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Eating Disorders

How to Validate Your Emotions

Five steps for allowing yourself to feel what you feel.

Key points

  • Emotions are at the centre of eating disorders and disordered eating.
  • Learning to pay attention to emotions and what they are communicating helps to better regulate them.
  • Emotional validation is a skill that involves acknowledging your right to feel what you feel and where it comes from.
Hello I'm Nik/Unsplash
Source: Hello I'm Nik/Unsplash

Emotions are central to most, if not all, mental health concerns, and this is particularly true in the case of disordered eating and eating disorders. Disordered eating behaviours often serve to manage or avoid uncomfortable emotions, whether in the case of restriction, or overeating. Thus, cultivating awareness of and learning to validate emotions is important in building a healthier relationship with food and emotions. While not a substitute for therapy and working through these concerns with a professional, the five steps below are a starting point for practicing emotional awareness and validation.

1. Build awareness of your emotions

In order to validate and regulate emotions, it’s necessary to be aware that you are experiencing them in the first place. There are numerous reasons why people learn to tune out their emotions, particularly if they don’t feel equipped to manage them, so bringing this awareness back online is an important starting point. There are three questions you can ask yourself to prompt your awareness of emotions: What am I feeling physically? What am I thinking? What emotional label would I put on this experience?

Paying attention to physical sensations is a helpful starting point because emotions usually present themselves in our bodies to motivate us to action. For example, when anxious or afraid, our hearts start to beat faster to pump blood throughout our bodies, preparing us to navigate the threat we have perceived. Building awareness of this physical stress signature can serve as a cue that something is going on that warrants your attention.

2. Acknowledge what emotions are communicating

Thoughts are also helpful to attend to because they provide some context as to what your emotions are communicating to you about your needs and whether or not they are being met. If you’re angry, chances are, your thoughts sound something like, “Wow, that person is a real jerk,” or, “This situation feels so unfair.” Usually, underneath anger is an experience of sadness, shame, or fear that we are trying to protect ourselves from. Feeling “mad” at someone for not respecting your wishes is often a way to defend against sadness that is present if you don’t feel heard or understood. In this example, sadness is likely communicating a sense of loss that gives insight into how you feel about a particular relationship, and helps to inform how you proceed.

3. Allow yourself to be present to the experience

Even though they don’t always feel comfortable to experience, emotions are not inherently dangerous either. There’s nothing wrong with you for feeling them, nor is anything bad going to happen if you do. Allowing yourself to feel your feelings—to lean in, rather than lean away—can show you that you’re capable of riding the waves of emotion. Because emotions are temporary experiences, they will reduce in intensity over time. Not allowing them to run their course can in fact make them feel more intense for longer, like trying to fight the tide.

4. Validate your right to feel what you feel

Three simple words can go a long way in working to acknowledge and validate how you feel, and they are as follows: “That makes sense.” Often when we feel emotions, our first response is to find fault in this experience, or to come up with a reason as to why we shouldn’t feel what we feel. “Get over it” or “you’re overreacting” might be common sentiments that you tell yourself, but the thing is, we never experience emotions for no reason. They are a reaction to something that is happening in our environment, a threat detection system as it were, and they don’t pop up out of nowhere.

If you’ve experienced difficult or traumatic events in your life, this detection system may be particularly attuned to sensing threat, even in situations where that threat may not be present in the way it once was. However, from a survival standpoint, it’s safer for us to think that the stick is a snake, in the off chance that it actually is a snake and we need to take action. The next time you notice an emotion, ask where these feelings are coming from, and once you have a sense of this, follow it up with a simple, “It makes sense that I feel this way.”

5. Plan a course of action, if necessary

Having paid attention to your emotions and what they are communicating, allowing yourself to feel what you feel while acknowledging your right to do so, there’s one final step, which is effectively to decide if there’s anything further you need to do. In some cases, after being present to your feelings and allowing them to run their course, you may realize that this in and of itself was all that you needed in that moment. Other times, after the intensity of the emotion has reduced, you may want to address whatever led to the emotion in the first place. This could take any number of different forms but may entail forming a plan for how you want to better deal with said situation should it arise again moving forward. Or you might choose to do some problem-solving to see what resolution can be found. The key here is to wait to problem-solve your way out of an emotion until you’ve actually gone through it. If you jump right into figuring out what you need to do to make it go away, you’re effectively telling yourself that you shouldn’t be feeling what you’re feeling, which is a sure-fire way to make it worse.

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