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How to support your loved one in eating disorder recovery

When someone you love struggles with disordered eating, you can feel desperate to fix the situation and make things better. As not eating seems a fundamental wrong against living and being human. 

You might simultaneously feel scared, angry and confused, as you observe your loved one behaving strangely around food.

‘Why can’t you just eat normally?’.

‘What are you doing?’.

Your words feel futile, as they may be not heard or acted on. Your loved one might seem possessed by a whole different persona, in a distant bubble that feels unreachable and detached from normality. The bright, happy-go-lucky person that once existed has disappeared for now.

The new Maudsley animal model offers support for carers in supporting a loved one with an eating disorder.

It’s targeted at supporting older teens to adults, as younger people may need greater carer practical involvement.

The model recognises that carers understandably struggle to know what to do for the best. They can be drawn unwittingly into keeping their loved one stuck, with the most honourable of intentions.

The model also acknowledges that carers can have the most profound positive impact on supporting someone’s recovery. After all, they know their loved one most intimately and spend a larger amount of time with them, compared to a therapist or other professionals.

Ultimately, the model aims to enhance communication between carer and sufferer, whilst supporting motivation for change.

The different animal types

The rhino

The rhino is brimming with well-intentioned advice and direction towards their loved one. They’re keen to impart wisdom and to tell the person what to do. The rhino loves to fix and make things better.

When someone with an eating disorder experiences the rhino, they are likely to lock horns and rebel, as frustrating as this may seem for a well-meaning carer. The sufferer may please their carer on the surface but rhino interactions tend not to lead to lasting change.

The kangaroo and joey

The kangaroo sees the vulnerability and fragility of their loved one’s suffering. They want to wrap the person in cotton wool; to protect and keep them safe. The kangaroo will often treat the sufferer as a younger child, showing the utmost care and comfort.

When someone with an eating disorder experiences the kangaroo, this is initially cocooning and helpful, but in time, it can become smothering and overbearing. The sufferer can also lose all self-confidence in their independence and can then retreat further into the bubble of the eating disorder.

The jellyfish

The jellyfish feels their emotions intensely. Of course, if your loved one is suffering, it is natural to feel a tidal wave of overwhelm and anxiety. The jellyfish expresses these emotions openly and without barriers.

When experiencing a Jellyfish outpouring, the loved one tends to hide their own emotions within and to withdraw. They don’t want to burden their carer with feeling, when they can see the struggle going on. 

That’s why it is important for carers to get their own support too, so that emotional venting happens away from home, allowing the carer to remain calm and supportive.

The ostrich

Perhaps this is the easiest animal to conceptualise and understand. The ostrich buries her head, deeply in the sand and hopes the eating disorder problem will evaporate, of its own accord.

This is ineffective as the sufferer is often already ignoring their inner distress and torment, thinking ‘I’m not ill enough’, to warrant help. The ostrich’s denial of the problem entrenches it further, and the sufferer can feel overlooked and isolated.

The dolphin

The animal-type to strive towards is the dolphin. The dolphin swims alongside, offering warmth and support. She is actively present and encouraging, whilst also offering breathing space. The dolphin stays calm and collected, providing a listening and non-judgemental ear. She asks open questions, validates progress made and is attuned carefully to the sufferer’s point of view.

A loved one feels supported and metaphorically ‘held’ when in the  company of a dolphin. There is understanding and connection, with ground to step forward and take responsibility for recovery.

It is extremely tough when your loved one is suffering from an eating disorder. Do make sure that you seek out support for yourself too. Looking after yourself too will reap many benefits for your loved one’s recovery.

Further information:

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Cambridge, CB1

Written by Harriet Frew

Cambridge, CB1

Harriet Frew is a counsellor specialising in eating disorders and body image. She has worked in the NHS and private practice since 2003, and is passionate about supporting and educating others through therapy, writing and social media.
Instagram: @the_eating_disorder_therapist; Podcast - The Eating Disorder Therapist

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