3 Reasons to Join an Eating Disorders Support Group
By Kathryn Cortese, LCSW, ACSW, CEDS
Anxious? Skeptical? Fearful? Bored? Ambivalent? Perhaps one or more of these feeling states are active when the thought of joining an eating disorders support group comes up. All are common, normal, and expected. We know joining any kind of group is often accompanied by some degree of anticipation – sometimes pleasant, sometimes not so pleasant. And, eating disorders carry their own burdens of stress, stigma, and secrecy. So why join an eating disorders support group? Three good reasons that aid recovery and foil the eating disorder – understanding, connection, and hope.
Not being understood is a common experience when one has an eating disorder. An eating disorder is seductive, wily, and complex. You’ve tried for weeks, months, or years to get people to understand your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Your family and friends say they understand, but you don’t buy it. They want to support you, speak the “right” words, and avoid the mistakes. Despite their solid intentions and desire, you know they just don’t understand. You’ve tried your best to share your inner moments, your rules, and your distress and you walk away feeling frustrated, alone, and perhaps inadequate as do your outside support people. Now, imagine sitting with a group of individuals who do “get it”! They not only understand you, they’ve “lived” you. They can tell you what came before and what will come next. They nod when you speak. You nod when they speak. They ask you a relevant question and appreciate your answer. You share an experience and are met with tolerance and patience. People listen to your words without judgment. You find your explanations are met with empathy and perspective. There is a depth to the understanding that can take place in an eating disorders support group. The stress you typically feel when you “try to explain” diminishes as you see the validation, recognition, and acknowledgement surrounding you. This unique setting can provide a place for authentic communication that contributes to self-growth and connection.
Living without true connection is a byproduct of life with an eating disorder. By their nature, eating disorders are isolating and promote distancing from those who matter to you. By participating in an eating disorder support group, the understanding that is present lends to a sense of safety and trust. As truths are shared and accepted, a depth of connection grows among the group members. There is a calm spirit of caring available that is hard to find “outside.” This calm allows for mindfulness and personal recognitions that perhaps were previously challenging to access. The bonds developing within the group hold the individual as worthwhile, meaningful, and real. Seeds of recovery can grow in this environment because of the abstract nurturing factors present. One’s exposure to others’ struggles helps each individual feel useful and effective via words or the body language of empathy and encouragement. The group will demonstrate the use of compassion over and over as individuals join with one another. The realization that compassion is healing and can be applied to oneself comes to light, is appreciated, and can be practiced. The emotional, psychological, and social “food” provided in the group contributes to reconnection to the self, to one’s body, and to other people – those within the group and those outside the group.
All of the above is useful, but how does one move forward without hope? An eating disorder is a hope spoiler, a hope destroyer. Yet, in an eating disorders support group, hope is often present by the fact that members of the group are in various stages of recovery. Hearing participants’ stories of where they were and where they are now can bring hope for recovery that one didn’t believe was possible. Those feelings of inadequacy, self-disgust, and self-doubt begin to shift as others in the group discuss their progress, the new challenge they stumbled through, the frightening step that was met with success, the assertive conversation they took on, the meal at the family gathering, the ability to tolerate feeling guilty and not responding with an eating disorder behavior, and the fun they had. That entity that may have been lost along the way – hope – is present in the group and emerges in the individual. The awareness that hope is “there” can be emotional and energizing. It’s “there” for you to take while you are in the group and when you leave.
The encounters in a group setting are often full of life’s abstracts – those invisible aspects of humanity that provide for the richness in one’s day – whether they be easy/hard, fortunate/unfortunate, steps forward/steps backward, happy/sad, etc. You may have a love/hate relationship with your group experience. You will change as a result of being a group member. There’s much to be had by joining. Eating disorder support groups can offer the understanding, connection, and hope that contribute to your recovery!
For a list of support groups, please visit https://www.edcatalogue.com/support-groups/
About the author:
Kathryn Cortese, LCSW, ACSW, CEDS has worked as a clinician in the eating disorders field since 1989. She has provided psychotherapy to individuals, families, and groups in in-patient and out-patient settings and in her own private practice, all specializing in the treatment of eating disorders. Kathy now also serves as president and editor-in-chief of the Gürze/Salucore Eating Disorders Resource Catalogue. She is the host of the podcast series, ED Matters, and provides supervision to treatment professionals. Kathy has presented locally and nationally on various topics related to eating disorders.