Clients with a history of eating disorders often feel hesitant about revealing their disorder to others. This may pose a dilemma, because gaining the trust and support of others in one’s recovery can be a very powerful factor in the treatment process. However, by divulging this “secret,” individuals might feel intense vulnerability. They may wonder what might happen if they are open with another about their struggle: Will this person judge me? Will they understand what I’m going through? Will they blame me? Will they treat me differently?
Exposing an eating disorder that is often a very private struggle may trigger feelings of shame, anxiety, fear, and sadness. Upon being open, you might feel that your experience with an eating disorder is not fully comprehended by others, is minimized, or is met with unhelpful advice. On the other hand, you may be greeted with empathy, understanding, and support. If you are struggling with an eating disorder and are considering sharing about your experience, whether with a friend or a therapist, here are some tips that might relieve some of the stress during this process:
Ask Yourself Why You Want to be Open
What is your reason for wanting to disclose your eating disorder to someone else? Do you need an emotional outlet? Are you hoping that someone will listen and provide comfort? Are you needing some type of attention or validation? Are you seeking help and resources? By having an intention in mind, you may feel less distressed about being more open, and possibly more hopeful that your act of vulnerability can help fulfill your needs.
Evaluate The Characteristics of The Other Person
Reflect upon why you are choosing this specific person to entrust with your concerns. Do you feel physically and emotionally safe around this person? How have they responded in the past when you’ve shared something vulnerable? Do they have education or training in eating disorders? Do you think you’ll feel better or worse by telling them? Does this person want the best for you? Is this person emotionally available to support you? Are they acting out in their own eating disorder and may possibly trigger yours? Determining positive qualities in the person with whom you want to be vulnerable may ease your discomfort.
Recognize & Articulate What You Need
By revealing something as private and often misunderstood as an eating disorder, you might encounter a range of responses from others. Some individuals may have no idea what your experience is like and will appear confused. Others may try to convince you that you don’t have an eating disorder. Some may try to provide advice or unsolicited feedback that may or may not be helpful. Others may open up to you about their own eating disorder. You may be met with these various responses, yet all you might want from the conversation is for someone to listen, be with you in your experience, and validate your concerns. To lessen your anticipation about the outcome of this conversation, initially asserting your needs can be a helpful tool: “I have something very private and important to share, and I’m hoping you can just listen without offering any advice.” Or, you might say something like “I am struggling with something that I will explain further, and was wondering if you could check in with me weekly to see how I am doing.” This is a great time to set boundaries and make reasonable requests that can be supportive to your recovery.
Prepare to Educate Others
Revealing your eating disorder to a therapist can be highly valuable because of the education and training they have treating such concerns. However, the general public may not know enough or have various misconceptions about them. To those who may not understand what you’re going through, you may need to elaborate on your experience. This does not mean you have to be the spokesperson for eating disorders, but perhaps an advocate for your own experience and how an eating disorder shows up in your life and impacts your functioning. Individuals who have not experienced this disorder themselves may not understand the whirlwind of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that accompany it, and so providing some elaboration can be helpful for you to feel heard and supported.
Being honest with others about your eating disorder may feel excruciatingly overwhelming and unsettling. This is completely normal and absolutely okay. Remember that you can feel scared and do something brave at the same time.
Bio: Bahar Moheban, M.A. is a clinical psychology doctoral student and registered psychological assistant in Torrance under the supervision of Dr. Nazanin Moali. She provides individual and group therapy to adults and adolescents with eating disorders and body image concerns. Bahar has experience mentoring and facilitating support groups for individuals seeking a more peaceful relationship with food. To discuss your own experience with eating disorders and create a plan for recovery, contact Bahar to book an appointment for counseling.