Supporting Your Eating-disordered Loved One This Christmas
Anna Lloyd | Wednesday, December 18th, 2019
| Family Support | Relationships |
“A focus on the food misses the boat completely and locates the problem in the food, when in reality the problem is in the struggle to stay viably connected to others.”
For families where what happens at the dinner table has come to whisper of whether their loved one will cope or collapse, live or die, meal times become horribly tense or conflictual encounters that everyone dreads.
Eating a meal with your anorexic, bulimic or body dysmorphic child or partner is no walk in the park and can feel like eating dinner with an un-diffused bomb sitting at the table. The bomb is not the eating disordered person, though it may often seem that way. It is the family reactivity around the issue:
At Christmas time, anxiety and emotional intensity in families and society goes up, as do compulsive attempts to cope with the rising emotional floodwaters. People bind anxiety and emotionality in all sorts of weird and wonderful ways to create some kind of equilibrium for themselves at this time of year and restricting food, binging, purging, over-exercising or taking clean eating to extreme and perfectionistic levels are some of them. It is hard to imagine how eating disorder behaviours would not intensify over the holidays, when almost everything that happens over this period is centred around food and family, both of which the eating-disordered individual is highly reactive to.
For those who are sincerely interested in being a support to an eating-disordered loved one this Christmas, working at aligning your own behaviour with the principle of “Feelings, not food. Connection, not control” can be helpful.
This principle speaks to getting one’s focus completely off what the person is eating, or not eating. A focus on the food misses the boat completely and locates the problem in the food, when in reality the problem is in the struggle to stay viably connected to others. When people can be adequately connected to others and learn to tolerate the fact that human relationships are awash with tensions, differences, anxieties, risks and vulnerabilities, they can find more emotional equilibrium and eating disorders become less active.
A curiosity about how the person is feeling, and a willingness to share one’s own feelings in a bounded and moderate way is a far more helpful invitation into viable connection than a worried or critical focus on their food intake. Focusing on the their food invites defence and emotional withdrawal and creates the perceived need for more emotional insulation and buffering, which food or the restriction of it provides for the eating-disordered person. Families can work at creating the conditions where their loved ones might be willing to relinquish some of their eating disorder behaviour by working at refraining from any attempts to control their loved one’s food intake, or any other aspect of their being for that matter. Refraining from control, even subtle efforts to control such as praise and encouragement, can go a long way towards inviting and being open for connection, and connection tethers people to the human family and to life itself.
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