How to Support Your Loved Ones When They Are Ambivalent About Professional Eating Disorder Treatment
By Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LCSW-C
Experiencing ambivalence about recovery or seeking treatment is common for individuals who are struggling with eating disorders. Their eating disorder is likely serving some adaptive functions for them (i.e. anxiety management or comfort). Therefore, it makes sense that it can feel scary to think about letting go of this coping mechanism.
Additionally, there may be a sense of denial of the severity of the illness. Often individuals with eating disorders are unable to see how ill they actually are. Termed, anosognosia, one concerning symptom of restrictive eating disorders is “the patients belief that he or she is not ill.” If someone believes that they are not sick or things “aren’t that bad,” it makes sense that they would deem treatment unnecessary.
As an eating disorder therapist in private practice, I offer for you some ways to support your loved one who is ambivalent about eating disorder treatment.
- Express your support for them, as well as your concerns regarding their behaviors.
It’s important to express to your loved one that you support and care about them, as well as to share your concerns surrounding their behaviors.
Do not point out your loved one’s weight, as this can be an unhelpful focus. Rather, emphasize things like your concerns surrounding their behaviors around food, mood, and how their eating disorder may be impacting their relationships.
- Identify what you can leverage.
Depending on their level of resistance to treatment, it might be helpful to share that while you support them – you will not support their continued descent into an eating disorder.
I believe that it often is important to firmly insist that the person seek treatment. Eating disorders are the deadliest mental illness and what’s most important is that your loved one receives the treatment they need.
For instance, if you are the parent of a child who is ambivalent about treatment or flat out refusing, you could leverage certain things (i.e. financial support, car, activities) as conditional upon your child’s decision to attend eating disorder treatment.
Or, for example, if your spouse is ambivalent about treatment, you could say something like, “I love you so much and your eating disorder is really backing me into a corner. I’m so concerned about your well-being, that I need you to agree to seek treatment.”
- Explore their concerns or reservations.
Explore with your loved one what their reservations or concerns are when it comes to seeking professional treatment.
If they are still feeling ambivalent ask them to reflect on what their life could be like 5 years from now if they continue to stay sick vs. if they fully recovered from their eating disorder.
If Your Loved One Agrees to Treatment
No one is a “mind reader” and sometimes we don’t always know the best way to support our loved one when it comes to seeking treatment for an eating disorder. It can be helpful to ask them for the ways in which we can be most supportive to them.
For instance, maybe the process of finding a therapist is feeling overwhelming and they would appreciate your assistance in this. Or perhaps, they need a reminder of the importance of seeking treatment and that they in fact do “deserve to do so.”
Ultimately, families, friends, and other supportive people can be incredible allies in someone’s recovery process.
About the author:
Jennifer Rollin is a therapist in private practice in Rockville, Maryland, who specializes in working with adolescents and adults with eating disorders, body image issues, anxiety, and depression. You can learn more about Jennifer and her practice at https://www.jenniferrollin.com/
 Muhlheim, L. (November, 2017). Anosognosia and Anorexia. Retrieved from: https://www.verywell.com/anosognosia-and-anorexia-3573545