April 18, 2024
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When is Feedback Unsupportive?

Among the many common myths about eating disorder, one myth is that when a person achieves a “normal weight,” s/he is cured. This is an issue that often comes up in eating disorder therapy. Clients feel that this can inhibit their recovery as their families believe that once their weight is stable there is no longer any reason to be in treatment or receive help.

I recall seeing friends and family after I had left treatment who commented on my weight gain, “You look so much healthier!” or “You look better now!” I always felt embarrassed and misunderstood when people made these comments. I couldn’t understand why people didn’t realize that my weight truly had nothing to do with my mental health, that the eating disorder was measured by so much more than pounds. Even more than that, these types of comments made the unhealthy part of me hate myself; I wasn’t ready at that time to hear that I looked “healthy.” In my mind that was equated with me looking terrible. I was still living with a warped sense of reality though I was trying my hardest. While those comments were meant to be supportive and complimentary, they simply made me feel bad about myself.

These types of interactions take place in situations besides eating disorders; we hear about others having a difficult time or perhaps suffering from a mental illness. As humans, we wish the best for our friends and family, we want to see them happy and healthy. This is one reason that when we hear about a person who is suffering, we want to assume that if we see him/her happy or functioning that s/he is all better. It is a way to protect ourselves and to maintain order–we like to believe that things are neat and that recovery is quick. In reality this is not always the case; the process of recovery can be different for everyone and patience is key.

The understanding that recovery does not always occur so quickly is crucial if we wish to support those around us. Oftentimes if we see someone we know to have been struggling we want to comment on how much better they seem. But this can truly hinder the progress they may have made. Additionally, the person may be putting on something of a show even if they are doing somewhat better. Telling the person how great s/he seems may only remind him/her of how much more progress needs to be made. This may add pressure to get better and stir up feelings of guilt for not already being “cured.”

When I was diagnosed with Anorexia I was also being treated for clinical depression. I felt lonely and hopeless and my mood was constantly low. I stopped speaking to friends and isolated myself from the rest of the world. I remember attending an event that I truly didn’t want to go to and having family comment on how happy I looked. I was not happy and I couldn’t blame them for misunderstanding or for having the desire for me to be happy. But I do wish they had known not to say that.

So how can we approach someone when we know they’ve been struggling or going through something difficult? We want to give them praise and show how encouraging we are, but we don’t want to set them back or cause any discomfort.

We can do this by simply being supportive. Let the person show you what s/he is ready to hear. If s/he begins to tell you about all the progress, then it’s probably safe to say how happy you are that s/he’s doing well. But otherwise, just be there for them. Perhaps you can tell the person you’re happy to see him. Ask him how it’s been going and if he’s ready, he’ll tell you.

As a community we can work together to foster awareness about such issues. The recovery process from any difficulty is often hard and uncomfortable. We can ease that discomfort by respecting the individual and by showing them that we’re there to help however they need us, rather than how we feel we should help. Showing love for those we care about is crucial especially when they have a hard time, but this should be done with care and without assumptions.

By Temimah Zucker

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