First off, what do I mean by boundaries? This is a catchy word these days, so let me clarify. Boundaries are where one person ends and the other person begins. Boundaries are what is okay with you and what is not okay with you.
There are multiple layers of people surrounding us, and the closer someone is, the more we are likely to share. For example, my husband of ten years is the first person with whom I share and sees me when I am most vulnerable. The next layer are my best friends who have known me since middle school. The bubbles get further and further out depending on your level of trust. If you are struggling with an eating disorder, it is important for those closest to know when you are struggling and how to best support you. The second layer of people could also know but respond in different ways. For example, if you are having urges to use symptoms, you might ask the person or people in your closest bubble to eat with you or have a conversation on the phone. Maybe you also reach out to the second layer of supports but tell them you are having a bad day and need some distraction. As the bubble expands out to new friends or co-workers, you might not share much or anything at all so you can contain where needed and keep moving through your day. Remember the closer the supports, the more you share as there is trust that has been built over time.
One activity I have done over the last several years with family and loved ones is to have the person with the eating disorder write out or talk out what is helpful and what is not helpful in their recovery. People often differ in what they prefer or what is difficult, so learning how to advocate for your needs is vital. This might be done in therapy, over email, text, or in-person. It is best to practice how you will express this. Oftentimes being concise and clear is best. For example it could sound like, “It’s helpful when you eat with me, but it’s unhelpful when you talk negatively about your body” or “You are an important person in my life and in my recovery so if it is okay with you, I’d like to share some things that are helpful and unhelpful in my eating disorder recovery.” Make sure to practice giving your support people grace in their own process of your journey. You might have to repeat your needs more than once or come back to a topic you have addressed already. With that said, if you continue to express your needs with loved ones and those needs are consistently not taken into consideration, talk with your therapist about how you want to proceed in that relationship.
I purposefully did not say self-care as many people assume this means getting your nails done, getting a massage, or spending money on yourself. While these do feel wonderful and have their place, the important boundary-setting behavior is actually doing what a good parent would do. Depending on where you are at in your eating disorder recovery, this could be setting alarms on your phone so you are alerted it is time to eat, packing your lunch or having a loved one help prepare meals at specific times of the week, going to bed early or just on time, wearing clothing in which you feel most comfortable, and listening to your needs throughout the day. All of this might sound basic, but when there is an eating disorder present, people have become disconnected from their needs over time.
Oftentimes people with eating disorders put others’ feelings in front of their own. You might feel like you’re being selfish, feel shame, blame yourself, or feel guilty. So what do you do? You hide your emotions for the sake of the other person’s comfort. Eating disorders are sneaky and often symptoms happen when alone or under the radar. You might worry that if you start to express your emotions, needs, and challenges to a loved one, they will experience difficult emotions. The reality is that eating disorders are challenging and do impact loved ones, but their reactions are a part of their own process and not for you to manage.
Your allies will experience challenging emotions when learning about your struggles, but this is also where I often see tremendous growth. I remind clients that discomfort is not necessarily a bad thing. Quite often in recovery there can be a parallel process where family and friends also learn about their own relationship with food and their bodies. It’s like when the door opens, everyone else gets an opportunity to walk a path of growth as well. When I see a parent, spouse, sibling, or friend have a big and negative reaction to learning about someone’s eating disorder, I think it can be a sign of their own experiences and emotions being pushed outward. In other words, if there is a negative and unhelpful reaction, that’s their stuff, not yours. Don’t own it.
Set specific goals in therapy with friends and with yourself. Intention is key, and daily steps are important. These can be regarding how you will challenge your eating disorder’s ideas about food, your body, or just how you show up in the world. Examples I hear have been to practice a fear food daily, go to a restaurant the eating disorder doesn’t allow you to go to anymore, have what sounds good and not what the eating disorder says you “should” eat, throw away clothing that your eating disorder makes you keep around, notice certain sensations when eating like hunger/fullness, emotions, and thoughts and other sensations, make plans to eat with friends or family, unfollow social media accounts that reinforce what the eating disorder is already telling you, or start practicing daily affirmations to shift your relationship with yourself.
All of the above are ways people can keep moving towards recovery day after day. These take time and practice and certainly don’t happen without challenges. There is no perfect recovery, so expect and accept the mess but do not do it alone.