Successful Support Systems During Recovery

Camille Williams, MA, LCPC, Eating Disorder Program Coordinator

Eating disorder (ED) recovery requires a team of specialists to support the nutritional, emotional, and medical needs of the individual. While in treatment or with care providers a person with ED will most likely be in a supportive environment that promotes a recovery-focused relationship with food and body. This does not always match the beliefs endorsed in environments and relationships outside of treatment settings.

There is anxiety and discomfort in returning to situations that lack education and awareness about EDs and recovery. Society as a whole also promotes and reinforces ED behaviors due to stigmas, judgment, and misinformation. This can exacerbate the uncertainty and unfamiliar feelings about new recovery values and practices. When recovery is incongruent with messages that are constantly expressed and encouraged, an extra challenge is added. This highlights a significant need for family members and support systems to be educated about EDs and ways to be supportive in the recovery process.

There is a 3-step process that may be helpful in exploring support:

  1. Identify who is able to be supportive. Unfortunately, some people may have strong values and beliefs that do not align with recovery. It is important for a support network to have similar beliefs about food and body image or at least be open-minded to exploring and supporting a perspective different from their own. It will be helpful to differentiate the type of support loved ones will be able to provide. For example, a good friend who is always on a diet is not a good option for providing meal support. And, on the other hand, maybe there is a cousin who is very body positive that would be a great support while clothes shopping.
  2. Teach others how to support with specifics and details. Often, friends and family have the best intentions of supporting, but are uncertain and fearful about doing the “right” thing. It is important to identify what is helpful and unhelpful and communicate this. It is useful to recognize support in treatment and therapy that has been beneficial, then communicate with loved ones what support looks like. Communicating support is not a one-time thing and will require reminders as well as revisions when needed.
  3. Clarify boundaries and accountability. All those involved will have their own limits and boundaries around supporting the recovery process. It is important to keep a clear line of open communication on both ends. It is important for each one in the support system to notice the type and frequency of support they are able to provide. It is also imperative that the individual with an ED separates support needed from others with personal accountability.

Recovery is always a personal choice and the responsibility resides with the individual suffering with the ED. Recovery is also rarely successful alone so it requires the support of a network of treatment team, friends, and family. Building a support system requires being intentional to create the necessary balance that will contribute to the greatest likelihood of success.

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