They say that pain is more bearable in the company of another human being. It is healing and comforting to share perspectives without being judged. Now, imagine yourself trying to support a loved one through recovery from an eating disorder. Their irrational and critical thoughts, unhealthy rituals, vicious behaviors –
How can you empathize with something as negative and self-destructive as an eating disorder?
I invite you to join your loved one so you can see the painful world through their eyes. This requires you to not try to change their perspective and, instead, accept there is a limit to what you can do to relieve your loved one’s pain.
Empathy is not the attempt to make your loved one feel better so that you can feel better. Rather, it is about learning to be with your own helplessness.
Remember, empathy doesn’t have to agree with the person’s feelings or behaviors. Sure, you might think there are healthier perspectives they could take, but convincing your loved one into shifting perspectives will only leave them feeling unheard, misunderstood, and possibly manipulated.
Before your loved one can shift into healthier thoughts, they need to understand you recognize the value and importance of theirs.
So instead, join them. Stand beside your loved one at the window into their painful world. Your job isn’t to cheer them up, distract them, or provide advice. There is a time and place for challenging thoughts, and that place is after your loved one feels understood, acknowledged, and accepted for what it is.
Healing begins when you understand your loved one’s experience as they experience it, not as you’d like them to. In the meantime, trust their own capacity and strength to heal, when they are ready.