Forgiving a Family Member with an Eating Disorder

Contributor: David M. Garner, Ph.D., Founder and Administrative Director, River Centre Clinic (RCC) and Julie Desai, M.A., Director, Adult Partial Hospitalization Program, RCC

flower-8539_640It is common for family members to feel hurt by the actions of someone with an eating disorder. When you are hurt by someone you love, the anger and resentment can be even more powerful than if the harm comes from a stranger.

It can lead to a sense of betrayal and confused feelings because you are enraged by a person with whom you feel you have a lasting and intimate connection. This leads to a wish to distance yourself from the person who has hurt you; if it is a loved one, it can lead to remorse and guilt about the rejection.

The purpose of this short article is to define forgiveness, discuss its benefits and provide some tips on how it can be achieved amidst the frustrations of dealing with an eating disorder.

What is Forgiveness?

Forgiveness is a deliberate or voluntary process by which a person who has been hurt ceases to blame or to hold resentment toward the offender. Forgiveness is different from condoning, excusing or forgetting an action or behavior but it involves letting go of lasting feelings of anger, bitterness or even thoughts of revenge.

Dr. Fred Luskin provides wonderful definition of forgiveness: “to forgive is to give up all hope for a better past.” This means that to be dominated by regret over the past, you have less energy in your life now and less hope for the future.

What gets in the Way of Forgiveness?

boots-181744_640One of the impediments to forgiveness is misunderstanding the motivation that drives an eating disorder. Even though many of the specific symptoms of an eating disorder may appear voluntary, it is easy to forget that the symptoms are often part of belief system that has developed over time where the sufferer has grown increasingly compelled to engage in behaviors in response to feeling extraordinarily unhappy, frightened.

Although there are different factors that come into play in the development of eating disorder, they converge with the overarching belief that that control of body weight is vital to fixing a part of the sufferer’s life that is miserably broken.

Not Understanding the Root of an Eating Disorder

Attempts to challenge this belief system are seen as a threat by those people who simply do not understand. There is a tendency to view the eating disorder as a personal affront because of the pain that it is causing in the family.

However, this is neither constructive nor an accurate view. The disorder can be frustrating since, on the surface, eating seems so simple. “Just eat.” However, it is a complex problem and the task of recovery is not a simple one.

Very Real Fears of Recovery

To the person with the disorder, there is some perceived functionality of maintaining the disorder and there are strong fears related to giving it up. These fears may be “irrational” in the eyes of the observer; however, they are very real and terrifying to the person experiencing them.

Similarly, someone with phobia of spiders may seem completely irrational; however, observing their numbing panic when confronting a harmless bug illustrates this power of the fear.

Thus, it is important to understand that the eating disorder is motivated by complex factors and although it affects family members personally, it is really not personal any more than a spider phobia would be to caring family members.

Anger Does Not Work

sea-484297_640Anger at the person suffering from an eating disorder can get in the way of forgiveness. Anger is an emotion that serves to protect us from harm; however, we tend to allow anger to mask the other feelings that we do not want to experience.

Specifically, family members can experience anger to cover up feelings of guilt, inadequacy, helplessness, fear, and a lack of control in response to a disorder they may not completely understand and cannot fix.

Benefits of Forgiveness

Forgiveness has been shown to have many physical and emotional benefits. There is solid research showing that forgiveness can improve blood pressure, heart health and the immune system.

Letting go of anger and resentment about the eating disorder can lead to happier and healthier relationships, greater psychological well-being, and fewer symptoms of depression.

Forgiveness is a central component of healing and allows the release of negative energy and emotion, which enables others to find a freedom which allows them to move forward instead of remaining stuck. Forgiveness can even lead to feelings of understanding, empathy and compassion for the one who hurt you.

How to Become More Forgiving?

Forgiveness is not immediate and is a process of change. It can begin with several steps:

  1. Remember that the eating disorder is not your fault and is not a personal affront.
  2. Your role as a family member is support and encouragement rather than “curing” the problem.
  3. Consider the value of forgiveness and how it can improve your quality of life and the quality of the live of the person you are forgiving.
  4. Actively grant forgiveness to the person with an eating disorder. “I forgive you” are simple but emotionally powerful words.
  5. Try to develop empathy for the predicament faced by the person with an eating disorder. They feel compelled to engage in certain behaviors that seem self-defeating but are connected to deeper sense of unhappiness and fear of loss of control.
  6. Reflect on times you have hurt others and have been forgiven.
  7. Speak to a trusted person, a therapist or a spiritual leader about the wish to be more forgiving.
  8. Practice gratitude for the positive things in your life with the sufferer rather than concentrating solely on the eating disorder.

Actively Encourage or Insist on Proper Treatment

star-538816_640Just because you forgive someone for their eating disorder does not mean that you should be any less insistent that they actively pursue help with the problem. If you are a parent of a minor, you have a legal and moral obligation to require that your child receive the help that they need.

If the person is no longer a minor but is financially dependent, it may be necessary to stipulate that financial support is contingent on seeking the right type of treatment.

Taking an Active Position

In these cases, it may be appropriate to take a very active position that that seeking treatment is crucial to preserving your relationship with the sufferer.

Finally, there are cases in which the sufferer is sufficiently ill and their judgment sufficiently impaired that medico-legal steps need to be taken to require appropriate care.


For the reasons described above, it is not surprising that family members feel hurt, anger, even rage, at times towards a loved one suffering from an eating disorder.

There may be a tendency for family members to blame themselves for their loved one’s disorder or personalize it in some way. However, becoming more forgiving, while still actively encouraging the right form of treatment, can have a powerful positive effect on the person from the eating disorder as well as the person offering forgiveness. It can bring greater peace, health and emotional well-being.

“The weak can never forgive; forgiveness is an attribute of the strong.”
-Mahatma Gandhi 1869-1948

About the Author:

The River Centre Clinic has almost two decades of experience providing innovative treatment to adults and adolescents suffering from eating disorders. It has developed a ground-breaking approach to treatment, based on extensive experience and research, designed to reduce costs without compromising high quality of care.

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The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

Last Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern on December 13th, 2014
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