The following article contains examples from my past eating disorder and may trigger you if you are sensitive to such content.
When I was still clinging to my eating disorder, still overexercising and undereating, after every meal with my parents I would ask my mum whether I had eaten “too much,” hoping of course that she would reply “no, you’ve actually not eaten enough.” I was seeking validation ("you are worthy") from an external source (my mum), but what I actually needed in order to heal and regain my sense of self-worth was a true connection to myself.
An eating disorder is of course an extreme example of seeking validation, but in our current meritocratic society, alternative examples abound – just think of social media. Seeking validation creates a dependency that causes us to break boundaries, it erodes trust in ourselves and others, and hampers our growth by feeding the ego. Let's look at what it takes to form true connections that bring long-term happiness and fulfillment.
Relationships based on validation can never be truly satisfactory because they remain unilateral. When we're engaging with others only for the purpose of being validated, we consciously or unconsciously establish a hierarchy: Either, the person seeking validation subdues themselves to the person offering validation, or the person seeking validation instrumentalizes others for validation. The latter was the case for me in my eating disorder. I unconsciously instrumentalized the people around me as indicators of my current worth according to food intake, exercise, and academical achievements.
True connection, on the other hand, is a mutual bond between equals. It exists between people who know their worth and don't need constant reassurance of it.
A person in need of validation will invade boundaries. That's because validation works like a drug: The more you get, the more you need, and the more you need, the further you are willing to go in order to secure your supply. You could also think of validation as burglary - you break through someone's boundaries, grab what you can get in terms of validation, and leave the place in chaos. If the other person hasn't got a burglar alarm which lets you know that you've trespassed, the vicious cicle of seeking validation will continue. I was fortunate in that my loved ones didn't allow me to invade their emotional boundaries for very long. Once I had run into a hard boundary, I was forced to take a step back, head spinning, and open my eyes to what I was actually doing.
True connection needs healthy boundaries that allow for independence. This requires a realistic assessment of your relationships: When do you engange with them and to what purpose? Is your connection mutual or unilateral? What do you feel comfortable sharing with them? How much do you feel comfortable knowing about them? Where are your boundaries and where are theirs?
Seeking validation erodes trust and creates dependency. We only seek validation when we don't trust our own judgment, and before long, we even mistrust the people who offer us validation: "Are they lying? They probably only said that to make me go away." You can see how this chain of thoughts would drag anyone into isolation and paranoia. During my eating disorder, although I kept asking for other people's judgment, I didn't believe a word they said. I didn't believe my mum when she said I had eaten too little, I didn't believe my friends when they said I was working hard, and I didn't believe myself when I told myself I could rest.
True connection takes a bit of trust in advance. I had to make a conscious decision to trust my recovery guides, and although I was absolutely terrified, I was rewarded with their trust, which in turn hepled me build back the trust in myself.
The reason why it takes so much effort to stop seeking validation is because it feeds the ego. "The need to be better than, more than, recognized for, far past any reasonable utility" creates a "sense of superiority and certainty that exceeds the bounds of confidence and talent" (Ryan Holiday: Ego is the Enemy, p. 2). The ego is never your friend and no matter what it whispers in your ear, it won't catch you when you fall.
Truth, humility and responsibility are your friends, and while they can't catch you when you fall, they will help you get back on your feet. You can only form true and lasting connections when you're standing on your own two feet, rather than from the top of the wobbly pedestal of your ego.
True connections nourish the self and help you become the person you want to be. For you, the issue may not be your weight. It could just as well be likes and followers on social media, or material possessions, or job titles, or academic achievements, but the lesson stays the same: If you tie your self-worth to external sources of validation, you’re setting yourself up for unhappiness. Move beyond validation though, and you’ll open up for true and fulfilling connections.
In order to leave my eating disorder behind me, I had to acknowledge the truth of my situation. This in turn brought up humility and gratitude for the help others had given me. The hardest bit was assuming responsibility - judging when I was hungry or full, and deciding how I would let these physical sensations impact my sense of self-worth. I am convinced that regardless of your individual validation struggles, these three steps can help you change course:
Truth - acknowledge where you are. No need to blame anyone for how you got there!
Humility and Gratitude - Be grateful for the people who are willing to help you and ask for help when you need it.
Responsibility - tune in to your inctincts and practice silently making your own decisions. Learn from your mistakes and move on.
I hope this article has been helpful to you,
thank you for reading,