The importance of Validation in Eating Disorder Recovery

Eating disorder recovery is a relentless, complex battle that calls for unconditional support and love from families and carers. 

Eating disorders persist and thrive through isolation. Cutting ties from the outside world keeps a person experiencing an eating disorder deep within their mind only able to hear the voice of their eating disorder self. 

This is where the role of families and carers is so very important. 

Give your loved one a foundation of unconditional love, honesty and understanding

Loved ones play a pivotal role in re-establishing connection and trust. When people experiencing an eating disorder feel alone, feelings of being misunderstood, scared and shameful often take control.  These feelings may inadvertently confirm that they are unworthy of a full and meaningful life.

By providing a foundation of unconditional love, honesty and understanding, the person will be more likely to consider something other than what their eating disorder mind is telling them. 

But how do I give my loved one a safe space to feel heard? 

Validation. This can be described as “the recognition or affirmation that a person or their feelings or opinions are valid or worthwhile.” (Oxford Dictionary, 2022) In this way, validation may act as a gateway that ignites communication, connectedness and shared mutual respect and understanding. 

The skill of validation involves replacing the word “but” with “because” when supporting a loved one to move through emotion. *For example, we can change our language from “I understand that you feel sad about missing out but there will be other opportunities,” to “I understand that you feel sad because you were really looking forward to going.” These emotion coaching strategies help parents and carers to de-escalate their loved one’s emotional outbursts and will also help their loved one increase their capacity for self-regulation, reducing the need for symptoms and behaviours.

You are not alone in this battle. 

Often in the midst of pain and overwhelm, gentle reminders are what those experiencing an eating disorder need most. Practising reassurance is key. 

“I can see you are in pain, I am here beside you and we will get through this together”.

“I am here and I am not leaving you to bear this alone”.

“I cannot even begin to imagine how horrible it would be to feel those things” .

“I know you are doing the best you can right now”.

“I believe in you; I believe you can do this”. 

“You are so loved by me. Always” .

When someone feels validated, especially by the people they love the most, connection with the outside world and the true self becomes more attainable.

The importance of Validation in Eating Disorder Recovery

How could this translate to real-life conversation? Let’s look at some examples…

The skill of emotion focused communication or “name it to tame it” can help your loved one feel heard and understood. *Research shows that validating using the word ‘because’ three times works most effectively, contributing to calming the nervous system.

Loved one: I feel disgusting/repulsive.

Parent/Carer:  Name it (validate):

“It must be really painful feeling intense dislike for yourself or your body because it could make you feel like you’re shameful or not enough.  It must also be debilitating to be bombarded with negative thoughts because it might feel like it’s the truth.  I can imagine it might also feel frightening because you might not know if you’ll ever be at peace with yourself or your body.”

Tame it (emotional support):

You and I are in this together.  You deserve a life of meaning and joy no matter what ‘house’ you live in.  

This pain will pass and I am here to hold space for you whilst it does. 

Thoughts and feelings are just thoughts and feelings. 

I’m here for you every step of the way and I’m not going to leave you alone.  

Re-direct (practical support):

Let’s go have some ‘us’ time!  Maybe we could watch a movie together? 

Loved one: Why are you forcing me to do this? You don’t understand me! Why won’t you just give up on me? 

Parent/Carer:  Name it (validate):

I can hear it feels like I’m not understanding your hurt and needs because I’m asking you to do something that is terrifying and because I haven’t experienced an eating disorder and don’t understand the pain you are in.  And because of this [gently], I can understand why you might be feeling misunderstood and alone. 

Tame it (emotional support);

I know that this is your journey and I also know that you are doing the best you can right now.

I am here to help keep you safe because I love you. 

I will never give up on you. Ever. 

I believe in you and know that you have everything you need inside you to help you heal. 

 Re-direct (practical support):

Let’s focus on right now. 

Take a deep breath with me. 

Why don’t I give you a few minutes and we’ll try again.  

We will get through this together.

Loved one: I am a bad person. No one loves me. I don’t deserve to exist.

Parent/Carer:  Name it (validate):

It must feel so awful to believe this because it could make you think that people would be better off without you and because feeling like you’re bad or unloved could also make you feel like you are unworthy or shouldn’t be here. It makes sense why you are in so much pain right now because all these thoughts and feelings would be hard to bear. 

Tame it (emotional support):

Can I give you a hug or hold your hand?

I know who you are and I want you to always remember that you are loved deeply regardless of how bad or unlovable you think you are.

The fact that you think you might be a bad person demonstrates to me that you are the opposite. ‘Bad’ people generally don’t think they are bad!

Nothing you say or do would ever change how much I love you. 

Humans don’t have to earn the right to exist.

We couldn’t do life without you; it’s not an option.

Remember that practical support is not always required once your loved one is validated and supported emotionally.

Loved one:  Leave me alone, I don’t want to talk. You always say the wrong thing!

Parent/Carer:   Name it: (validate): 

I can understand why you don’t want to talk because in the past you have felt misunderstood by me and others around you. I imagine it feels safer to stay quiet because I know that I have had a tendency to step in and try and fix things which wasn’t always helpful. And because right now you probably just want to feel heard and understood by me. 

Tame it (emotional support):

I understand the need for you to learn to trust me and I know I have to earn that trust. Having you trust me means everything to me.

There is no pressure for you to talk right now. We can talk when you are ready. 

I am not leaving you on your own, and I will keep checking in with you. 

I will be there for you regardless and I will keep learning ways to be there for you. 

Listen. Validate. Support. 

The power of loving reassurance is a fundamental practice that can transform the way you and your loved one understand one another. Providing a sense of security and support whilst they are battling one of the toughest experiences of their lives. 

As humans, we crave connection. We need love and support to survive and thrive. 

Eating disorders are complex, debilitating, life threatening biological brain disorders that affect around 4% of the population. (Deloitte Australia, 2022). When we take the time to foster validation the quality of life of our loved ones and ourselves can drastically improve. 

(https://www.researchgate.net/publication/323451835_Emotion-Focused_Family_Therapy)

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