there for him/her. Be a true friend, and then when s/he is ready to get help, you’ll have been there all along.
8) Don’t get lost in the struggle.
It’s easy to take it all on ourselves and feel like a friend’s success or failure rests on our shoulders. But here’s the thing: We can’t change anyone. As much as you might long to help your friend, you can’t actually change him/her, and until s/he is ready to accept help, you won’t be able to give much in the way of help. Whether or not they find victory doesn’t rest on you, so don’t let it consume your life. Help and love them, but don’t let their struggle define you. Something I learned when I began speaking, and when so many precious, beautiful women began sharing incredibly difficult journeys with me, was that I can’t hold those things. Those struggles are too heavy for me, and they’re not mine to hold. I could easily let them consume or bog me down, but instead I give the struggles to God, because only He can carry them. In the same way, your friend’s struggle is not yours to hold; we can help bear each other’s burdens, but ultimately we have to keep giving it back to God in prayer, and letting Him carry what only He can.
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So there you have it. Eight ways you can start helping your friend. I hope this is helpful to you! If you’d like more resources on how to help a friend, check out these sites:
1) National Eating Disorder Association’s article on “How to Help a Friend” recovery from body image and eating disorder struggles.
2) Something Fishy’s article on “What You Can Do” to help a friend struggling with an eating disorder.
3) Domestic Violence and Abuse’s site on “Speaking Up” when you are concerned a friend might be in an abusive relationship.
Have any other ideas you’d like to add to this list of how to help a friend?
Comment below and share away!
I’ll just be sitting here freezing away the rest of the weekend.