Setting Boundaries in Eating Disorder Recovery

By Alexa Rivera

Boundaries and Eating Disorder Recovery

It’s important for everyone with an eating disorder to focus on what supports and sustains their treatment and recovery, and often this involves the difficult task of determining which individuals, places, situations and behaviors are toxic and counterproductive to your recovery. 

Since eating disorders affect all aspects of life, it can be hard to learn how to navigate a new life where certain behaviors, thoughts or activities you objectified or loved no longer have a place. 

This is where effective boundary setting comes in. Boundaries allow you to prioritize and protect your recovery and wellbeing. 


What are boundaries? 

Boundaries are limits and rules we set for ourselves within relationships. Boundaries are often thought of as an invisible line that separates us from one another and outline what behaviors are considered appropriate or inappropriate in a given circumstance or setting.  

Boundaries are present in every type of relationship, whether it’s with strangers (in the form of social or cultural norms), acquaintances, coworkers and bosses, family members, friends or romantic partners. For example, some topics of conversation might be inappropriate among coworkers but appropriate when you’re with your friends. 

They can also vary based on location, time or space. For example, maybe holding hands or a kiss on the cheek is appropriate in private or around close family and friends, but public displays of affection are not.  

Boundaries may change over the course of a relationship; two common examples are how boundaries between parents and children change as a child becomes an adult or how boundaries change between two people during the course of a romantic relationship. 


Types of boundaries 

There are different types of boundaries. While they can be divided in several ways, there are five main types. Sometimes these boundaries are broken down further to include subcategories like financial or sexual boundaries. Boundaries may overlap. For example, for some people abstaining from alcohol may be both a physical and intellectual boundary. 

Physical boundaries 

Physical boundaries protect your body and personal space. They involve touch, proximity, personal space, what you consume and how you expend your energy.  

  • How close can people get to you? 

  • Who can touch you? Where can you be touched? What types of touch are appropriate? 

  • Who do I allow in my personal space? Which spaces are okay and which are not? When can people enter my space? 

  • What do I eat or drink and when? When do I rest and for how long? When am I active and for how long? 

Emotional boundaries 

Emotional boundaries protect your emotional wellbeing and establish what you’re comfortable sharing with others. 

  • What am I comfortable sharing? What am I comfortable with others sharing with me? 

  • When am I comfortable sharing and to whom? 

  • Do I have the capacity to listen or support others? 

  • How do I address my own emotional needs? 

Intellectual boundaries 

Intellectual boundaries relate to our thoughts and ideas. This usually involves sensitive topics like religion, politics and philosophy, but can include any topic. 

  • How do I respond to others challenging my ideas? 

  • How do I communicate my ideas? 

  • What topics are off limits? 

  • When or where can certain topics be discussed? 

Material boundaries 

Material boundaries relate to our material possessions, like money or objects.  

  • Do I share my possessions? Who do I share my possessions with? 

  • When or how often can my possessions be used? 

  • How can my possessions be used? 

  • Do I share my money? How much of my money do I share? 

Time boundaries 

Time boundaries relate to how our time is spent, how much our time is worth and how you prioritize your time. 

  • When do I want to be alone or around others? 

  • How much do I want to be compensated for my work or time? 

  • What types of activities do I want to fill my time? 

  • Who do I share my time with? When do I share my time? 


Why do we need boundaries? 

Broadly, boundaries are essential for healthy relationship development as well as for maintaining our autonomy and self-respect. When we set boundaries, we define the ways we wish to be treated and spoken to by others. Without boundaries, we are unable to separate ourselves from the desires of others. This can lead to: 

  • Loss of respect from others or low self-respect 

  • Loss of autonomy 

  • Diminished self-care abilities 

  • Increased stress and burnout 

  • Lack of clear expectations for ourselves and others 

  • Worsening mental health 

  • Unhealthy relationships 


How to start setting healthy boundaries 

Starting slow 

Where do you start? A lot of people grow up without establishing boundaries in their relationships. If you’re unfamiliar with boundary setting, you can start by just thinking about what you want: What serves me and my recovery? What am I comfortable with and what are ways I feel safe expanding my comfort zone? What will I not do, say or tolerate from others?  

Once you get the ball rolling, you can start by being reactive. While being proactive and clear about your boundaries early on is ideal to avoid confusion in relationships, if this is the first time you’ve tried to actively establish boundaries, being proactive and upfront right out of the gate might be intimidating.  

Instead, you can slowly get started by being reactive and waiting for an opportunity to set your boundary. Before responding to someone else, reciprocating or saying “yes” to something, take a second to go over the questions (Does this serve me and my recovery? Am I comfortable with this? Is this a way I feel safe expanding my comfort zone? Is this something I do not want?) in your head, and then respond.  

It's also important to reinforce your boundaries. Sometimes people make mistakes, forget or even purposefully violate a boundary you’ve already set with them. You have a responsibility to yourself to remind others of your boundaries. 

Over time you’ll become more comfortable and get used to setting and reinforcing your boundaries. It might be uncomfortable at first, especially if you are used to putting yourself second or being a people pleaser. But soon it will be second nature, and you’ll be happy and confident in your ability to put yourself first, defend yourself and be your #1 advocate.  


Work With Your Treatment Team and Others

Eating disorder specialists have helped many people just like yourself, leaning on their expertise can be very valuable. Working with a counselor or therapist can help you determine what triggers certain behaviors or thoughts, what areas of your life might benefit from more boundary setting or even what individuals in your life make recovery more difficult.  

Setting a boundary might look like making the decision to distance certain people, only spending time with them in specific circumstances, shutting down certain types of conversations or saying “no” to specific activities that exacerbate your eating disorder.  

You might also find it valuable to ask for advice from individuals in eating disorder support groups or group therapy. Other people who have similar lived experiences might be able to give you insight into how they handled setting boundaries in their own lives that you can draw on. 


Examples of Boundary Setting

You will set boundaries in every aspect of your life, with everyone you meet over and over again. Here are just two examples of how you can set a boundary: 

At the holiday table 

Many holidays revolve around gathering with family and enjoying food together around the table. Sometimes this can lead to talk about holiday weight gain or dieting after the holidays. Situations like this can be handled swiftly by changing the subject, or if it persists, saying something like, “I’m not really worried about that this year, could we switch the subject?” 

In the dressing room 

When we go out shopping with friends, sometimes we ask them how we look or if they like a certain outfit. They might critique the item we’re trying on by saying it makes us look bigger, smaller or accentuates certain parts of our body. Maybe you’re able to ignore it when it happens here and there, but if it starts interfering with your recovery you might sit your friend down in private and say something like, “Hey, I really value your fashion advice, but when you talk about how my body looks in certain clothes in the dressing room it makes me uncomfortable. Maybe you could just talk about how the color looks on me or if it fits my personality instead?” 


ACUTE Earns Prestigious Center of Excellence Designation from Anthem
In 2018, the ACUTE Center for Eating Disorders & Severe Malnutrition at Denver Health was honored by Anthem Health as a Center of Excellence for Medical Treatment of Severe and Extreme Eating Disorders. ACUTE is the first medical unit ever to achieve this designation in the field of eating disorders. It comes after a rigorous review process.

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