Eating disorders may, on the outside, appear like something that only impacts the person experiencing it. That may be a common misconception of people who don’t have eating disorders, or if you do have one, a false belief. Eating disorders do very much impact friendships, as well as other relationships, and here is how.
Individuals with eating disorders of any kind (restrictive, binge eating, compensatory, etc.) often are consumed with critical thinking of themselves and potentially others around eating behaviors, body image, appearance, meals, etc. This may lead to distraction, isolation, or avoidance of friends and other social events. It is not uncommon for those that struggle with an eating disorder to avoid friends and family out of fear of judgment, feelings of shame and guilt around their body or eating behaviors, or out of increased anxiety or lower mood. Particularly with restriction-centered eating disorders that can lead to malnourishment, irritability, depression, and anxiety can also increase the likelihood of isolation from friends, family, and social activities. This can absolutely have an impact on friendships if the isolation persists for a long period of time.
Meals or food related events tend to be particularly difficult for those with eating disorders. A common thing to do with friends is go out for dinner, lunch, drinks, ice cream, or trying the new trendy restaurant. Someone with an eating disorder may appear distracted, quiet, or more irritable than they usually do if they do attend. It is also possible that those who are struggling appear totally calm and normal during meals but are highly anxious internally. Either way, you are likely less present during a normal and typical bonding time with friends. This can be misconstrued as disinterest in the conversation or the company, when in reality they may be having a difficult time with the meal or body image.
Another way that the self-criticism can manifest is in the form of comparisons. Comparison thoughts absolutely occur outside of eating disorders (we all experience comparisons of ourselves to others in some scenario) but may be particularly prevalent for someone with an eating disorder. They may compare their body shape and size, foods they are eating, and exercise patterns to that of friends or acquaintances. These comparisons, which often are inflated and inaccurate, can lead to resentment and potentially further avoidance of friends or social events. When we are consumed with judgment of ourselves, it is not unusual that we may not be as engaged, connected, or as supportive as we would want to be. Think of a time when you have felt distracted – we were probably not our best selves in that moment. With eating disorders, this preoccupation is more severe and noticeable. Unfortunately, this can fuel a vicious cycle of judgmental thoughts – if they are not feeling as connected with friends due to their avoidance or discomfort, they may misperceive that they are not liked because of their body, food choices, appearance, etc.
Supporting a friend with an eating disorder is very possible and likely very helpful. The most important thing to do is ask your friend what they need or times that they are more likely to feel most anxious and how to respond in those moments. If you have an eating disorder, think about how you would like your friends to support you. It may take some time to identify how you want them to support you but will be valuable information for you to share. Also, know that your friendships can be impacted by the eating disorder, and further disconnection only escalates eating disorder thinking. Seek out ways in which they can help you and keep you connected and present.