The holidays can be a difficult time of year for people suffering with eating disorders. An emphasis on reconnecting with loved ones can mean that we see family members or friends we haven’t seen in a while…and this can bring up a lot for someone in recovery.
In particular, there can be a lot of anxiety surrounding what someone may say about our food choices, eating habits or bodies – no matter how well-meaning the comment may be. Our latest Guest Blogger discusses her experience of coping with triggering conversations in recovery…

Some of the things that other people say can be ‘triggering’ for those in eating disorder recovery. The dreaded ‘you look well’ or ‘it’s lovely to see you looking so healthy’ can be difficult to deal with. I continue to try, with varying levels of success, not to read too much into it and instead tell myself that people care about me and probably mean well. What though, about those other conversations, which may have nothing directly to do with you personally but nevertheless feel triggering?

I’m referring here to when people around you start talking about the diet they’re on, how *guilty* they feel about eating a certain food, how they have *earnt* that so-called guilty pleasure because they’ve done some exercise, and such like. I’ve found that these comments can be made by people who know about what I’m going through as well as by those who don’t. In both cases, I try to see it as reflective of our wider, what might be called, ‘disordered eating culture’ that perpetuates a toxic attitude to food and weight even among those who wouldn’t class themselves as having an eating disorder.

…while we may just want to tell the person doing it that they are wrong, it is also worth thinking about why things cause a certain reaction in us.

As with the comments that are directed more specifically toward me, I try, therefore, to be reflective and mindful about what is being said, in terms of both how it makes me feel and how I can move forward. However, a recent experience has given me cause to consider why I find these conversations particularly triggering when they involve people who know about my eating disorder.

Now, of course, perhaps people should be more sensitive. I would recommend that anyone who knows someone experiencing an eating disorder (whether they are ‘in recovery’ or not) should refrain from talking about these kinds of topics (and hey, wouldn’t it be awesome for us all if we could just generally stop with the disordered eating talk?). But I’m also wondering why it sometimes bothers me so much. After all, while we may just want to tell the person doing it that they are wrong, it is also worth thinking about why things cause a certain reaction in us.

For me, it isn’t just that these conversations cause anxiety about food or weight. Sometimes not, sometimes I’m sitting there thinking that the conversation is ridiculous and the attitudes are completely flawed. No, it’s more that I have felt incredibly sad about the fact that the conversation is happening and have, on occasion, struggled (and, most recently, completely failed) to cope with it.

Why may this be? I have recently reflected on how, for me, it relates to the following:

A desire to feel safe and protected.

  • These people know what I’m going through, why are they exposing me to conversations that it’s obvious would be triggering for me and aren’t instead concerned with how I might be feeling? Why don’t they want to protect me from that? For me, these thoughts relate to some of the factors that underpin the eating disorder – a desire to feel heard and cared for. Triggering conversations, when they involve people you love and who love you, can feel incredibly painful because they tap into those fears about being alone, unworthy and unloved because you see them as reflective of a lack of concern for you as a person (rather than, say, of the normalisation of disordered eating in our culture).

A balance between ’emotions’ and ‘logic’

  • The trouble with being in recovery – and, heaven-forbid, looking and seeming ‘well’ and ‘recovered’ – is that people’s expectations (or what you assume they expect) can start to change. Perhaps, they genuinely believe that you are capable of engaging in these types of conversations. Of course, anyone who knows anything about recovery knows this to be folly. What I also find difficult is the implicit privileging of ‘logic’ over ‘emotions’. A challenge for me is in attending to my emotions in an embodied way, rather than trying to work through them with logic or by preoccupying myself with solely taking the other person’s perspective. Doing this in the past has made me feel alienated and dehumanised at times, and definitely contributed to my experience of the mind-body disconnect that can underpin eating disorders. If I think that people want me back in that space, I just can’t cope.

Reflecting on this has helped me see that after the dust settles on difficult moments in life, it is possible to take those moments as an opportunity to dig deeper. These moments may be triggering conversations about dieting or weight, or anything else that raises intense emotions. I try to remind myself that it is important that I do not just get frustrated or angry, but that I listen to myself, set boundaries, and try not over-identify with other people or assume responsibility for taking on the emotional burdens and costs of these difficult moments. That process of deepening my self-knowledge, accepting what I can and cannot control, and acting with integrity in my relationships continues to be a key part of my recovery journey.

“I try to remind myself that it is important that I do not get frustrated or angry, but that I listen to myself, set boundaries, and try not over-identify with other people.”

Perhaps, therefore, take those tough, triggering moments and see what they really tell you about yourself and what you need to take that next step forward in the journey of recovery, both for and from yourself but also in your relationships with people. It is not selfish or a weakness to need to feel unconditionally loved and cared for, and we have every right to speak up and to have ourselves, our needs and our feelings recognised and acted upon as part of mutually supportive and considerate relationships.

For those supporting someone on the journey of recovery, perhaps be mindful of what seems to trigger them. Rather than either blaming yourself or wondering what all the fuss is about, take it as an opportunity to learn more about that person and, if you can (and I acknowledge that depending where someone is at in their recovery, it won’t always be possible), to strengthen the relationship you have with them. While every day for a person in recovery involves courage and determination on an individual level, we also need relationships and cultures of recovery so as to feel safe and capable of taking those steps forward.

Do you have any questions? Get in touch with us!