The emotional suffering someone with an eating disorder endures can be hard for others to comprehend. An illness wrapped up in the most basic human function as eating perplexes even the most compassionate person. However, the fascination that comes with explaining the ins and outs of having an eating disorder glosses over the crux of the problem: the overarching experience of internal suffering.
As much as someone with an eating disorder does not want to discuss food, weight and body image, the most shameful component is the eating disorder thought process. Early in the illness, these thoughts are comforting and readily accepted as one's own. They simplify the complexities of daily life into rigid rules about food. Following them carefully leads to immediate success and, through weight loss, elicits praise from others.
Time reveals the truth about the thoughts. They limit life experience greatly, interfere with psychological and emotional maturity and isolate the person from family and friends. By the time these truths become evident, the person is locked in the prison of the thoughts, unable to break free without a significant commitment of time and energy to learn a new way to navigate life.
The compassion someone with an eating disorder most needs is for these thoughts. The psychological component of an eating disorder is comprised of relentless thoughts and compulsions to follow rigid, nonsensical rules of eating. Not doing so leads to punishing thoughts and even the experience of screaming in one's head. One and all, people with eating disorders describe these thoughts as extremely painful.
It can be hard to imagine what that suffering feels like, yet attempting to do so shows a more profound sense of compassion and even an attempt at empathy. There is nothing more powerful a therapist, family member or friend can do to show true love and support for someone in recovery.