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Mindful Relationships Part 1: Personal Boundaries and Eating

By Michelle May, M.D.

Think of your personal boundaries as the fence around who you are. Are your boundaries rigid and impossible to get through, or wide open, allowing anyone and anything in? Your boundaries and eating are often closely linked.

Your boundaries emerge from your beliefs about what you deserve and don’t deserve, what you want and need, what you like and dislike. Your sense of the importance of your personal rights, especially your right to take care of yourself, will determine the type of boundaries you create around yourself.

Your boundaries have a major effect on your relationships with other people because they determine where you stop and where they begin. Boundaries also affect how you take care of yourself by determining what you will accept in how people interact with you. When you value, trust, and listen to yourself, you are able to maintain healthy boundaries with others—and leave relationships that aren’t healthy for you. Let’s take a look a closer look at boundaries and their effect on your eating.

Permeable Boundariespicket fence 1

If you don’t trust yourself to know what is best for you, your boundaries will be very permeable. You determine your worth and value based on what other people think (or seem to think). You look around to determine what others expect of you and attempt to please them to avoid the risk of disapproval, rejection, or abandonment. You have difficulty holding on to your convictions in the presence of others who disagree. You may give too much information to people who haven’t earned the right to have it. In terms of food and eating, permeable boundaries may look like this:

  • You avoid certain people or events because of your feelings about your size or the fear that others will judge you negatively.
  • In public you eat what you think other people expect you to or let other people decide what you are “allowed” to eat because you don’t respect your own right to eat what you want. Then when you’re alone, you secretly overeat what you want.
  • You eat when you aren’t hungry or eat food you don’t really want to please others or avoid conflict.
  • You eat to stuff your feelings, thoughts, or opinions.
  • You eat to spite others who try to control your eating.
  • You try any diet that promises to solve your problems.
Rigid Boundaries

great wall of chinaRigid boundaries are too thick so you have difficulty letting information and people in—and out. When your boundaries are rigid, you may be firmly attached to your position and expect other people to accommodate you. You may have difficulty accepting responsibility, feedback, or criticism. You may exhibit black and white, right or wrong, and good versus bad thinking. It is difficult for you to consider options other than what you already believe. You may be overly protective of your boundaries, guarded, and have difficulty showing vulnerability. Examples of how rigid boundaries and eating are related:

  • You struggle with special events, vacations, and other situations because you have difficulty adapting when you are not in direct control.
  • You’re convinced that you should try to follow strict diet rules to manage your eating, even though this hasn’t worked for you in the past.
  • You use guilt or manipulation to control someone else’s eating or exercise.
  • You’re stuck in your Overeating and Restrictive Eating Cycles because you have difficulty accepting that there are other options or unexamined issues driving your behaviors.
  • You have difficulty asking for help because you don’t trust others or want to appear vulnerable.

Take a look at flexible boundaries and eating:

Flexible Boundaries

gate in gardenFlexible boundaries are clear but adaptable when the situation requires it. When your boundaries are flexible, you have a strong sense of self so you value, trust, and listen to yourself. Your boundaries are expressive of your true self so they are authentic and comfortable. You’re willing to take into consideration the possibility of a different perspective or new information but you’re able to hold onto your beliefs even when others disagree. You’re open and able to adapt to different circumstances depending on what is most effective for you. Examples

  • You’re able to eat in public without guilt or shame.
  • When you overeat, you’re still able to accept yourself and learn from your mistakes.
  • You’re able to use new information and learn new strategies that will help you manage your eating more effectively.
  • You express your thoughts and feelings instead of using food to escape them.
  • You don’t postpone living your life.

Read Mindful Relationships Part 2: Assertive Communication


About the author

Michelle May, M.D. is a recovered yo-yo dieter and the founder of the Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs and Training. She is the award-winning author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: A Mindful Eating Program to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle , winner of seven publishing awards. She is also the author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes, Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating, and Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating for Bariatric Surgery. Michelle shares her compelling message and constructive keynotes with audiences around the country, offers workplace wellness programs, and has trained and licensed hundreds of health professionals to facilitate Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs worldwide. She has been featured on Dr. Oz, the Discovery Health Channel, and Oprah Radio, and quoted in Diabetic Living, Fitness, Health, Huffington Post, Parents, Self, USA Weekend, US News & World Report, WebMD and many others. Her personal success story was published in Chicken Soup for the Dieter's Soul. Michelle cherishes her relationships with her husband, Owen and grown children, Tyler and Elyse. She regularly enjoys practicing yoga and hiking near her home in Phoenix, Arizona. She and Owen, a professional chef, share a passion for gourmet and healthful cooking, wine tasting, photography, and traveling.


  1. Joyce Burke says:

    Thanks for sharing this Michelle. I am struggling with very permeable boundaries and it was helpful to clarify what flexible boundaries looks like.

  2. Norma Nill says:

    You were a major influence in my decision to quit dieting after 40+ years of it, Michelle. Thank you very much! I was one who ate circumspectly with others but ate everything I wanted…and more…in private. Never thought of that as a boundary issue, but now I do. Although I’m still learning how to ask “am I hungry?” and am still learning how to respect my body’s answer, I no longer see food as my “go to” when problems arise or when I have nothing else planned. There’s so much more to life!

  3. Joyce, isn’t it nice to know that there is a happy medium between rigid and permeable boundaries? Though it takes practice, this more flexible approach helps you meet your needs and communicate more effectively with others.

  4. Wow Norma, you just made my day! I am so glad that you’ve found a flexible approach to your eating and I suspect that you are discovering that it helps in other areas of your life too! Thanks for taking the time to write. May I share your comment on our Facebook page (with your first name only)? I think it would really encourage others who have decades of dieting under their belt!

  5. Janet LaPlante says:

    Michelle, I came to your workshop years ago in Phoenix and am still trying to practice what I learned there. I am focusing on my writing now and perhaps we can get together in the near future to see if we can work together.

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