Are you the father, mother, sibling, friend or another loved one of a person in recovery from an eating disorder and you don’t know how to help her? Do you try to show her your love and support as best as you know, but she doesn’t seem to react? Maybe you just speak different love languages.
Gary Chapman has developed the theory of the 5 love languages, according to which each person is more inclined to one of them when it comes to expressing their love, and it’s also the one that’s more gratifying to them when it comes to receiving it: words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time and physical touch. Maybe two people are trying to express their love to the other in their own way, but each one feels like the other doesn’t really love them because they aren’t receiving the kind of love that fills them. This can happen not only in romantic relationships, but also in friendships, parents-children…
Specifically with people in recovery this is fundamental, since they need a huge extra support, they’re very vulnerable and prone to feel unloved or as they didn’t deserve love. That’s why it’s important that you, as their loved one, learn to identify their love language and adapt to it. These are some ways to help them:
1. Words of affirmation
This person will need to express often with words what she feels, her fears, her difficulties, talk again and again about the same things. And she’ll ask that you listen to her patiently and, rather than offer practical solutions, reaffirm her, repeat constantly to her that what she’s doing is right, don’t get tired of telling her always the same sentences, pieces of information, etc. that you know help her to rationalize her situation and get motivated.
It will mean a lot to this person that you congratulate her for those achievements that have posed a real challenge for her, even if for you they’re trivial things that you’d take for granted. Tell her that you’re proud of her when she’s able to eat something that scares her, show her gratitude for her trust in you when she tells you something she finds embarrassing and assure her that she’s very brave for doing it, praise her strength when she moves forward after a panic attack, tell her how much you love her when she’s crying, etc.
And the more words, the better: be specific. Praise her for a specific thing. When you want to remind her how good it will be to recover, offer her a specific example. That way she’ll know that you’re really thinking your words and not saying generic stuff.
At the same time, measure carefully your words. All of us in recovery are extremely sensitive to others’ comments, everything can act as a trigger; but for this kind of person it’s even worse. Don’t talk lightly about things like food, diets or weight. Even if you’re angry and rightly so for something the person has done, try not to blurt hurting things out, since probably she’s already feeling bad enough and a burden for you. All the bad things you can call her, she already think that about herself. And your words can sink her even more in the darkness and break the trust.
When this person feels sad and discouraged, what’s going to help her more is that you address to her encouraging words, reinforce to her the real and positive beliefs against those of the illness, and make it clear to her that you love her unconditionally. More than invitations to take quick action, since this kind of person needs long times of reflection and conversation to get reaffirmed enough before acting.