Why personal boundaries are essential in healing addictive eating

In my last blog I talked about codependency, which is an addiction to people. We compulsively put others’ needs before our own and have difficulty differentiating between their and our own emotions. Often when there’s addiction in the family, codependency occurs when some family members are reacting to the erratic moods of others. For example, the anger outbursts of one person might initiate someone else to feel guilty and conform to their demands to soothe the anger, compromising their own needs and boundaries in the process.

No matter what the dynamics in our environment, for those of us struggling with addictive eating, it’s hugely important to set healthy boundaries with those around us to recover.

You might wonder how boundaries and eating compulsively is related? Let’s have a look at the nature of personal boundaries to answer that question: People need to set boundaries with other people to honour and protect each other. When we become aware of our boundaries, we respect and value the boundaries of others too. That’s the key to healthy and deep connections with each other.

There are several types of boundaries. These are sexual, spiritual, emotional, intellectual and physical. Boundary violations in the sexual or physical sense are probably quite obvious. Sexual boundary violations might happen when someone talks about or touches our body in a way that is sexually offensive, painful, frightening, embarrassing or shaming to us.  This can go from the extremes of rape to verbal criticism about gender. Our physical boundaries might be violated when people stand too close to us or hits us. Emotional boundary violations are often more subtle. They can happen when our feelings are ignored or discounted. Or when (often well meaning) people want to keep us from feeling pain. The effect is that we don’t learn to experience our feelings and allow them to naturally pass through us. Instead, we might bottle them up and find a different, potentially harmful outlet, such as eating compulsively.

Healthy emotional boundaries would mean that we’re allowed to feel what we feel, are supported in learning how to deal with our feelings, and take responsibility for what we do with them. That includes how we show them, and also to not take on other people’s feelings or trying to fix them.  That’s their business. Our business is to learn how to regulate ours in ways that are not harmful to ourselves and others.

Intellectual boundaries are broken when we’re told what and how to think. People interrupting us, or invalidating our thoughts and telling us to think differently is very common. Healthy intellectual boundaries would be to choose to accept or reject what others say about what we think or say, and to give others the freedom to do the same without judgment. We make decisions on our own, not influenced by others’ judgments, and speak our truth even when others don’t agree.

Spiritual boundaries are disregarded in all cases where boundaries are not respected.  For example, when others make choices for us, tell us what to believe, how to live, discount our feelings or hurt us physically in any way. Healthy spiritual boundaries would be to insist on the right to say when, where, how, why and who touches or gets close to our body, to not be judged, and to be allowed to feel whatever we’re feeling and live according to our own values.

Ok, so how’s that relevant to addictive eating? Well, most of us addictive eaters have a strong emotional, intellectual, physical and spiritual attachment to food. When we don’t have healthy and consistent boundaries we don’t know what we want, we don’t trust ourselves, know what is good for us, what is enough, and most importantly, we feel judged and disrespected by others. We neglect our own truth, and are doing things for the sake of pleasing others, for fear of not being liked, being abandoned, judged, ridiculed, rejected.

Not standing in our own truth and setting clear boundaries therefore brings up resentment, anger, shame and other uncomfortable feelings. And what do we do when we have uncomfortable feelings? Well, as addictive eaters, we EAT!

So, that’s why having clear boundaries and a voice to uphold them means we live according to our own truth and with integrity. on and off the plate. And that’s why learning how to set boundaries is crucial in food addiction recovery.