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Eating Disorders and Reaching Out for Help

Reaching out for help is one of the hardest parts of recovery. All too often, people want help, but either don’t know how to get it, or are afraid to ask for it. The problem with that is, if you don’t take the first step, then there can be no recovery. Additionally, when talking about eating disorders, staying connected is a major protective factor because your eating disorder would like to keep you all to itself. It wants to keep you disconnected from others, and buying in to the warped messages that it provides to you.

Carolyn Costin, MA, MEd, MFT and Gwen Schubert Grabb, MFT created a book about the 8 keys to recovery from an eating disorder, and in one of the chapters they address the common reasons that people struggle to reach out, and why it is so important to talk back to your eating disorder and stay connected anyway. Here are some of those reasons now.

How to Reach Out through Your Eating Disorder

Common reasons that people don’t reach out, and reasons you should anyway:

I don’t want people to know how much I need help.

This often comes from a worry about being judged. The thing is, that most of the time, by the time you reach this place, people have already noticed that there is something going on with you. Even with your best efforts, loved ones begin to notice something is off, and often want to help you, they just don’t know how. You can bridge this gap, by being brave. What ideas do you have about people who ask for help? What would it mean about you if you needed help? Chances are you hold negative thoughts about yourself for “needing help.” So let’s agree to call these negative thoughts, and then treat them as such by challenging them.

What evidence do you have against these negative thoughts? For example, if a negative thought that came up for you is that you are “weak” because you need help, what facts in your life can we see that you are not a weak person? Have you been through difficult things and are still standing? Do others in your life describe you as strong? Are you physically strong because you go to the gym? If you find that your negative thinking about yourself is what is keeping you from reaching out, try using this evidence you have found to challenge it and yourself to reach out anyway!

I am ashamed.

Do you want to rid yourself of your eating disorder for good? Well a good first step is admitting to yourself, and a trusted friend or family member that you may need help. Eating disorders are secretive in nature, and want to keep you away from your friends and family, and what better way than to create a feeling of shame that keeps you in the dark? The thing about shame is that when you share your true self with others, the feeling of shame begins to go away. In fact, this authentic presentation of yourself usually draws people in, and creates a feeling of closeness and support, which is exactly what your eating disorder does not want.

By the time I realize I am in trouble, it is too late.

I often hear this in my office, “by the time I thought about it, I had already binged and purged, so it was too late.” Well, I would say that any time that you can reach out to your social support is a good time. There are things that you can do no matter what has already happened. Do you need support in that moment? Can your friend stop your negative self-talk? Can your family help you see what you could do better next time? Although you can’t go back in the past and change what has happened, you can work to understand patterns, and identify ways to do things differently next time. Also, if you get into the habit of calling others, you may get to the point where you can call before the episode.

I would not know what to say.

There is no need for a prepared speech, or fancy words. You don’t even have to know how you are feeling. Just reaching out to others is a sign that you are fighting your eating disorder and trying to create change. Talking to someone means that you are not alone. You can even begin a conversation with something like, “I don’t really know what to say, but I really didn’t want to be alone right now.” or even just “hi”. After-all, you have found things to talk about with friends without having a written script or agenda for years, this won’t be any different!

I don’t see how talking helps.

Talking is the basis of therapy and research shows that it can make drastic changes in your life. Just talking to a friend can provide more than you can imagine. For instance, talking about something unrelated can remind you that you are not alone. If you do want to talk about what you are going through, start with what is going on? How do you feel? What would you like from your friend? Sometimes people want to have a place to vent about frustrating things happening with their eating disorder, sometimes people want to be distracted, and sometimes people want to figure things out together. Pay attention to how you feel as you get each of these things from people so that you know better what to ask for in the future!

I don’t have anyone to call.

If you truly don’t have anyone to call, that is a sign that you are too isolated and getting connected will need to be one of your first tasks. Whether you chose to join an eating disorder support group, find an online support group, join a different group or club altogether, or re-reach out to friends from the past that you haven’t talked to in a while, finding a way to be and stay connected is a vital point in your recovery. Often times people FEEL like they don’t have anyone to call, but upon closer look, they have more people than they thought, they just feel too vulnerable to reach out after a long time. Push yourself to connect in anyway that you can right now!

People won’t know what to say.

Sometimes this is true. People will not always know exactly what to say to you or what to do (e.g. Have you ever had a well meaning person give you unwarranted advice?). It isn’t really important what people say or do when you call text or email though. It matters that you reached out and that you are getting better at being connected to others in your life. What will start to happen, though, is that you will better learn who you like to reach out to and feel supported by and who you don’t, and what kind of support you like and what kind you don’t. For instance, if you don’t want advice you didn’t ask for, learn ways to ask for what you do want, or practice setting better boundaries for yourself when people offer it anyway.

Many people try to “fix” the problem out a well-meaning place, even if it is not what you are looking for. Finding a way to say, “I know you are only trying to help, but I would really like someone to listen right now” is a good start at setting these boundaries. Furthermore, you can take this as an opportunity to teach people about your eating disorder by telling them, providing online or paper resources for them, or even bringing them into your therapy appointment so that they can learn how to best support you!

People have not been there for me in the past.

People letting you down is a painful thing, and it is sometimes easy to make the very long jump from I’ve been hurt in the past to everyone is going to let me down. It isn’t easy to learn to trust people again. A safe place to start is with a therapist, or sponsor, but eventually you want to get to the point that you are able to attempt to trust someone again. Not every person will let you down, and sometimes venturing out into that vulnerable situation is the only way for you to see that that is true.

One place that therapy can help, though, is by helping you examine your behavior patterns and see if there is anything you may be doing that has led to being constantly let down by others. For instance, do you have unrealistic expectations for people that leave them unable to measure up no matter how hard they try? Other people have boundaries too, and it is important that you are not crossing them by expecting others to be available around the clock. I work with clients to help them identify their own boundaries, and examine patterns and expectations that are simply not serving them well in their lives.

I don’t want to burden people.

You have a right to help, just like everyone else. In fact, others often want to help you out when you are in need. Much like the last section, it is important not to lean on one person too much. This is the reason it is important to broaden your social support group. When you only have one person you feel comfortable talking to, there are more times when no one is available, and it can begin to feel like your friend doesn’t care about you, when in reality he may just have other things going on in his life too. What started out like a wonderful supportive situation can also begin to feel like a burden if he or she is your ONLY form of support.

I am afraid to rely on others because they will not always be around.

You’re right: People may not always be around. That is true of any relationship, friendship, or family member. Some people come in and out of our lives for many reasons (e.g. death, a move, a break up etc.) No matter what happens with that relationship, you will learn and grow from it (even if it is from the end of the relationship). That doesn’t mean that you can’t rely on that person when he or she is there. To that note, many types of relationships are meant to be time-limited such as therapy, or a favorite teacher. People can make a big impact on our lives, even when they are not a permanent part of it.

I am not sure I want the eating disorder to be stopped.

It is normal to be ambivalent about giving up your eating disorder. The fact that you are reading this blog means or considering entering treatment shows that some part of you wants to give it up, but that doesn’t mean that you are fully ready. The good news for you is that you don’t have to be fully on board to reach out for help. Even calling a friend to talk about your ambivalence is a good first step. Know that no one can make you give up your eating disorder, no matter how hard they try. What they can do though, is discuss your ambivalence with you so that you can begin to come up with your own pros and cons of seeking out further support or help, so that you can eventually move toward one side or the other of that coin.

I will feel worse if I try and it does not help.

Reaching out for help one time is not the answer to all of your problems. If making one call could completely rid you of your eating disorder there would be a lot less people with eating disorders out there. Reaching out is a step to recovery though. Even if your eating disorder behaviors don’t stop initially, you are learning to better communicate your feelings, talk about your symptoms, identify triggers, and more. Even if the “only” thing you get from reaching out is a strengthened relationship with someone else, you have made progress.

I tried it and it did not work.

There are many reasons that reaching out initially may not work out. Think of how many times you have failed at something else that you tried for the first time before you finally gained mastery of it. Doing something new like reaching out for help is no different. Maybe you were reaching out to the wrong people, maybe you were not ready to seek help, maybe you thought that you were ready but had a hard time with some of the things that you heard, maybe you need to focus on creating meaningful friendships with people who will not let you down. Whatever it is for you, the more you practice reaching out, the better you will get at it, and you too can learn to be better at this.

I should be able to handle things on my own.

The truth is that everyone needs help sometimes, and if you are struggling with an eating disorder right now, this may be one of those times that you need help. Many of my clients believe that they should not need help, but the idea that you should be able to do it all on your own is fed by your eating disorder, and is a cognitive distortion. No one can do it all on their own, and it actually usually feels nice to receive help with something even if you could have completed the task yourself. The help of a neutral party actually allows you to better help yourself, it doesn’t mean that someone is doing all the work for you. Reaching out for help needs to be reframed as a positive thing, because that’s what it is in your recovery.

If you or a loved one is experiencing eating disorder symptoms, give us a call to set up an appointment!

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Dr. Crecraft is a licensed psychologist. She is a trauma specialist, transitions expert, and family disorder healer. Her specialties include emotion regulation, healthy boundaries, and moving on from your past.

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