Tip Day: Setting Boundaries

Much of the "fun" of holidays for people with eating disorders isn't just the food, it's the less-than-helpful comments from everyone around us.  In an ideal world, people would know to zip their lip about diet talk, Aunt Zelda's habit of wearing purple sequined pants, and what you are choosing to eat.  But this isn't an ideal world.  In order to walk through the landmine of interpersonal and familial relationships, you need to do something that therapists like to call "setting boundaries."

It's not something that most people with eating disorders are good at.  Some people wind up as human doormats.  Others (like me) just avoid people altogether.  Or they vacillate between the two.  Boundary setting is a skill--it's not innate like breathing.  You have to learn how to do it, and practice this skill over and over and over.

With the holidays in mind, here are some hints on how to start doing this:

1. Identify your non-negotiables.  Before you go into a challenging situation like a family get together, know ahead of time where you will want to draw the line.  When you're angry or anxious, it's easy to draw battle lines where they shouldn't be drawn.  This probably isn't the first time you've been with these people, so you can at least begin to anticipate what might go wrong.  Know what you are absolutely not willing to tolerate and will speak up about, and also keep in mind what you might prefer to let blow over.

2. Change the subject.  If diet and weight talk make you uncomfortable or drive you crazy, change the subject.  If you are at the gathering, you are part of the conversation.  This means you get to have input on what is discussed.  Of course, topics of conversation are never put up for a vote (at least they aren't in my family), but you can influence what is being said.  Have some topics in mind for these occasions.  It might be a great time to ask how grandma's surgery is healing from last summer.

3. Use "I" statements.  Yes, it's cheesy therapist talk, but it's also remarkably effective.  "I'd rather not discuss that" can frequently end a conversation.  Remember, setting boundaries is about YOU, not them.  It's about treating yourself with respect.  So own it.  Say "I feel uncomfortable when..."  and things like that.  The point isn't to accuse someone of being petty and ridiculous--even if they are.  It's about keeping your recovery strong.

4. Let go of the outcome.  Some people are going to walk all over every boundary you set up.  And there's not a thing you can do about it.  You can, however, make it very clear how you are willing to let yourself be treated and what behavior you expect of others.  You can't control how others are going to react to what you say, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't say it.

5. Know your goals.  When I'm in a difficult situation with another person, I usually ask myself "What's the goal of this interaction?"  Is it a meeting with my boss in which I'm trying to keep my job?  Is it catching up with Uncle Bob?  Is it to do my filial duty by chatting with annoying relatives?  The boundaries you set may be different based on whether you are asking for something or receiving something, how often you have to see this person, and how much you value the relationship.  Some boundaries might be a universal (ie, "Please don't comment on what I'm eating.") whereas others are going to be more specific.  It's tricky, but knowing what you value in the relationship often helps me guide my choices.

6. Know what to let slide.  Some people will tramp all over your boundaries because they're mean.  Others will do it simply because they don't know any better.  Often, that's just the way these people are.  Although I'm notorious at keeping people at a distance, I'm also hesitant to flat-out say "Please don't talk about this."  Sometimes, the best choice is to bite your tongue and soldier on through.  That doesn't mean you're letting yourself be a human doormat; it means you're making the conscious choice not to act at this very moment.

7. Do it ahead of time.  If you can, communicate beforehand if there are any glaring landmines, such as you just started treatment for your eating disorder, you recently got out of the hospital, etc.  Most people truly don't want to be jackasses.  Their ability to respond to your boundaries may vary widely.  Some people will forget, others are just clueless, and there are always those who are petty and mean.  But people often appreciate knowing what is helpful and not helpful.

8. Prepare for the worst.  Boundaries are great, but what are you going to do if people don't respect them?  There's a time to grin and bear it.  There's also a time to reiterate what you're saying, calmly but firmly.  Don't be dramatic and threaten and deliver ultimatums because people will often call your bluff.  You see it in movies all the time, where someone snaps and says "It's me or the dog!"  The dog usually wins because they dog doesn't make you choose.  Having been on the receiving end of these situations, it sucks.  Don't go there.  It just makes you look like an ass.  There's a difference between saying "If you don't shut the hell up, I am walking out that door!" and saying "I'm really uncomfortable, and I need to get going."

What has helped you set boundaries?  Share your tips in the comments!

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Anonymous said...

Great post, I wish I would've read this earlier on in my recovery but it is definitely a great set of tools to start incorporating into my continuing recovery

Vivienne said...

Thank you so much for this post. I'm sure it will be a lot of help, I'm struggling a bit right now.

Cate said...

I found this article the other day and thought I would print it out and send it to my parents ahead of me going home for xmas:

flaweddesign said...

thanks for this post. i'm working on communicating/navigating through uncomfortable social situations right now with my counsellor which definitely involves setting boundaries. great tips.

hm said...

Great tips, Carrie. Really, really good. I especially like #4, Let go of the outcome. As a black-and-white thinker, it's easy for me to fall into the trap of "If I just say it perfectly, they will certainly understand/respect/whatever." Then, of course, if they don't, it's my fault. But you're right- that's something I need to let go, b/c I can't control everyone around me- I can only be honest. I have discovered that if I state my boundaries beforehand (did so this time in an email) and give people a bit of time to mull them over in the quiet of their own space, they usually respond very lovingly and acceptingly. Not always, but usually. People seem to respond better if they're not shocked but have time to think things over. Happy Thanksgiving to you, Carrie of edbites! I'm thankful for YOU! :)

Jen said...

My own transportation and if, out of town, my own hotel room!

Renee said...

A question/rant (not relevant to this post but asking because you have the dubious distinction of being Knower of All Things ED). Does everyone in the US get a "treatment team" through their family's/work insurance? I'm in Canada - I have a therapist covered by the our socialized health care, but anything else would be out of pocket and mine are empty. Every time I ask a qauestion on an ED website or blog, I'm told to "consult with my treatment team". I'm like, I don't HAVE a team, that is why I am asking strangers on the internet!
I'm just feeling frustrated and not supported and relapsing and a bit angered by the whole thing. I feel like my whole life everyone just keeps figuring I'll snap out of it. Like I only went to IOP for the first time this year, at 34 - my rich US relatives paid for it.
Well, luckily it's not thanksgiving in Canada because clearly i'm freeling pretty Grinchy right now.

hm said...

Renee- From what I understand, your "treatment team" is whatever people you have chosen to be a part of your treatment. That might be different for each person. I only had a therapist- she insisted that she couldn't be my only resource, so I found a doctor- the doc didn't return her calls so I dumped the doc- found a registered dietitian instead- I pay out of pocket for her. I have very good insurance, but they don't cover dietitians. Still- her out of pocket rates are reasonable. I got her name from calling the help number I found on www.anad.org, an association for EDs. I believe they serve Canada as well. They might also be able to recommend a good physician who is knowledgeable about EDs, or when you find that dietitian, she/he might be able to recommend one. Seeing your physician should count like a regular doctor appt. for your insurance, right? The doctor becomes part of your "treatment team" when you sign the papers saying they can communicate with your therapist and vice versa.

Anonymous said...

you know its just a big croc of BS - that is anything you are trying to rely on from what a therapist tells you - they are the biggest enablers.

Has anyone ever heard of someone being healed/cured by a therapist?
Of course not, they just screw your head up with a bunch of useless thoughts and mis-directions about saying positive things.

Do you think if you are lazy a therapist can say something to get you on the treadmill or clean the house?

Dana Udall-Weiner said...

Yikes, I hope that therapists are able to help, since I'm in recovery from an ED(for about 16 years now)thanks in part to good therapy, and I'm now a therapist myself. Ultimately, we all have to make changes ourselves, but I think the support of others is essential in this process, be it a treatment team or chosen friends.

I really like this post, and appreciate the emphasis on boundaries and interpersonal relationships. Good stuff!

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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Have any questions or comments about this blog? Feel free to email me at carrie@edbites.com

nour·ish: (v); to sustain with food or nutriment; supply with what is necessary for life, health, and growth; to cherish, foster, keep alive; to strengthen, build up, or promote


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