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.
2. Acts of service
What this person needs most is your specific help in those tasks that are more difficult for her. Throw away yourself those clothes that are going to be triggering for her as they become too small for her. Call yourself the doctor when she’s embarrassed to do so. Clean yourself the mess she’s caused when she’s made an scene, or the food on the plate that she hasn’t been able to finish.
And don’t only limit yourself to these things. As far as you have time, take a load off her by assuming her obligations. Think that recovery is by itself more than enough of a burden and of a responsibility, and anything that allows her to be more calmed and to be able to rest during the short moments that her mind is quiet will be a blessing for her. Don’t think she’s lazy for not doing what others have to do, she’s really exhausted.
It’s very likely that she doesn’t ask for help because she feels like she’s enough of an annoyance; but if instead you make yourself available, and you do it willingly and showing a sincere interest, she’ll appreciate a lot that you value her effort in her own healing by making her life easier in the rest of the areas.
On the contrary, if she’s reprimanded for what she doesn’t do, she’ll soon feel overwhelmed and overloaded, and her mind will tell her that she’s lazy and useless. The same will happen if you do these acts of service, but grumbling and complaining. Try to understand her, and do what you’d like to be done for you if you were gravely ill and in constant torment.
3. Receiving gifts
A system of “prizes” works very will with this person. Not because of the object itself, since it doesn’t matter if they’re expensive or big things, but because it’s the way in which she better recognizes your love, when you express it through a little gift chosen with care. For example, a little present (such as a charm) each time she gains a certain amount of the weight she needs, cute new clothes that fit her new size and make her feel good, or any other small reward for a difficult challenge overcome.
Every time she sees it or uses it, she’ll remember why she has it and how through that gift you showed your joy and recognition for what she achieved, and that will encourage her to keep going. Moreover, if they’re food-related things, such as cool plates, mugs or pieces of cutlery, they’ll help her to put the food served there into a perspective of love.
A variation to apply this language daily (since usually you can’t give presents everyday) is to establish other visual systems, of points or stamps: for example, having a calendar (or something more random like a jar) with different challenges to do each day, and each time one’s done, marking it visually with some sign on the calendar, on a notice board, on a poster, etc. Once there’s a certain number of them, they can turn into a tangible gift. This system is somehow competitive even if it’s just against oneself and while some people love it, for others it can get on their nerves; it must be assessed in each case.
The key in any case is not to let it become a cold and automatic mechanism, but it must be accompanied with gestures that remind them that it’s a way to show love and affection.
4. Quality time
What these people value most is that you give them your undivided attention. It’s not actually necessary that you do something specific, just that you’re there, listen to them, and that when you’re together you don’t multitask (phone, TV, paperwork…), since then you’ll be communicating to them that they’re either not as important as those things, or even that their presence is a nuisance to you because they’re preventing you from living your life. Try to be patient, all the time you spend with a person in recovery that needs it is well invested.
If something you have to do is very urgent, first reconsider if it’s really absolutely indispensable that you do it in that precise instant; don’t take for granted that the other person shouldn’t care about waiting a little until you’re free, if she comes to you at that moment it’s for something, and maybe “later” is too late (she’s already fallen into the behavior she intended to avoid, she’s not going to tell you that thing she has decided to open up about, etc.). If indeed you can’t attend to her, be very clear saying at what specific time she’ll have your undivided attention, so she sees that you’re really interested in giving it to her.
How to spend quality time together
When you’re with the person in those moments, try not to get ahead of her or give the impression that things need to be solved quickly. Let her take her time to express herself, to cry, or just to be with you without saying anything. Otherwise, she may think that what you want isn’t to help her, but her to go away soon.
At the same time, don’t get distracted, and I don’t even mean thinking about other things, but thinking about your next answer, about the information you’ve learned in therapy, etc. This person values more that you listen attentively over your answer being quick and perfect. And if in addition your answer is an insistence on a fixed idea that’s very clear to you, but has little to do with what she’s just told you, because you’re seeking to redirect her, she may feel very hurt.
This quality time includes also doing activities together. Try to make time to go on walks, to the park, to the cinema, to a museum or —if this is good in the phase of recovery she’s in— to eat together. It’s probable that during the illness the person has drifted away from you and also that she avoided this kind of social activities, or didn’t enjoy them because she was thinking about her body, food, etc. Learning to enjoy them again is a great gift.
5. Physical touch
People with eating disorders, in general, aren’t very fond of physical contact, because they feel ashamed of their bodies. So even if this ends up being the love language of the person you’re with, be careful with how you express it. A caress or a hug can be very calming and comforting, but make sure the person isn’t uncomfortable. Above all, avoid movements that involve squeezing or picking skin (such as a little pinch), since this can be triggering, making her believe there’s something “extra” on her body.
Don’t touch the person without her permission and approach her always with respect. But all these warnings said, physical contact can really be very beneficial, and more specifically for people that have it as their love language. It’s the way through which they perceive that you’re there for them, in the most physical and palpable manner. Holding hands, letting her rest her head on your shoulder or your lap, etc., all of those are ways in which she’ll notice the connection with you and feel safe. It will help her feel that she can be loved unconditionally even when she thinks otherwise.
Obviously, all these ways of love can be combined, since we have one or 2 predominant love languages —the ones that it’s important not to neglect—, but all of them are good at certain moments. What’s fundamental is to have a lot of patience with a person that can sometimes show themselves to be reluctant to your love, but deep down wants it, wants you, loves you. Recovery can be a precious time to rebuild relationships damaged by lies and fighting. Crush the evil together with love!