Trigger Warning: This post discusses eating disorders.
“You just need to love yourself more.” 

There it was. The apparent solution to all my problems. A banal, predictable cliche uttered to me over and over again. It rang in my ears when I stared at myself in the mirror. It reverberated in my mind when I weighed myself everyday. It stared back at me when I untagged myself from photos on Facebook. 

I’d read about loving yourself in self-help books.

I’d religiously studied the "ten steps to loving your body" in the latest issue of Cleo magazine.

I’d plastered inspirational self-love quotes all over my bedroom (anyone for a live, laugh, love decal?) 

But I was no closer to this elusive feeling of "loving yourself."

The thing is, I was really sick. 

During my uni years, I was a fun loving gal, who enjoyed a cheeky Savvy B on a Saturday night. I was a fitness fanatic, who could be found shifting some tin in the weights room. I was a friend of many, a deans list student, and to the people around me, I was #livingmybestlife.

I was also battling an eating disorder.

I made myself sick multiple times a day. I only ate 5 different types of food. I could calculate calories in a meal quicker than Einstein could calculate Pi. I punished my body with excessive cardio. I was anxious, miserable, and most of all, terrified that I was never going to get better.

People told me I needed to “love myself”, as if it was a natural reflex in my body that I hadn’t learnt about yet. Flex that self-love muscle they’d tell me, and you’ll be transported to a whole new world of empowerment and body confidence. Fail to do so, and you’ll feel ashamed - as if you’re not strong enough or working hard enough to get there. 

This mentality is problematic. It can undermine the severity of someone’s mental health battle.

Illustration of a woman scrolling through positive posts on Instagram

When “just be positive,” “love yourself” and “it could be so much worse” doesn't magically solve your problems 🤷

Scroll through any social media channel, and you’re hit with a tidal wave of positivity. Inspirational quotes, saccharine memes and self-help novels masquerading as Instagram captions - it can feel like an assault on the senses. We’re on a high-octane pursuit of happiness. 

Positivity is big business, too. You might have gone through a horrible trauma recently, but no worries, because at least you can order a framed inspirational quote from Etsy! And hun, if you’re on a budget, the latest Insta influencer is offering 1-1 coaching sessions for half price! Say hello to positive energy in your life again!

The truth is, when we force positivity on someone who’s struggling, we minimise their experience. We undermine their emotion. We make them feel guilty for not radiating happiness, 24/7.

If someone’s having a shit time, they don’t need your reishi mushrooms and crystal bullshit, thanks very much Karen.

They need to have their feelings validated and their problems normalised. 

To my people who are tired of being told to "love themselves" in the face of a big, fuck-off mental battle, this is for you.  

To the guy with anxiety, who’s reminded to “stay positive.”

To the Mum with postnatal depression, who’s urged to not “sweat the small stuff.”

To the teenager with an eating disorder, who’s told “to love yourself.”

You are so much more than a sanctimonious quote on Instagram. 

You might not want to channel your inner mister charming when it's a miracle that you got out of bed today.

You might not want to shrug off the fact that Billy just vomited on the carpet, and Millie has taken to the walls with your favourite MAC lippie, and you just want a GOD DAMN wine already. 

You might not want to say your daily affirmations when looking in the mirror is triggering for you. 

And you know what?

That’s okay.

Illustration of a gratitude journal

An attitude of gratitude 

Society loves nothing more than a tale of overcoming adversity. We’re told time and time again to be grateful for what a traumatic event has taught us. Write down what you’re thankful for in your gratitude journal and be done with it.

Here’s the thing. Sometimes, life deals you a shit hand. Sometimes, traumatic events are distressing, confusing and straight up unfair. So, it can be especially troubling when someone goes through something truly awful, only to have society demand gratitude from them. 

You can be grateful for the lessons learned and wish it didn’t happen. Am I a stronger, more resilient person having recovered from my eating disorder? Absolutely. Do I wish I didn’t lose my early twenties to years of punishing cardio, skipped meals and shame? Most certainly. 

This is an important distinction. Now that I’ve recovered, I can recognise how my eating disorder shaped who I am today. And for that, I’m proud. But while I was recovering, I couldn’t be grateful. First, I simply had to survive the experience. 

So don’t evangelise trauma with comments like “you’ll look back and be grateful for what it taught you.” Don’t romanticise mental illness - it’s not a one-way ticket to bliss.

Offer support over solutions

Those of us with chronic mental illness or crippling eating disorders don’t share our stories because we can’t wait to know how you’d deal with the problem if you were us. 

We speak up because we’re looking for connection.

We’re looking for people who help us feel less alone. Less crazy. Less powerless.

We’re looking for people who are brave enough to admit they don’t have the answers to our problems right now.

We’re looking for people who believe we can get better.

And, we need a space to dissect the sadness we feel without it being dismissed by a good vibes mindset. 

So don’t belittle us with stories about your second cousin twice removed who had an eating disorder once, but started saying daily affirmations in the mirror and was miraculously cured. Or your old work colleague that went on a meditation retreat and came back completely healed. Or your sister who deleted all social media and can only be contacted by owl, but damn did it do her depression some good.

When you offer simplistic advice like “essential oils are a game changer” or “have you tried writing in your gratitude journal?” you’re making us feel like we’re even more of a failure. I promise you, not only have we tried what you’re suggesting, we’ve probably tried every other thing in the self-love handbook, right down to the very last Google-able suggestion. 

This kind of advice is always well meaning, but it misses the mark when it's reductive, dismissive or minimises people’s very serious experience of a mental illness. 

Different types of unsolicited advice: ordered from quite shit, to very shit:

Over the years, I’ve encountered a real hodge podge of advice from people pedalling positivity. Here’s a few of my favourites: 

Illustration of an 'esteemed expert' who gives out unsolicited advice

1. “The esteemed expert” 

Some people like to hear themselves talk. You know, the ones that so ‘happen’ to be an expert on everything? An all knowing Buddha reincarnation, so to speak.

People frequently dish out advice more as a favour for themselves than for the benefit of anyone else. They like to feel wise. Needed. All-knowing. 

Known for cutting you off mid-sentence with “if I were you, I’d..”, the ‘esteemed expert’ doesn’t know how to simply sit with a person and be silent. And they’re most certainly not an expert when it comes to active listening. 

Favourite phrase: “But did you try (insert ridiculous suggestion here)"

Illustration of a self-love guru who is promoting positivity

2. The “positivity princess”

Okay, I’ve got to hand it to the positivity princesses - they usually have the best intentions of em’ all. Often disguised as Instagram gurus, positivity princesses love a Pinterest quote, and truly believe that the power of positive thinking can cure everything. 

This kind of advice usually glosses over the severity of the situation. It’s all sunshine, rainbows and daily affirmations. According to some dubious research (okay, just my personal experience, you got me) 115% of positivity princesses are part of the self-love or wellness movement. They’ll probably try to save you, or sign you up to their latest girl boss workshop. 

Favourite phrase: “You’ve got this boo. LOVE your life and LOVE yourself.” 

Illustration of someone who is an expert at comparative suffering

3. The “elite sufferer.”

You think you have it bad right now? Think again. The elite sufferer has their own personal suffering sticker chart - and you better believe they have more gold stars than you. 

No matter what you’ve gone through, their experience is worse, more important and should be talked about at length. The elite sufferer isn’t necessarily a malicious person. Often, they use this technique to make you feel like what you’re going through isn’t ‘that bad.’ 

Favourite phrase: “I know what you mean.. It’s like the time I..”

Illustration of a cynical person who is dismissing someone's mental health struggles
4. The ‘reductionist.’

Watch out for this sly dog. The reductionist likes to strip your trauma and struggle of its meaning. They’re known for taking things at face value, and have a very narrow view of what mentally ill should “look like.” If you’re not drowning in a sea of your own tears, then you must be okay.

Their life mantra is “she’ll be right” and they often see mental illness as a sign of weakness. 

Favourite phrase: “It can’t be that bad.. You seem fine.” 

How to support someone who is having a shit time

Cynicism aside, I appreciate that caring for someone in distress can be really, fucking hard. It’s heartbreaking seeing someone you love struggle. I for one, am blessed to have the ultimate support crew. They were an integral part of my eating disorder recovery. My friends and family are the best gift life has ever given me.

If you’re helping someone through a hard time, know this:

You won’t always be the perfect support person, and that’s okay. It’s okay if supporting someone doesn't follow the ten step guide you saw on Insta. You’ll get tongue tied. You’ll give awkward hugs. You might cry too. And at times, you’ll need time away from the person who is suffering. After all, empathy is a finite resource, and it has to be replenished. 

For all you well-intentioned souls out there, there are three simple things you CAN do to help someone with a mental illness. 

The stop, drop and roll method

Yes, I’m aware this method typically refers to a situation when you are on fire, literally.

But today, we’re not going to use this method to stamp out a fire. We’ll use it to stamp out reductive advice. 

Stop everything you’re doing to ‘help.’ Stop filling awkward silences with meaningless words. Stop Googling ‘ten steps to recovery.’ Stop tagging your friend in inspirational Instagram quotes. Stop linking them to new, ‘breakthrough’ resources. Just stop.

The hardest part is stopping. We equate actions with being productive and so we obsess over doing more, more, more.

Drop the habit of doing more and start listening more. Most of us will open up and talk about our mental health struggles, if we feel like someone is actually listening. Resist the urge to interrupt, ask questions or offer advice.

If you have genuine questions about someone’s disorder or mental illness, do ask them. But, wait until after the conversation is over. Spend time reading resources that make sense to you. Whether your information source is a private FB forum, or a pamphlet from the local councillor, educate yourself. 

But, when you’re with the person who is suffering, be present and show up for them. Don’t demand them to do the emotional and intellectual labour of educating you on things that you can find out on your own. 

Listen to the people in your life. Help them how they want to be helped. Roll with doing what the person actually needs from you. “How can I support you?” is the most underrated question of all time. It removes judgement. It stops us from jumping to assumptive conclusions about what we can do to help. Most of all, it shows humility.

They might not have an answer for you right now, and that’s okay. Just say something like “it’s okay if you don’t have an answer. Check in with me when you need support. The offer is open for whenever you need it.” 

Here’s the kicker: you have to believe their answer, no matter what it is. If they say they don't need anything, don’t project your fear of being helpless back on them. Don’t demand they give you something to do. This ain’t about you fam.

Or, if their request is left field, just roll with it. If they want to watch the OC on repeat and not talk (this may or may not be what I requested), that’s fine. If they want you to come along to their therapy session, that’s also fine. If they want to put on death metal music and dance around the flat, then rock on sister and do it.

Go forth my pretties, and be supportive, splendid people

This blog turned out to be pretty long, so I won’t labour on here.

To recap:

  • Our obsession with positivity can invalidate someone’s mental health struggles 
  • Shitty advice can take many forms - from subtle power plays to hell’ish happy clappy, woo-woo shit
  • If you’re on fire OR need help supporting a loved one in need, remember to stop, drop and roll.

And for god's sake, do me a favour would you?  Don’t tell someone to “just love yourself.”

If you, or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can find some helpful resources on the EDANZ website.

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