Maintaining Healthy Friendships
By Kyla Buckingham
Reprinted from Eating Disorders Recovery Today
Summer 2008 Volume 6, Number 3
©2008 Gürze Books
During the debilitating course of an eating disorder, we often find ourselves painfully isolated. Although reaching out is hard, it can be lifesaving. As a popular Beatles song says, "I get by with a little help from my friends"—and it's true. In my recovery, I have relied on my treatment team, friends, and family. Though many people with an eating disorder try, no one can tackle life completely alone. We are social beings who crave companionship.
I don't know of anyone who has recovered from an eating disorder without help from others, but I know many who have wilted in isolation. Friendships help us to participate in the world. A healthy friendship built on honesty, respect, and good communication skills is tremendously uplifting. While friends do not replace professional help, they are a vital part of what it takes to be a happy human.
Making friends can be a real challenge, especially for people who are introverted or accustomed to living according to their eating disorder's rules. But making friends can also be a great adventure! Here are a few ideas:
- Join a club or volunteer. This is a great way to connect with passionate people who share common interests.
- Answer your phone when it rings. Your eating disorder will not like this, because it connects you to the outside world.
- Make eye contact. This simple act invites people into your life.
- Call old friends with whom you've lost contact. They'll be happy to hear from you.
- Initiate conversation with a potential friend by asking questions.
- Take a risk and share things about yourself. Let people into your world.
Unfortunately, many of us with eating disorders fall into destructive friendships over and over, finding ourselves used and manipulated. We become enmeshed and codependent, often assuming the role of caretaker. These friendships do not challenge, but contribute to our eating disorders. We may even find friends who love us not in spite of, but because of our illness. These friends do not want us to be well.
I am ashamed to admit that when I was very sick I sometimes practiced my eating disorder with friends. While we felt less lonely sharing our experiences, we only spiraled further into the illness. The closeness we shared was a pseudo-friendship, built on destruction and deception. We had not set out to do these things together, but the eating disorders used our friendship to its advantage. To determine the quality of your friendships, consider the following questions:
- Is your friendship stronger when one or both or you are engaged in eating disordered behavior?
- Does your friend need you to take care of him or her?
- Does the friendship feed into destructive patterns?
- Is it hard to tell where you end and your friend begins?
- Are you the only one he or she depends on?
If you've answered yes to any of the above questions, it's time to seriously evaluate your friendship and consider setting some boundaries or ending the relationship.
Setting boundaries means asserting your needs and placing limits. These limits, rather than suffocating your growth, actually allow for the development of much healthier, happier relationships. When setting boundaries, it is important to be firm and specific. Tell your friend exactly what the boundary does and does not permit. The boundary must be respected in order for your friendship to continue. This process is difficult, but it is essential to your well-being. Here are a few useful boundaries to set with most friends:
- Establish a "no diet talk" rule.
- Insist that a depressed friend seek guidance from a counselor instead of you.
- Make triggering topics off limits.
- Tell your friend what kind of help you can and cannot provide.
If you are friends with someone who has an eating disorder, it is especially important to make clear boundaries and consider whether the friendship is serving you. Here are a few suggestions:
- No numbers, no exceptions. This means that you never mention weights high or low, no amount of miles run, no calories, no durations.
- Do not discuss behaviors together. This may be triggering, and it is difficult to help someone when you are struggling with the very same issue. Instead, talk to professionals and people without eating disorders about behaviors.
- Make a commitment to never glamorize the eating disorder. This means no reminiscing, no comparing or swapping "sick" stories
- Decide that you will not skip meals together. Not ever. No safe foods, no food games, no competing. You may wish to see each other between meals if they are too triggering.
- It may be necessary to ban all discussion of eating disorders outside of therapeutic contexts.
Please be warned: your eating disorder can and will use your friendships against you if you are not deliberate in your decisions—especially friendships with eating-disordered people. Consistently reevaluate your needs and the health of the friendship. You may need to adjust and instate new boundaries as time goes on.
Myths about Boundaries
- If I set boundaries, my friend won't like me. Truth: A real friend will always respect boundaries and will understand that they protect both of you.
- If I set boundaries, I'll be a bad friend. Truth: You will be a better friend by being honest about your needs and caring for yourself.
- I've tried before, but setting boundaries doesn't work. Truth: Usually boundaries are respected, but if not, reevaluate your friendship and consider ending it.
- But she needs me to take care of her. Truth: You cannot care for your friend better than she can care for herself. If she relies on you alone, she is placing an unfair and impossible burden on you.
A social life has been vital to my recovery. I had to commit to reaching out and taking initiative in friendships. I also had to set boundaries and break off ties, but with time these courageous tasks grew easier. I promise that the value of a healthy friendship is worth the effort.