Talking to Your Loved One: Positive Communication Tips
By Tony Paulson, PhD
Your loved one has an eating disorder and you’re worried that you might say the wrong thing and make the problem worse. However, watching her struggle is horrible and makes you feel helpless. Do you sit back and hope that somehow she finds her way to recovery? Perhaps you have approached the topic or have tried to voice your concerns and received a strong and decisive message to back off. What now?
Know that you play a vital role in supporting her recovery. Your guidance, love, and strength are desperately needed, especially if she is isolating herself or continuing to do unhealthy behaviors. She needs to be held accountable and to be reminded when the eating disorder is affecting how she thinks and reacts to things. She also needs to know that there is someone in the world who, no matter how hard things get, will not give up.
Positive Communication Tips
Talking about the eating disorder helps your loved one keep in mind the seriousness of the illness. The question is not whether you should express your concerns; the question is how can you talk to her in ways that you have the best chance of being understood and heard? Here are a few things to keep in mind:
• Be calm and caring when you convey your worry.
Remind yourself that your loved one sees her illness as a vital, indispensable “friend.” If you speak about it in disparaging terms, she might get defensive, think you don’t understand, or that you don’t care. She will likely feel threatened, as if you’re trying to take away something that she needs to survive. For these reasons, be calm and caring when you express your worry about the disorder, and be clear about how frightened you are for her.
• Use proper timing to open up the conversation.
Pick a place where food or eating is not involved and a time when tensions are low between the two of you. For example, over dinner is not the best time to talk about the eating disorder. Opportunities might best be found in a location that feels neutral, such as shopping at the mall, taking a walk around the neighborhood, or watching a movie at home, so she won’t feel “cornered,” “ambushed,” or “set up.”
• Use “I” statements.
“I” statements (such as “I feel …” or “I am worried…”) will give you the best chance of being heard. For instance, you might say, “I am concerned and worried about your health” rather than, “You are killing yourself and you should stop it right now!” The latter is a confrontation, not a conversation and, instead of opening the lines of communication and bonding with your loved one, this might create misunderstanding and distance.
• Think about what you most want to convey and be specific.
Be direct when you speak to her, using a steady voice and providing real examples of how you see the eating disorder affecting her life negatively. As you speak, keep in mind that the choice of words and the way in which you say something are essential to positive communication. Remember how sensitive she is to feeling criticized and thinking she’s inadequate. Choose your tone and words wisely.
Over time, with patience and a deepened understanding of the relationship she has with the eating disorder, you’ll both be able to speak more freely, which will help strengthen the relationship you have with each other. The more she can feel close and safe with you, the easier it will be to relate to other people and herself, and to ultimately get better.
About the Author
Tony Paulson, PhD, is the coauthor of Why She Feels Fat: Understanding Your Loved One’s Eating Disorder and How You Can Help (Gürze Books, 2008). He serves as Executive Director for Summit Eating Disorders Program in Northern California and lives in Sacramento, CA.
Reprinted with permission from Eating Disorders Recovery Today
Spring 2008 Volume 6, Number 2
©2008 Gürze Books