One of the most important ways for recovering compulsive eaters to reclaim their lives from food is boundary repair.
In this article I am going to explain how I see the interplay between boundaries, shame and food and the dismantling of this toxic triangle.
What Are Boundaries and Why Are They So Important?
Boundaries are how you protect yourself and uphold your values.
You avoid walking past a building site where you might be whistled at.
You only see certain relatives at family events because they are so manipulative
You never see certain people because their manipulation is intolerable to you.
A friend sends you an inappropriate image/joke that offends you. You tell them directly “Don’t do that. It was really out of order.”
Your boss asks you to work weekends more than anyone else. You arrange to have a meeting to discuss this where you ask her outright why she is asking this of you and you believe it is unfair. Alternatively, you just say no.
Each situation above is an example of someone experiencing a boundary violation and responding to it with boundary repair.
Anger is the raw material required for boundary repair and it is is very useful in this regard.
How Shame Messes With Boundaries
Inappropriate shame is often foisted upon us as children/teens. Common causes that I see in coaching are bad parenting (especially if the parent figure has mental health issues), bullying, physical/sexual abuse and a feeling of being sexually unsafe (just about every girl experiences this in our culture).
Food and body shaming used as a parental weapon is something I have seen, for example making a child finish their dinner for breakfast the next day, or a mother dragging her daughter to diet clubs at the age of 12 (the message is: what you are changing into, ie a woman, is no good and we need to deprive it out of you).
In addition, for girls there is the cultural pressure to please men and let boys be bolder, louder and more successful than them.
For boys there are toxic messages about not being allowed to express fear or sadness and to be ‘real’ man.
Here’s the thing: adulthood becomes the playground for expressing all this toxic shame.
Shame is all about feeling like your place in the tribe is is danger. Cavebrain believes you might get chucked out of the tribe.
The boundary repair I needed to do and I help clients do happens because that shame means boundaries were NOT healthy.
I see this over and over, especially with female clients.
Here are some of the ways that this surfaces. See if you recognise any of these traits in yourself:
Saying sorry as a reflex response, eg when someone lets you go in front of them at the supermarket till.
Being Neville Chamberlain AKA Appeasing passive aggressive people (“My best friend is just like that. He had a terrible childhood, so he lashes out. It’s just how he is”). I remember my great aunty was a terrible racist and she would say things like “Coventry, Birmingham - the blacks are everywhere now”. I would look at my dad who taught me that such opinions were repulsive. My dad just looked at the floor.
Not fighting for what you believe in
Believing people when you say they have changed instead of making them prove themselves to you. (“She says she will never steal from me again, and I just want things to be how they were”).
A dread of conflict
Cavebrain on Red Alert
To Cavebrain that is a very dangerous situation. So it puts you in a state of fight or flight. The stress response. Being accepted is top priority, no matter how much people pleasing or intolerable behaviour you have to put up with. To Cavebrain, this is a life or death situation.
Children cannot repair any of these broken boundaries. They do not have the maturity.
In addition, if you have experienced trauma, your Cavebrain could be in a constant state of believing it is graduating to stage 3, which requires the tribe to tell you you have passed the initiation to adulthood. This will be invisible to your conscious mind.
For more on this, listen to the Me Too episode here:
and ask me to explain more in one of your sessions.
Where Food Comes In
Here are my thoughts on why chaotic eating and other eating issues enter the picture.
First of all I have NEVER had a client who said “Guilt over food? What’s that?”
In other words, inappropriate shame is a universal feature of compulsive eating (and I would imagine of any compulsion).
Overeating helps lay down a base layer for a protective fat suit (real or imaginary). In nature, Cavebrain knows that the bigger you are, the safer you are. So Cavebrain thinks: well, we might be out of the tribe soon, so get insulating!
This is the start of a vicious circle: society shames the overweight, so Cavebrain’s protective fat suit policy backfires. However, Cavebrain has no idea its idea has backfired. Your shame deepens.
The point of shame was originally to get tribe members to toe the line, and so ensure social coherence, which equals the survival of the tribe. For example one member steals food or firewood, and the tribe shames them to keep them in line.
It was not you that was at fault when you were shamed as a child, but Cavebrain doesn’t know that. It is racking its cavebrains to work out how to get back into the tribe’s good books.
Now, food is an easier source of shame to understand than being at risk of being thown out of the tribe, especially when it was the tribe at fault, not you. Food is an obvious and concrete way to play out Cavebrain’s deep desire to earn their place in the tribe.
So you think: diet.
That is work indeed!
The deprivation clashes with your natural need for pleasure and messes with your neurochemicals, and deprives you nutritionally, and for some of us, gives us hideous mood swings.
And the 2lb you lose, well funnily enough, your passive aggressive mother hasn’t suddenly accepted you and apologised as a result.
So you rebel against the diet. You eat chaotically, and feel shame.
You have no idea what is going on inside you here. So you continue the diet-chaotic cycle.
Enter Boundary Repair To Save The Day!
Graduating Beyond Cavebrain
Cavebrain is your red alert centre for social acceptance. But is is woefully inadequate for actually dealing with this situation in the 21st century.
Your passive aggressive mother, your overbearing boss, your so-called friend who steals from you, they are absolutely not the tribe Cavebrain thinks they are.
We have multiple small tribes in today’s world.
You do not have to stick around with the people who raised you, who you happen to share an office or friendship history with.
There are different ways that you can exit this horrible state of people pleasing, feeling guilty all the time and using food as a playground for expressing your inappropriate shame.
But I have found that the most effective and quickest route is by boundary repair.
This means that you start enforcing the boundaries that are important to you (such as the ones given at the start of this article).
This means ignoring Cavebrain’s panic (“What the hell are you doing? This means expulsion from the tribe for sure!”)
This means expressing your anger (remember it is the raw materials for boundary repair)
This means: feel the fear and do it anyway.
This means proving to Cavebrain that this boundary is not a threat to you.
This means having well-meaning friends (who themselves are terrified of conflict) wring their hands and say things like: “Look, can’t you just resolve things? Your mum won’t be around forever you know. Isn’t it better to just get on? Life’s too short.”
This means being more aware of how angry you are, which might feel a bit like opening an emotional jack in the box.
This means tapping into your inner warrior/warrior queen/warrior princess, even if you have never met her.
Here is my favourite ever warrior princess, Katniss from The Hunger Games:
Life With Boundaries Repaired
The good news about boundary repair is that it allows your anger to do its job and then leave your system.
It ultimately de-stresses you
It is massively empowering
It makes you feel safe, which means that you might be able to get on with that difficult parent in some capacity, for example you feel able to attend family celebrations with them present.
It makes you an awesome role model for young people and children
I personally have found that boundary repair means I have had to own my fiery side. For example I was out with a group of friends recently where one of the men made a joke about a time he felt up a woman’s behind. “Well, she did work out” was his justification.
What he did was clearly sexual assault. He is always confused because if I see him with this group, I give him a cold stare when he says hello to me. This is me upholding a very important boundary. If he ever asks me why I am so unfriendly I will tell him, but he never has.
I explain all this to others in the group and they all look extremely uncomfortable, because this form of assault is acceptable in culture.
It may be better to sit down and talk diplomatically to this person. Who knows? That would be beyond my abilities, because of my history with this sort of thing. I know my boundary and respect it.
It is more important to me to have this boundary in place than it is to secure the approval of everyone in this particular tribe. But you know what? Nobody has come up to me yet and said: How could you criticise Andy in that way? I am never speaking to you again Harriet!
I am managing my Cavebrain and upholding my standards and boundaries.
Crappy boundary Harriet of the past would have meekly accepted his actions and been friendly, while actually feeling unsafe because her Cavebrain’s alarm bells would be ringing every time she saw him.
Which would you choose: be a bit fiery and have others sit in awkward silence or feel deeply unsafe? It is a no brainer.
Questions For You
What boundaries do you need to repair?
What is the easiest boundary to repair? Start with that.
How can you make Cavebrain feel less isolated while you go through this uncertain time? What other tribes can you join? Meetup groups for example. What friendships can you reaffirm?