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This article comes from EDV’s Recovery Newsletter, Sending Hope. Sending Hope is sent fortnightly, and provides subscribers with recovery support directly to their inbox. To subscribe to this newsletter, please see here.

Making friendships work in recovery.

You’d be hard pressed to meet anyone with lived experience of an eating disorder who didn’t have their friendships impacted by their disorder. Authentic friendships require you to bring a level of openness and generosity with your time and attention. It can be very difficult to do this when your eating disorder demands so much of your energy.

Let’s explore what friendship can look like while you navigate recovery.

First thing’s first. Friends who haven’t experienced an eating disorder themselves or haven’t been around those impacted by any mental illness often feel unsure about what to say or do to be helpful. A great saying that expresses this is, ‘we know what we know and don’t know what we don’t know’.

One of the most common things that can happen in friendships is that messages can get mixed up. People say or do something to be helpful with all the best intentions and it doesn’t quite come out right. Lots of us are also very good at ‘fix it mode’, wanting to be helpful and problem solve when really what’s needed is just to listen and be there.

There are lots of things that you can do and think about to look after yourself and your friendships. Thinking about communication is a big one and can have a big impact. Some things to think about could be:

Consider how much you want to share

This is really a personal choice about what feels ok and safe for you. This will be different for different friends and that’s ok. You can start by testing the waters, just sharing a little, and then if that feels ok share a little more. Lots of people have different feelings about sharing. Some want to share everything. Others don’t want to burden others or they are worried they will be treated differently. Take some time to think about what it might be for you.

Take time for yourself

When navigating these times it is important to check in with yourself on a regular basis. How did that interaction with your friend make you feel? Uncomfortable feelings are not necessarily bad, as they may just be challenging the eating disorder. But acknowledging the feelings that come up from friends saying or doing something is important, and it’s ok to take time to look after yourself with this.

Take it slow

It is ok to take time with friendships. When you are recovering from any illness there can sometimes be an urge to do everything all at once. It’s ok and important to take your time and go at a pace that feels ok for you and your recovery. Maybe think about the person that feels safest to start with and go from there.

Talk about what you need

This can feel really scary and vulnerable to do although is often so helpful in friendships. It might be that you really want to be treated as ‘normal’ so you get a break from the impact of the eating disorder. There might also be activities that feel ok or not ok to do with friends. If you let friends know this they might find it a relief if they are unsure what to do, and it can start a conversation about what is helpful and what isn’t so helpful.

Clarify when something goes wrong

If something does go wrong, such as a friend saying or doing or saying something that feels hurtful, take some time out, look after yourself and try not to respond until you are calm. A great saying to remember in situations like this is ‘respond, don’t react.’ When anyone is upset it can be really hard to communicate what you are upset about and you may end up blaming each other or not feeling heard or understood.

It can also be easy to make assumptions about what might have been happening for them or what they were thinking and feeling, when actually it was something else entirely. It may be good to think about the other person’s perspective or ‘put yourself in their shoes’. What might have been going on for them? What might they have be thinking or feeling in that moment? They might’ve been having a bad day, had lots of other things going or might’ve  felt worried and unsure as they didn’t want to say or do the ‘wrong’ thing.

Once you are calm, think about what you want to say and then, if you can, try to have a conversation with them about what happened. Use ‘I’ statements rather than ‘you’ statements, as this helps avoid blame and helps with hearing each other. An example might be, “I felt upset and overwhelmed the other day when you mentioned that I am ‘looking good’ as I find it hard to manage these comments right now. I know you mean well, but I am wondering if we could focus on other things and not talk about looks or bodies”.

Friendships are two-way

It can also be good to remember that good friendships involve give and take on both sides. You are here to support them and they are here to support you too.

If your friend is looking for additional support to help navigate this time, refer them to this page on our website which has helpful pointers, or encourage them to give our free helpline service, the EDV Hub, a call for a chat.

A final thing to note is that lots of these ideas don’t just apply to friendships! Communication tools can help in all different relationships in your life.

Remember, if you need to talk to someone, EDV has a range of helpful services available. For general information and support, please give our Hub a call during business hours on 1300 550 236, fill out an online form, or email hub@eatingdisorders.org.au

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