The Problem with Tough Love in Eating Disorder Recovery

When I talk to people who lived through my anorexia with me, the overwhelming theme is that people didn’t know how they could help me.

They felt their hands were tied. They saw their friend/daughter/sister rapidly wasting away right before their eyes, and they felt helpless.

They didn’t know how to get through to me. They didn’t want to say the wrong thing and trigger a blow up or melt down. And yet they wanted to express their concern.

Meanwhile, I was pushing everyone away, withdrawing from the world, so that I could be alone with my eating disorder, not having to show my friends how sick my mind really was.

And people had their different approaches. Some worked. And some definitely didn’t.

But looking back, I’ve come to realize that above all else, there is one thing that is paramount when it comes to dealing with eating disorder sufferers. And that is tough love vs. tender love.

And I think my perspective will surprise you.

I think there is a grave misconception about eating disorders. That the girl (or boy) just needs some “sense” knocked into her. She’s choosing to starve herself for vanity reasons, or “for a guy” or whatever. She just needs to be set straight. Enter: tough love.

You take away privileges. Ground her. Threaten with consequences. Maybe you’ll even go as far as drawing up court papers to turn her over to become a ward of the state.

Not that I would know anything about that…

But here’s why none of those tactics ultimately work:

They are feeding into the self hatred that fuels her eating disorder. That lack of compassion – that toughness – is exactly what she thinks she deserves. 

I wish I could express to you what the mindset is like for someone in the throes of anorexia. Because spoiler alert: it is a desolate place full of fear and obsession, and an underlying abhorrence of self.

Just to give you a glimpse: there were nights that I would sleep on the floor, feeling that I didn’t deserve to sleep in my bed.

There is nothing gentle, everything is harsh — inflicted willingly on the self.

I would only shop at Goodwill. I would torture myself with grueling exercise routines. I’d walk through bakeries, and tempt myself with the smells of foods I would never allow to cross my lips.

I saw to it that my life was a living hell. After all, that’s where I believed I belonged.

So…tough love was exactly what I thought I deservedOf course my loved ones were acting as though they were emotionally unavailable…because that’s exactly what I should be receiving.

If there is one thing your daughter or friend needs, it’s tendernessGentleness. Which, I know is hard to even fathom, as you look at your loved one, and not recognize the angry, hollow shell of who she once was. But now is when she needs that compassion more than ever.

And when it’s life or death, I know that words can get the best of you, and emotions run high, and sometimes we utter things in the heat of the moment that can be hurtful or too harsh. That’s to be expected.

But soft love is crucial. Tenderness, patience, gentleness is so foreign to her, and yet vital to her healing.

She needs to be reminded what that feels like.

I remember for probably about 2 years during my disease, I wouldn’t let anyone touch me. No hugs. No foot rubs. No gentle touch. I was too ashamed of my skeletal body, I didn’t want anyone to feel the sticks beneath my baggy Goodwill sweaters.

Can you imagine? I lived it, and I can’t imagine not being touched for two years. And that’s coming from a virgin…

There is a time and a place for tough love.

And yes, there are probably times when it seems like the only solution. An intervention, for one. But even that can be finessed with the gentleness she needs. Because it’s true, there are some decisions that she is incapable of making in her present state that you will need to make for her – like going to inpatient. But find the grace to be gentle and compassionate rather than slip into Stone Cold Steve Austin mode.

Her journey to recovery is going to involve learning how to love herself.

The greatest gift you can ever give her is showing an example of just how to do that.

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191 thoughts on “The Problem with Tough Love in Eating Disorder Recovery

  1. God has and will continue to bless you through this; your sharing will save another one day. May you smile today and believe your are the beloved daughter of God, who delights in you!


  2. Wow – I couldn’t imagine. I am sorry that you went through that but there is a silver lining. It has made you who you are today. Well, that and God. His plan – His Will and look where you are now. Look what you have done for others. Just by “being” and “sharing” you. Depression has it’s dark places as well and I guess they go hand in hand but we all must realize that we do deserve the good things that life has to offer. What God has to offer – we shall inherit as long as we accept Him and His plans. Great job Caralyn!!!!! Thanks for the article.


  3. A beautifully raw, but tender, post Caralyn. Thank you for helping those who feel so lost…not knowing “what” to do for those they love…to recognize what may truly be needed most. Hugs & continued blessings!


  4. Hi BBB,

    I pray your thoughts of what could have helped you will be heeded by those who need it now.


    On Mon, Sep 25, 2017 at 4:02 PM BeautyBeyondBones wrote:

    > beautybeyondbones posted: “When I talk to people who lived through my > anorexia with me, the overwhelming theme is that people didn’t know how > they could help me. They felt their hands were tied. They saw their > friend/daughter/sister rapidly wasting away right before their eyes, an” >


  5. Thanks for sharing this. I have a friend I worry about and never know what to do… she is talked about behind her back because of her “issue…” I’m just trying to walk with her and encourage her, but I just never know how to help her besides that and prayer. But I know food consumes her thinking almost every moment and she has a lot of anxiety. Any suggestions??

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much. That’s so tough. Honestly I’d talk to her about your concern. And this is actually why I wrote my book: it is a terrific resource for loved ones to give to someone they’re concerned about. I’ll definitely keep your friend in my prayers. Hugs and love xox

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks! Yes, I’ve been thinking of purchasing it and giving it as a gift to her, I just don’t know how she’d receive it… But thank you, especially for your prayers for her! She needs Jesus, too! 🙂


  6. There are so many negative thoughts attached to eating disorders. Many see it as a condition inflicted upon oneself willingly and thus end up blaming the sufferers. Your posts (and your book) are eye-openers and I hope it reaches a wide spectrum.


  7. This is so right! There is a time and place for both. The tough can be used, but the tender cannot be forgotten. You are a beautiful gift that keeps on giving God’s light. I’m glad you received the tender as well as whatever tough was given. Hugs and love always!! xoxo


  8. Is this the post that caused all the negative backlash? if it is then I cannot understand people.I have stress and depression and I am mildly OCD. A result of all of that – and sometimes I think one feeds (no pun intended) the other – is that I tended to overeat when I was younger. I still do, although not to the same extent that I used to.

    I think you are a very brave person, and that God is blessing you and others through your blog. To now that there are others out there in the real world going through mental health issues, and making it to the other side, well, it’s wonderful.

    God bless you and keep on keeping on. You’re doing well.


    1. Hi David, thank you for your reflection and for sharing your story. Thank you for your kindness. This was actually. It the post in reference. The one I was referring to was called “more than a gun.” Thanks for stopping by 🙂 Hugs and love xox


      1. That makes more sense, lol. I admit to initial confusion of thoughts on your post. Certainly we should be able to pray for those hurt in atrocities. My initial thought was also about banning such weapons.

        There is also a difference in outlook between those in the US and elsewhere in the (western) world about guns ďgun control. There is a difficulty in understanding the US gun lobby, and the right-wing US viewpoint.

        However, you are not being cursed by God because of your views. On this or anything else. That is my sincere belief.

        As I said earlier. Keep on doing what you do.


  9. You are an interesting girl. And a very beautiful one. One of the few who still makes me feel like I can again fall in love. Just started reading your blog. I was trying to imagine myself in such situation you described in the post. I understand it but may be it’s hard to fathom how it truly feels when you are through it. I just wonder, how would it be to put oneself in a completely different struggle, completely vertical to one’s situation to give one a completely different perspective or shatter one’s reality. At least it works for me sometimes. What I mean is that (hypothetically) if you have an eating disorder, how about you go to Somalia or some distant jungle of North Korea for few months and see that they are eating clays and muds and sometimes human flesh because there’s no food and see how they are dying and how they crave for food, but they just don’t have it. I just wonder such drastic experience whether changes one’s physical phenomena through psychological blow. But the underlying thing is, given our physical limitations, it’s our mind through it’s creative power delude us all the time. So, some shattering is needed. But may be if it’s deeply physical and genetic, there’s no rescue from the suffering.


  10. Huge thank you: “They are feeding into the self hatred that fuels her eating disorder. That lack of compassion – that toughness – is exactly what she thinks she deserves.” So true!


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