Boundaries are imaginary or real lines around our physical, emotional, or spiritual self that set limits for us and how we interact with others. Imaginary lines protect our thinking, feelings, and behavior. Real lines allow us to choose how close we allow others to come to us, as well as if and how we allow them to touch us. Boundaries help distinguish what our responsibilities are and are not.

By getting to know ourselves, we can learn to set reasonable boundaries. It is hard to do this when we are not in touch with our feelings, thoughts, beliefs, likes, and dislikes. When we disconnect from our wants and needs, and instead focus on weight, body image, diet, and food, we lose valuable information. We also lose awareness of the inner guidance system that says “Something is wrong—a boundary needs to be set here.”

It’s hard enough to get through the pain of life, but when we block it out with food distractions, we never learn how to take care of ourselves. Because our thoughts have been directed away from the hurt or pain to obsessive eating disordered thinking, we lose awareness of what caused the hurt or pain in the first place, and most important, how these situations could be avoided in the future.

What can cause a lack of boundaries?

People with eating disorders often have a poor sense of boundaries and a hard time saying no. Let’s say someone pressures you into going to a place where you feel very uncomfortable. If you are disconnected from your wants and needs, you won’t know what you really want to do. Everyone wants to be liked and accepted, so we say yes, rather than setting a boundary such as, “No, I don’t want to go there."
Now we are already feel uncomfortable being in this situation, so our thoughts start to focus on food instead of dealing with the real feelings at hand. “Should I eat? Shouldn’t I eat? What should I eat? What are people going to think if I eat?” All these obsessive thoughts start running through our heads. Then we start beating ourselves up for the eating disorder, instead of recognizing the steps to prevent these discomforting feelings in the first place.

Many of us use distractions to avoid looking at our own self. We may find a false sense of satisfaction in taking on other people’s tasks or trying to control situations. Our sense of worth can get so caught up from giving that we don’t realize our own duties, feelings, and responsibilities are being neglected.

When we begin to feel the stress from overcommitting ourselves or trying to control situations, we may turn to the eating disorder to ease our inability to do everything perfectly. This may cause us to feel very tired, frustrated, unappreciated, and unloved. When we think we have to do something in order to be loved we can never do enough. Other people are often not grateful that we have taken over their responsibilities and may feel as if they are inadequate or being controlled by our desire to help.

How can we set appropriate boundaries?

• Learn to say no. If you have an eating disorder, you may have a hard time saying no because it feels confrontational. You may be afraid that saying no will cause others not to like you, but this is really not the case—saying no builds trust. If a person receives a no answer and believes it, then they also know that yes really means yes. If we are always saying yes, then we are not showing others who we really are or expressing our real opinions. After awhile, we may even fool ourselves. We may not know our own truth because we are so used to automatically saying yes.

• Be aware of your thoughts. Where is your mind throughout the day? You can’t always pick the first thought that comes into your mind, but you can chose to change it and to not dwell on it. Are you thinking positive thoughts? Thoughts that will help in your recovery? Or negative thoughts that put yourself down, lower your self-esteem, and set up another binge?

• Watch out for external stimuli. What do you read, watch on TV, listen to on the radio, or see at the movies? Have you noticed some movies or music uplift you and others bring you down? Knowing this about yourself can help balance these activities and place boundaries if you know something won’t feel right.

• Know your food preferences and triggers. Do you know which foods make you tired and sleepy? Which foods satisfy your hunger? Or which foods trigger your eating disorder? If you know a food is a trigger, or if it doesn’t make you feel good, you can choose not to eat it. If someone offers you one of these foods, you can say, “No, thank you!” If you are not aware of this, or are afraid of hurting someone’s feelings, you disregard an important boundary.

• Know your own beliefs and values. Becoming familiar with what you believe and value in life creates a sense of your own space and is an important step to true self-care. Then, coming from your space, you can better guard this important, personal aspect of self. You can learn to value yourself above the approval of others.

• Stand up for yourself. You decide what you are in control of and what you want to do or not do. Setting imaginary lines can be done with statements such as, “It’s not OK for you to talk to me like that,” or “No, I don’t feel that way right now.”

Our boundaries help to establish our real truths, which make us feel good about ourselves. We can start by reconnecting to our inner self. Becoming more aware of our feelings and the consequences of our actions can help us create better boundaries in the future. Rather than turning to our eating disorder for comfort, we need to sit with the pain and decide which boundaries could have prevented the discomfort. The better we can get at setting appropriate boundaries, the more life opens up. Then, we know we can take better care of ourselves. This is freedom.

Rebecca Cooper, MFT, CEDS, is the author of Diets Don’t Work®; a structured program to heal disordered eating. For more information about her program, contact her at 800-BULIMIA, or

Author's Bio: 

Rebecca Cooper is the Founder of Rebecca’s House Eating Disorder Treatment Programs™ located in Orange County, California. There she leads a team of psychologists, therapists, registered dietitians, exercise physiologist, psychiatrist, medical doctor, equine therapists, life coach, yoga instructor, and staff.

Ms. Cooper has a Masters in Clinical Psychology from Pepperdine University. She is a licensed California therapist and Certified Eating Disorder Specialist. Rebecca is the author of Diets Don’t Work® and the Diets Don’t Work® Workbook, DVD, CDs, and many published articles about addiction and eating disorders. She is an international speaker who has appeared on television, radio, and internet.

If you a friend or loved one that needs treatment for an eating disorder, go to or call 1.866.931.1666.