Setting healthy boundaries in bulimia recovery

Catherine Liberty's picture

Many people recovering from eating disorders find the idea of boundary setting terrifying, which is no surprise really.

After all, setting boundaries is all about valuing yourself as a person, putting your own needs first and avoiding being pressured into situations by others; three things that can be almost alien concepts when you’re still in the grip of bulimia. 

So how do you learn to start setting healthy boundaries in recovery?

1. Think about the holiday boundaries you'd like to set  

Boundaries involve deciding what you will and won’t do; they are about where you draw a line between what is appropriate and what is not. In regards to recovery, boundaries help you to set limits on what is recovery-friendly and what is not. So think about the boundaries that may help you to stay recovery focused over the holidays, perhaps asking a family member to not discuss weight or diets at the dinner table? What about making the decision to avoid participating in toxic conversations no matter what?

2. Visualize yourself enforcing your boundaries ahead of time

Deciding on the boundaries you'd like to enforce is one thing, actively enforcing them is a different matter entirely. If you're not used to putting your own needs first like this then practice is the key.  Prepare yourself for the challenge ahead by mentally rehearsing

3. Remember that you ALWAYS have a choice

Of course no one wants unnecessary conflict or tension, but when it comes to your own boundaries it's important to acknowledge the fact that you always have a choice. If you are encouraged to do something that could endanger your recovery you have the power to say no. Incidentally, saying no to others is often the best way to say yes to yourself! 

4. Accept that you may have to go against the grain

I don’t know about you, but most of the people I’m around over the holidays tend to restrict their food during the day and then "make up for it" in the evening with their big holiday meal.  In order to safeguard your recovery you need to be ready to go against the grain, to eat regularly through the day even if no one else is.   Understand that in recovery, it doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing, it matters what YOU are doing. (Read more on the dangers of making food comparisons here.)  

The idea of boundary setting can be scary

But let's think about it logically...

  • There is absolutely nothing wrong with asking for respect from others, you only feel like there is because your bulimia has eroded away your self-worth.
  • Boundary setting is not about confrontation, you can easily assert yourself kindly and respectfully. 
  • You are not responsible for the reactions of others. 
  • Learning to set boundaries will enable you to advance in so many different areas of your recovery, it is a vital skill to develop, see this as an opportunity for growth and change. 

What if people test your boundaries?

This is something that happened to me, but even under those circumstances boundary setting doesn't need to be overly complicated or upsetting. Take a look at my own experience of dealing with boundary disrespect:

"Christmas 2009 was my first bulimia-free holiday in almost 11 years, and although I had been in successful recovery for over five months at that stage, I was still pretty afraid of relapsing. 

I realized early on that in order to survive the holidays I would have to set some healthy boundaries with my food-pushing mother so, after mulling it over, I gave her a call to discuss Christmas dinner. 

I kindly let her know that this year I would just like my main meal (rather than the usual 4 courses), but that I’d be happy to take any additional food home with me, because I knew it would all be delicious.

(I should point out that there is nothing wrong with eating more than one course, but I knew it would be too much food for me at that stage in recovery).

Surprisingly she agreed and didn’t question me further. Until the day came around that is. 

In front of the rest of my family she immediately lapsed back into her food-pushing ways, completely disrespecting the boundaries I had worked hard to set. “Go on, just have a little bit” she insisted. So again I  reminded her that we’d already discussed this over the phone and that I would just be having my main meal. 

I still remember the look on her face, she was shocked that I was standing up for myself, but couldn’t be hurt because I had continued to be respectful and thankful in my tone. Nothing more was said and I ate my one course delicious meal as planned. 

It was difficult to stand up for my boundaries like that, especially when none of my family knew I was recovering from bulimia at the time. But I knew I had to do it, recovery comes first and it was the right thing to do." 

Worried that people won't respect your boundaries?

You may find that over the holiday season, it’s the “food pushers” who are most likely to disrespect your boundaries too. If this is the case then take a look back over step 5 of our thanksgiving article for advice on how to prepare for food-pushers ahead of time.

I'd also like to take this opportunity to wish all of our Bulimia Help members and the members of our extended community a great week in recovery and Happy Holidays!


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