What are boundaries and why are they important in eating disorder recovery, and particularly at Christmas time?
Boundaries are the limits we set for ourselves within relationships; be they friendships, romantic relationships, or relationships with family members.
They are the rules we decide to live by that help us remain safe and secure as we navigate our daily lives. They are developed based upon the messages, beliefs and experiences we receive and internalise as we grow up through childhood into adulthood, although they can also be created and reinforced at any point in our lives – for instance, in recovery for an eating disorder.
A person with healthy boundaries can say “no” when needed, and will use boundaries to protect themselves emotionally and physically. With healthy boundaries, you don’t compromise your values for others: you are aware of what’s important to you and can identify when your values are being tested and respond in a direct way to protect yourself.
“Boundaries help us to navigate this experience – forming a healthy, protective ‘aura’ between that which may trigger difficult feelings and the personal sensitivity of our recovery.”
Why are boundaries important over Christmas?
The festive period is typically a time for family and friends to get together. Whilst that’s usually a joyful experience, it can be really difficult for those in recovery as there’s the risk of (often well-meaning) comments triggering unhelpful thoughts and feelings.
Boundaries are what we create in order to ensure that our limits aren’t crossed – they’re what we enforce before we feel ‘invaded’ by others and out of control of the situation. They are important over Christmas because they help us to know what we’re ok and not ok with – particularly within the context of protecting our recovery.
Christmas is already a stressful time of year. Many people with eating disorders already feel outside of their comfort zone, grappling with food challenges or complicated social or family dynamics. Boundaries help us to navigate this experience – forming a healthy, protective ‘aura’ between that which may trigger difficult feelings and the personal sensitivity of our recovery.
How can I create boundaries?
- Give yourself permission to tune into your feelings within different settings in your lif
- Practice self-awareness and consider your past and present experiences and how they may dictate your decisions in the now
- Name your limits by starting small and being direct – assertion takes practice
- Reach out for support and guidance from specialist therapists
How can I reinforce my boundaries with others?
- Ask for permission. If you’ve identified that someone is behaving in a way that is detrimental to your recovery, ask if you can speak to them for a moment. By asking to have the space to talk, you’re inviting them into the conversation – which manoeuvres it away from a potential conflict and into a collaborative dialogue
- Communicate with kindness. We all know what it feels like to be engaged in an unpleasant dialogue, and how this experience and stir up a whole load of unpleasant emotions that cause us to react rather than observe and respond. If we communicate with kindness, acknowledging that people may not be prepared for the conversation, the other person is more likely to be receptive to what we have to say
- Be honest with your feelings. If we’re going to have this conversation, we mares well get the message across clear. Why do their comments hurt you? Why is it important for your recovery? The more information you can give them – delivered with kindness – the more they’ll be able to understand (which is important if you’re asking them to modify their behaviour)
- They may not understand at first, but that’s ok. Recognise that people react in different ways and always from their own standpoint. We all have our unique stories and unique reasons for how and why we process our experiences and other people around us. If someone responds with anger, confusion or any perceived negative emotion, remember that it might be frustration that they’re feeling towards themselves for not being able to meet you where they are. If possible, respond to them with love and explain that it’s okay if they don’t understand right now – the important thing is that there’s a open dialogue between you and those you care about. You can always return to this another day.