To the general population, a compliment is recognition of something that we view as positive. However, to individuals with eating disorders (EDs) compliments are much more complicated. Unsolicited compliments are a regular topic of conversation in my sessions with individuals with EDs. An unsolicited compliment might sound like, “You look so healthy!” or “Wow, you must be working out.” These comments trigger an avalanche of thoughts and feelings for people trying to manage EDs. While a simple phrase such as, “You look so healthy!” might sound innocuous to most, for someone who is struggling with body image it can be a reminder that their body has changed in ways that they are not comfortable with, and others are noticing this.
This can be incredibly frustrating for everyone involved. Family members want to show support and our society has viewed compliments as a way of doing this. Individuals with EDs want to connect with the world around them and compliments can lead to isolation within the disorder. It is important to acknowledge the tension here so that you are able to create a dialogue around how to best support and connect with each other. This will differ from person to person.
Here are some general guidelines to keep in mind:
- Do NOT compliment appearance, especially recent changes. They are aware that their body is changing, and words like “healthy” or even “good” can have negative connotations.
- Focus comments on experiences, and start the sentence with “I” – “I enjoy spending time with you” or “I appreciate you.”
- Do not insist they acknowledge achievements. A loved one might be proud of the work the individual has put into recovery, but hearing this can be a painful reminder of body image distress and ED beliefs for the individual.
Again, navigating compliments is an extremely individualized process, so having an open and gentle conversation with your loved ones is the best place to start.