Are you a people person? At some level we all are. It is part of our nature to crave social connection, and when someone is recovering from an eating disorder it is so crucial to maintain social connection. This is because eating disorders tend to cause social isolation. There are several reasons for this effect, and several complications that social isolation causes in the recovery process.
Social isolation occurs in eating disorders because there are so many social events that feature, or even revolve around food. Whether it is summer BBQ’s, dinner parties, or workplace lunches, food and social connection are often significantly intertwined. When there is disturbance in a person’s relationship with food, this will contribute to disturbance in their social relationships.
Additionally, eating disorders prefer to operate in secrecy and isolation. Those who struggle with eating disorders will adapt to the patterns of their eating behavior behaviors. For example, if they get used to restricting their food intake, they may decline a social invitation that would involve food because it would prevent them from being able to restrict. This becomes a self-perpetuating cycle in which they will avoid social interactions in order to engage in eating disorder behaviors, and the eating disorder behaviors will become more entrenched and lead to further and more extreme social isolation. Unfortunately, there is still social stigma regarding eating disorders, and many individuals with eating disorders often feel ashamed to be around others, let alone eat around them.
Yet, social eating is an extremely important component of recovery. In fact, social eating is a large part of the treatment process. At Cielo House, clients have consistent exposure to social eating in a variety of contexts, and this “practice” at social eating helps clients break the pattern of social isolation. There are many benefits of social connection in recovery, and if individuals with eating disorders can make strides to increase their social connection, it can really boost their recovery.
Social connection increases motivation, and motivation is crucial to recovery. sometimes people are able to push themselves harder towards a goal or a challenge when they feel others are counting on them or would benefit from their doing so. With strong social connection people can often accomplish milestones in recovery that they couldn’t otherwise. In treatment it is quite common for clients to encourage one another to try challenge foods by doing so together. They might say, “I want to try eating doughnuts, will somebody else try that challenge food with me?” This enables them to complete a challenge they would otherwise not be able to.
Social connection also enables social learning. Those with eating disorders have developed disordered patterns of behavior regarding eating, so they need to be integrated back into an environment with more normalized eating. Once they are outside of the treatment setting, connecting and spending time with non-disordered eaters is extremely helpful to solidify the skills they have learned in treatment.
Social connection allows for open and honest feedback. When you feel a strong sense of connection with someone, it enables you to provide honest feedback, even when it may not be pleasant to hear. For someone in recovery, it is important for those around them to provide this valuable feedback, as it could prevent them from starting to slide back into eating disorder behaviors or prevent them from socially isolating again.
Social connection provides meaning. Most meaningful experiences in life are enriched with the connection between other people. Part of recovery is re-establishing a meaningful life, outside of the realm of the eating disorder. Since social connection enhances meaning, it is a crucial component for individuals to re-establish meaning in their lives. A meaningful life will eventually take the place of the eating disorder.
Since social connection is so important to those in recovery, if you know someone who is struggling with an eating disorder, it would be very valuable to make the extra effort to reach out to them and offer the social connection that could make all the difference for them. Encourage social connection wherever and whenever you can, and not only with it be meaningful for them, it will be meaningful for you.
Dr. Matt Keck, MFT, PsyD is the Founder and CEO of Cielo House Comprehensive Eating Disorder Treatment Program. He continues to conduct Interpersonal Therapy Groups at Cielo House, which emphasize the importance of interpersonal relations and social connection.