How to Deal With People Who Don't Understand Eating Disorders

Updated: Oct 8, 2020

We have all had that conversation. You have to tell a loved one about your eating disorder, or your loved ones have questions about it. So you sit down over coffee or dessert and…stare at each other.

I have had this conversation a few times. The most prominent one during a two month trip to Albania (Albania is in Europe, northwest of Greece, and across the Adriatic Sea from Italy). Long story short, the trip was amazing - beautiful country, warm weather, and friendly people, but the delicious food got me.

The food in Albania is similar to American cuisine. We had pizza or pasta every night. Every corner had a coffee shop and a bakery where we could get a ten-cent specialty coffee or freshly baked bread and pastries, respectively. Every week we traveled to the farmer's market and bought fresh fruit and vegetables.

Sounds like the life, right?

Not exactly.

Though the food was delicious, the portion sizes were small. The time between meals was twice as long as those in America and Albanians don't snack. Typically, I, a five-foot ten-inch woman in her twenties, consumed about 2,500 calories; overseas, we ate about 1,500 calories. Long story short, I was permanently hangry.

And by hangry, I mean, I was always mad or frustrated. My body was super restless. I wanted to eat all the time. When I get too hungry, my body shuts down, and my brain stops functioning.

The other girls in my group understood immediately, each having had their problems with food, but the guys had a little trouble understanding. A girlfriend and I sat down with our group leader, a man, to talk about it.

I tried to explain what I was going through. That I recently recovered from an eating disorder and not being able to eat how much I wanted, whenever I wanted was a problem for me. I also tried to explain that I was thinking about food incessantly, and it was hard for me to be hungry all the time. No matter how I put it, our group leader didn't understand. He never had a problem with food.

It was an odd conversation. If you have ever had that conversation, you probably know what I'm talking about: You spoke about obsessing over food or eating everything in sight, but there is a blank look on the other person's face. They might ask a question, but it's repeating what you just said like they are trying to wrap their head around it.

How do we deal with the people around us that need to know about our eating disorder, but don't understand it, don't care to understand it, don't want to deal with it, or don't believe it?

Remember, you can't control their actions, but you can control yours. I wish I could control how other people act towards me and my eating disorder. It would be easier to recover and to live life, but fortunately, that's not the case. I have to take responsibility for myself and my actions. You have to as well.

The following is how I attempted to deal with those around me. Every point is specific to my attitude and what I can do. My eating disorder is my problem, so it's my responsibility to deal with other people respectfully.

Patience: wait for them to understand

I can never be patient enough. People say and do things that are unhelpful all the time. They bring me a cake when I don't need it; they brag about their amazing curves when I feel fat. I can go on and on! But they can't read your mind, so you have to be patient with them when they do or say harmful things.

It will take anyone time to understand what you are going through. The more I talked about it with my husband, the more he understood my struggles. At first, he couldn't wrap his head around it, and that led to some weird conversations, but I patiently waited for him to interpret my eating disorder.

Grace: forgive them for their mistakes

Give your loved ones extra grace, because they care about you. After your loved ones do or say the wrong thing, you have to forgive them. You can return the love by letting it go and moving on.

You can't dwell on their actions if you want to get better. Showing them grace is an excellent way to heal. Remember that recovering is more than just physical. It's spiritual, mental, emotional, social, and physical! We want your thought process to be positive and your social network to be well connected. Everything to help you heal.

Empathy: put yourself in their perspective

For the most part, individuals around you want to help, but they don't know how. Sometimes, dad will tell you to eat or your aunt will encourage you to love yourself when that is the last word you want to hear. In my experience, men just want to fix things and women just want to encourage others (This is a generalization and not true of all men and women). Men especially want to fix something that can't be fixed!

By putting yourself in their shoes, you can see they have good intentions, but terrible execution. Your loved ones are like a doctor trying to fix a car. That's not their skillset, so they are going to make a lot of mistakes, and it's going to take extra time. Having empathy towards them can help you show them grace and patience.

Patience, grace, and empathy are for the individuals that love you and want what is best for you. Unfortunately, those aren't the only people in your life. Some individuals either don't want to understand eating disorders or don't want to deal with yours. There are other ways to handle those people.

Intolerance: don't put up with their negativity

Usually, I don't encourage intolerance, but in this situation, I think it is warranted. If someone doesn't respect you, you have no obligation to entertain them. Shut down every conversation about weight, eating, or body image. It's not going to be helpful.

You should still respect them - share meals with them, talk to them politely, etc. The difference is, they aren't allowed to comment on your eating disorder. Don't tolerate any conversations about what you are eating or your appearance.

Indifference: who cares what other people think?

When the haters are hating, one effective strategy is to ignore them. What they think doesn't affect you; it's just their opinion, and opinions aren't facts. It shouldn't change what you are going to say or do, so stop listening to them.

Exclusion: don't talk about it

Section that part of them out of your interactions. I've had to do this with my mom. I love her, and I still want her in my life, but when we were both struggling with an eating disorder, we couldn't talk about it. It was the blind leading the blind, and when we talked about it, it brought both of us down. So we avoided the subject.

Leave: don't stay in a toxic environment

A friend of mine was bullied by her aunt into losing weight. As soon as she could leave, she did. It was an unhealthy environment, and for my friend, it was not worth staying. If your situation is harmful to you, that is what I recommend you do - leave. I think this is the last resort, but it shouldn't be out of the question.

Intolerance, indifference, exclusion, or leaving are all strategies to deal with individuals in your life that don't respect your eating disorder. Are there any other plans of action you have found useful?

Thankfully, no one has accused me of faking my eating disorder, though I know it happens. I'm not sure what I would do if someone did make that claim. I would imagine I would give them the finger, either physically or verbally, but I'm not sure I would recommend that.

I would advocate not listening to the haters.

Again, we can't control others' actions or words. They can claim anything about you - being an alien, kicking a puppy, or doing a backflip; that doesn't make it accurate. Accusations aren't facts, so you shouldn't treat them that way. Accusals can hurt, but you can't let those words rule you.

If you have any experience with this, please comment below! I want to know your story!

In review, to those loved ones who want to help be patient, give them grace, and empathize with them. To those people who don't care about you or your eating disorder, be intolerant, indifferent, exclusionary, and, if necessary, just leave. I hope those strategies work for you. Let me know in the comments below!

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