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How to Be Empathetic Towards Someone with an Eating Disorder

Doctor measuring obese man waist body fat. Obesity and weight loWatching a loved one fight a disease is heartbreaking. The best thing that you can do is to be there for them. But, it can be difficult to be empathetic when you do not see what they see. To help you care for them, here are some of the best ways to stay understanding.

  • Inform yourself. There are so many forms of eating disorders and it can become overwhelming. Researching the disease can help you feel connected and recognize what may have caused the feelings to start. The first step to helping a loved one is understanding what they are going through.
  • Don’t place blame. Don’t place blame on yourself, a significant other, or the individual. This will only lead to more hurt and separation of the family in this time. This is easier to avoid if you constantly remind yourself that an eating disorder is a disease and not a choice.
  • Ask them how they are feeling. Instead of approaching them with direct questions about their disorder, ask them a general question to get them talking. Eating disorders are usually caused by an underlying issue. Try to find that issue so that it can be resolved.
  • Talk to someone. Your feelings are important too so don’t forget to express them. Whether it is a friend or a therapist, it is good to talk through what is on your mind so that you are able to handle the stress of being someone’s support system.
  • Make them feel safe and supported. To help someone with an eating disorder, you should create a judgment free discussion. Build a trusting relationship so that they feel safe coming to you with their problems.

On the other hand avoid being their only savior in a bad situation. They will probably text or call you when they feel uncomfortable, but if you are not there one time to answer, they need to have another option. Teach them to deal with things themselves without immediate gratification and then facilitate a conversation afterwards.

  • Care for yourself. This seems obvious, but it is easy to forget. In order to help someone, you need to be healthy and happy. Make sure that all of your needs are being met because it is easy to get caught up with helping someone else. But this could lead to you losing your job, neglecting other relationships, or developing your own mental health issues without even noticing that you are changing.
  • Don’t allow lies or cover ups. People with this disease tend to have a habit of lying in order to accomplish what they want. Do not let them manipulate you into covering for them. Also, if you feel like they are lying to you, call them out.
  • Don’t praise their appearance. Essentially, make the conversation about something other than their body. You might seem like you are giving them a compliment, but if you say they look great and they just starved themselves for a week, you are reinforcing bad behavior. On the flip side, do not tell them they look frail or too skinny, they have enough negativity in their own mind.
  • Leave suggestions to professionals. Dieting suggestions or any other suggestion should be left to the professionals. Although you may feel like you know nutrition or psychology, you are their friend, not their doctor. Stay on that side of the fence so that the individual can have both. You also do not want to give them the wrong information for their particular body and end up making something worse.

Don’t expect treatment to solve all problems

Eating disorders are complex. It is not feasible to go into a program for a few months and come out completely healthy. This will be an ongoing disease that this person will fight for their whole life. Just hope that treatment resonates well enough so that the disorder doesn’t continue to take over their life.

The most important thing to remember when trying to help someone with an eating disorder is that you can be there for them, but do not let it take over your life. It is best to make sure that they have a therapist and other friends or family to talk to so that the pressure is not all on you. When you are the only one that they feel comfortable with, it can lead to an unhealthy relationship where you will hold resentment.

How to Be Empathetic Towards Someone with an Eating Disorder

Madison Ferry

Madison Ferry is a Digital Marketer for Happy Dog Web Productions. She is a guest writer for Allison Holt & Associates, a Twin Cities-based psychiatry practice serving children, adolescents and adults. The views expressed in here are Madison’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of Allison Holt & Associates.

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APA Reference
Ferry, M. (2018). How to Be Empathetic Towards Someone with an Eating Disorder. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 31 Mar 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.