Taking Care of Yourself as a Support Person

It can be difficult to accept that someone dear to us is struggling with an eating disorder. Questions like “where did I go wrong?”, “what else could I have done to prevent this?”, or “why didn’t I foresee this?” can bring up feelings such as guilt, shame, disappointment, frustration, and anger. These are valid feelings and it’s important to acknowledge them as normal; they are typical among supporters.  

However, by stewing in those emotions and focusing on the past and the “what ifs”, we can end up missing key opportunities to act and bring about positive change in our loved one’s struggle. The emotional burden may be easier to carry when we move past this and focus on practical steps, like what we can do, now that things are what they are. 

Radical acceptance means being intentional with our efforts to acknowledge and honour difficult circumstances and emotions. Accepting things as they are, instead of ignoring, avoiding, or spending a lot of time wishing the situation were different, can be a helpful step in overcoming a challenging experience.

While you are supporting someone, keep in mind that it is important to take care of yourself too

  • Setting boundaries

    • As a caregiver

      You will likely make various sacrifices and supporting your loved one can be all-consuming. It is critical to leave space for your own needs, otherwise the eating disorder will also wear you down. 

      • There can be a lot of pressure with maintaining a family and navigating other people’s perception of you. Many families and communities are used to “saving face” and avoiding stigmatized topics, such as mental health. Remember that every family deals with issues, and you're not the only ones struggling. Allowing yourself to acknowledge this commonality can enable healing.

      • You have the right to disclose as much or as little information about the situation as you see fit.
        • “Thank you for your concern; we are dealing with some stuff, but we haven’t figured out how much we want to talk about this with everyone.”
        • “I’m not comfortable talking about this right now. Maybe connecting at a later date would be nice. Now’s not a good time; it’s been a rough week.”
        • “Our family is dealing with something right now. We’re supporting [name] – mealtimes and family gatherings might be challenging for a while. We’d appreciate your understanding and compassion.”
        • “Our family has been learning more about disordered eating and how to support [name]. I think it’d be so helpful if we all took some time to become more aware of this; can I send you some stuff to look at? I think [name] would appreciate it.”

      • You can challenge extended family’s perception of eating disorders and mental health or explain what is and isn’t helpful at family gatherings for the person you’re supporting.
        • “Actually, eating disorders are not a choice; they’re very serious mental illnesses. I appreciate you’re trying to help and that you have good intentions and the ongoing conversations about weight and diet aren’t helpful. Can we please avoid all body and diet talk tonight?”
        • “There’s nothing shameful about struggling with an eating disorder and seeking help. [Name] didn’t choose this, and I ask that you don’t treat them differently (e.g., fragile) now that you know. They still like [hobbies] and laugh at ___.”

      • You don’t have to delve into how you’re feeling nor pretend that everything is alright.
        • “Thanks for your concern, I’m not really up for talking about it at the moment. Can we just talk about something else? A distraction would be nice.”
        • “I’m not doing the best, but I don’t think there’s anything that you can do right now to help. When or if something does come up, I’ll be sure to let you know. Thank you for being here for me.”

      • You can say “no” to people and situations. Protecting yourself and the person you’re supporting is the most important.
        • “I’m sorry, I have a lot going on right now. I really don’t have the mental capacity to help you with this. Maybe we can brainstorm together to see who else can take on this task?”
        • “Thank you for inviting me! Unfortunately, I can’t make it. I’ve been managing a lot lately and I want to prioritize my child’s well-being at the moment. Please don’t hesitate to ask again in the future though, things may change. I really do appreciate your thoughtfulness.”
        • “I don’t think I can attend. It’s my one evening where I’ll have some alone time and I really need to recharge after supporting [name] through a grueling transition in treatment.”
    • As a friend

      It can be tough figuring out where your boundaries lie because there are limits to what you can do and you may not be within their inner circle of support people. Sometimes you won’t have as much information about their situation as you’d like, and it’s still important to respect your friend’s level of comfort regarding disclosure. 

      • Protect your friendship by offering the kind of support you know you can maintain long-term and help them realize that it’s okay to seek external/more help if needed.
        • “I don't feel confident or comfortable helping you with meal support; but I’m definitely okay with being available after meals to listen, distract, or comfort you.”
        • “I have my own stuff to deal with when it comes to body image, so I’d really appreciate it if you don’t discuss your diet and exercise regime with me. I’m always open to accompanying you to appointments or joining you in de-stressing and some self-care when you’re feeling down or stuck in your head though.”
        • “Thank you for trusting me with this. It means a lot to me as your friend, and I want to be here for you. This really feels outside my scope though. Wanna see if we can find any resources or supports to help with this? You deserve to have a good support system.”
        • “That sounds like something your treatment team would really want to know about. What do you think about telling them next week? I know it can be scary, but they exist to help you.”

      • Be clear and firm with your boundaries and the limits of how you can help.
        • “Hey, just to be clear, if I notice ____ (e.g. medical warning signs, like fainting, difficulty breathing, etc.) I will tell your parents or bring you to the emergency room for medical care. I know this might make you uncomfortable and it’s outside the scope of how I normally support you, but this is a hard line I’m drawing because I care about you and want you to live. I would rather you know now than potentially feel betrayed in the future if this ever happens.”

      • Don’t be afraid of re-visiting conversations around how you can help. Life circumstances – both yours and your friend who is in recovery – change all the time, and it’s okay to revise boundaries. Continue being transparent in communicating these changes in expectations.
    • As a young person supporting another young person

      It's important to explore ways to get an adult involved. You may feel the burden of being the sole person aware of what’s going on at the moment and this may clash with wanting to respect the individual’s desire for secrecy. Those are extremely normal feelings and concerns, and the person you’re supporting is lucky to have someone as thoughtful as you in their life. 

      However, treatment and getting them the help they need will likely require their caregiver’s involvement. They are the ones who are responsible for ensuring your friend/sibling/partner gets treatment. It is also their role and responsibility to manage the young person’s eating disorder symptoms around meal times, not yours.

      • Eating disorders are not lifestyle choices, nor is the person you’re supporting trying to make everyone at school or in the family unhappy. They are real illnesses with psychological and physical symptoms. Recovery is possible, but challenging. Family members can play different and important roles, and school staff can also support this process.

      • It is not your fault that they developed an eating disorder. You did not cause it. In fact, there is no known cause of eating disorders, just numerous factors that together can increase the chances that a person will develop one.

      • The most important thing is for the individual to get help as soon as possible. If you suspect they may have an eating disorder, tell a trusted adult like your parents, caregiver, teacher, mentor, or school guidance counsellor.
        • If you’re worried about how the individual may react, you can tell your trusted adult to be discreet or to not mention that you were the one to reach out.
        • You can also reach out to NEDIC on our confidential and anonymous helpline services to figure out how to address this. Any fears and doubts you have are valid, and you deserve to get support as a person worried about someone else.

      • You can help in other ways that are just as important for their recovery as professional treatment. Examples:
        • Provide companionship (e.g., by playing games, talking, or listening to music together) which can help reaffirm their interests and hobbies that make them who they are outside the eating disorder experience
        • Encourage them to resist the eating disorder and remind them of why they want to get well. What types of goals do they have? Do they want to travel? Go to post-secondary school? Enjoy game nights and socializing without worrying about what they have to do to compensate the next day? This can help them focus on long-term recovery, and not the short-term benefits of the eating disorder.
        • If you’re supporting your sibling, you can help your parents/caregiver in smaller ways (e.g. helping with some age-appropriate housework, taking care of the pet, playing with other siblings, etc.)
  • Strategies and support

    • Self-care

      Being a support person can affect your work and family life, as well as your emotional, mental, financial, social, and physical well-being. Here are some coping strategies and support that may help in easing of the stress and fatigue you may be experiencing:

      • Spend time with loved ones (e.g. go to the movies, cook dinner together, go to a coffee shop)
      • Participate in activities that you enjoy doing
      • Self-soothe by appealing to your 5 senses (e.g. taking a bubble bath, smelling candles, essential oils, looking at pictures of puppies, listening to music)
      • Journal or write down how you’re feeling. You can write about your day, what you’re grateful for, memories that bring you joy, etc.
      • Create art (e.g. by drawing, painting, sculpting)
      • Take a mental health day to reset and renew
      • Unplug by setting your technological devices in another room for a certain period of time
      • Hydrate and nourish yourself with foods that you enjoy and make your body feel good
      • Schedule a time to sleep-in if your body feels extra tired!
      • Visit our coping strategies page for more ideas to try out
    • Creating a support system

      Caring for someone with an eating disorder can feel extremely isolating and exhausting. Try to be kind to yourself and accept help when it is available. It is not weak or shameful to ask for help. No one deserves to go through this alone, and you are no exception. Try to think about who or what else would be beneficial in supporting you through this process. 

      • Are there any friends or family who can take on some of your workload, whether this is helping to look after the person you’re supporting, or completing other tasks so you don’t have to?
        • Examples of helping to look after the person you’re supporting:
          • Offering companionship during mealtimes and taking part in any pre/post-meal plans
          • Attending appointments with your loved one – allowing you to complete work, attend therapy, run errands, clean, etc.
          • Being available as a safe person to call in a safety plan
        • Examples of other tasks that could free up your mental/physical energy:
          • Cleaning
          • Babysitting/pet sitting
          • Running errands
          • Helping to drive other dependents to school/work/appointments, etc.
        • If you’re supporting a child, have adults help with the new regime and ensure all immediate family members know how to best support them. Have regular check-ins to ensure you’re all providing a united front with consistent messaging and support.

      • Would seeking mental health care for yourself be helpful?
        • Accessing therapy can provide a dedicated space and time for centering your own needs, including concerns related to the person you’re supporting and beyond. Don’t let the eating disorder consume your life and relationships!
        • If you’re in school, health services could help connect you with a mental health provider, while student support services could help advocate for accommodations (i.e. adjusting deadlines to account for emotional fatigue and time spent caring for someone else).

      • If you work, are you able to receive compassionate leave from your employer, or ask for adjustments to the way you work (i.e. hours, workload, ability to leave/take emergency calls or accompany someone for appointments)?

      • Connecting with support groups that specialize in eating disorders and that are geared towards family, friends, and caregivers supporting a loved one can help you realize that 1) you are not alone and 2) all caregivers and support persons experience one or more of these feelings from time to time:
        • Feeling you are responsible for the eating disorder in some way and the subsequent guilt of being a bad parent, friend, etc.
        • Feeling like the eating disorder has taken over your life and it’s all you ever think about
        • Overwhelming desire to “fix the eating disorder” and make it disappear
        • Feeling disturbed and upset by the physical and psychological changes that you see – and the guilt, anger, or fear of being on the receiving end of these changes
        • Doubting your ability to manage supporting them and believing that change is not possible
        • Being scared of mealtimes and conflicts within your relationship, as well as the prospect of those challenges long term
    • Community resources

      • Families Empowered and Supporting Treatment of Eating Disorders (FEAST) is an international organization of and for caregivers of individuals with eating disorders. Many parents and caregivers find that FEAST is a valuable resource for learning more about eating disorders and how they can effectively support their loved one. FEAST also hosts an online forum, Around the Dinner Table, through which members can share their experiences and get peer support. Membership is free of charge.

      • National Initiative for Eating Disorders (NIED) exists to give hope and support to individuals with an Eating Disorder and their caregivers.  They do this by developing and sharing educational resources and information, conducting or participating in research, and taking action to address the needs of Canadians impacted by Eating Disorders.

      • Several eating disorder community groups in Canada offer support to people caring for someone.