Today our Hope Network, LLC summer intern Anna is sharing her perspective on boundaries around disclosing a loved one’s eating disorder. It can be very hard to overcome the shame and stigma of these illnesses. We need to have honest conversations about what is theirs to disclose and when, how and to whom we as family caregivers might share about this illness we are trying to help our loved one to survive. I hope it will be helpful to you as a family caregiver to hear her thoughts on how much she felt comfortable disclosing herself and her perspectives on her family sharing as well. And with that, I’ll hand today’s blog over to Anna my summer intern. ~ Becky

From my personal experience with my eating disorder, setting boundaries about who I could talk to about my ED was very difficult. A lot of people do not know much about eating disorders. When my own eating disorder came up, I felt pressure to have to explain everything. I still feel this at times and it can be tiresome to think we as the people with the eating disorder or the family caregivers are responsible for educating folks – when we are going through so much ourselves. I know there were times when my parents felt exhausted trying to get people to understand. 

Just because someone may not know much about eating disorders, does not mean that you must be their source of information. Going through all of it is tough enough, do not put the added pressure of being a walking textbook all on yourself, whether you are the own with the ED or a support. Instead, pointing them toward resources like books or websites are good ideas. That way, if they want to be more involved and understand more, they can do it on their own. If they truly want to play a more active role in the individual’s recovery, they will WANT to become more knowledgeable about the topic. 

For me, I had to reflect for a while on whether I wanted to tell family and friends about my diagnosis and if I thought that it was going to be beneficial for me to do so. Just because there were some people I wanted to tell, didn’t mean they would be the best “supports” for me. For example, a few of my friends had struggled with body image in the past themselves, so I decided that I did not need to disclose the information to them. There were also a few friends I told about my illness but I did not want to bring it up more than that one time. For some, just knowing about it was all I wanted from them. 

Creating clear boundaries on who you can turn to when you need advice and who may not be helpful is critical. I do think it is important for the individual to share their diagnosis with some trusted friends/family as they could be of great support and encouragement. That being said, I think the individual needs to decide how much they are willing to share and with whom. For some, it can be a relief just to tell someone. For others, they may want a friend to eat meals with them.

At the end of the day, getting consent from the individual to talk to others about their ED is the most respectful decision. I told my friends that if they ever wanted to talk to a therapist or a loved one about how they felt while I was going through the toughest season of my ED, they could do so. For me, it was important that they knew they could talk about it with others. That does not mean that everyone will feel the same way, which is why asking the individual about their boundaries is so crucial. 

One of the ways that I used to help decipher who I should talk to about the eating disorder was the situation I was in. So I would ask myself, “is this a need to know situation?” If I felt as if I was in a more crisis-like moment, I knew that telling whoever I was with would be beneficial. If it was something that wasn’t related to what we were discussing and I was feeling more confident in my recovery that day, I wouldn’t talk about it. A specific example would be that I told my parents early on about how I was feeling with food and my weight because I felt they needed to know because it was starting to impact my daily life negatively. 

For those of you who are supporting an individual with an ED, it can be helpful to ask your loved one what they need at that moment so you can support them most successfully. This could be asking them if they just want your presence, if they want distraction, or to talk about it. One of the most useful things I have learned throughout my recovery journey is that getting compliments about my body did not help me whatsoever. When I was in a bad place, it was much more productive to hear compliments about my personality and to separate myself from my body. For example, when my family told me how strong I was and how kind I always am to others, that lifted my spirits more than saying I looked good would have. In this way, I started to learn that my worth is not planted in how my body looks. 

Asking your loved one how they would like you to support them allows them to steer the ship, while also leaving space for you to encourage in whatever way is best. Supporting someone looks different for everyone, but the most important thing is that you are trying and that you are respecting their boundaries as best you can.

Intern Anna for…