What to Expect When Working with an Eating Disorder Dietitian

Written by: Courtenay Vickers RD

Time to read: 6 minutes

What comes up for you when thinking about working with a dietitian? Many people might say they feel anxious, or perhaps express fear that they’re going to be weighed, or maybe they’re worried about getting “lectured” to by the dietitian.

Navigating the journey of recovery from an eating disorder can be overwhelming, but understanding the role of an eating disorders dietitian (ED RD) can help illuminate the path forward. Let’s explore what a dietitian is, what you can expect when working with an ED RD, and practical steps to get connected with one. And, hopefully, leave you feeling less unsure and more confident about getting started with an ED RD.

What is a Registered Dietitian (RD)?

Registered Dietitians are healthcare professionals who provide evidence-based nutrition and food information to help individuals lead sustainable and enjoyable lives. To hold the professional title, a dietitian must:

  • Obtain a degree in nutrition from an accredited university.
  • Complete a one-year internship with rotations in clinical and community nutrition, and foodservice.
  • Pass a national registration exam.
  • Register with their provincial dietetic regulatory body.
  • Meet annual continuing education requirements.

Dietitians take a holistic approach, focusing on the overall well-being of their clients. In the context of eating disorders, this often involves specialized training and ongoing supervision to address the unique challenges of these conditions.

A note on “nutritionists”: In some provinces, the term nutritionist is a protected title that can only be used by Registered Dietitians. Currently, only applies to Alberta, Quebec, and Nova Scotia. Other titles, such as holistic nutritionist, nutrition coach, etc. can mean different things, but they are NOT the same as an RD. Educational background and ongoing education, level of competence, and regulations can vary drastically. 

When an RD says they are eating disorder specialized, this means the RD has specialized training and supervision in addition to their required schooling. Unfortunately, most university nutrition programs have very little to no training on eating disorders, which means many eating disorder-specialized dietitians have gone on to complete many additional trainings and hours in supervision to build their competence and confidence to support those seeking recovery from an eating disorder.

ED RDs are a critical part of the professional care team for ED recovery, alongside a therapist & primary care provider. Many ED RDs have also adopted weight-inclusive, anti-diet, and HAES-aligned perspectives.

The Role of an Eating Disorders Dietitian

Eating disorders dietitians are a vital part of the recovery team, working alongside therapists and primary care providers. Their responsibilities include:

  • Conducting comprehensive nutrition assessments and regular follow-ups.
  • Developing personalized nutrition care plans.
  • Assisting with the implementation of these plans.
  • Addressing dysfunctional thoughts and emotions related to eating, food, or body image.
  • Collaborating with other healthcare providers and, when appropriate, family members.

What will come up in sessions with an ED RD?

Generally, the top nutrition priorities when working with a dietitian for recovery will be working towards nutritional adequacy and regularity with eating. Along the way there will likely be many other themes to explore and areas to work on, such as:

  • Exploration of weight stigma
  • Understanding set point theory, metabolism, and energy needs
  • Challenging diet culture and internal beliefs about food
  • Meal planning and grocery shopping
  • Pacing of meals
  • Fear foods / trigger foods
  • Body image
  • Intuitive and mindful eating practices
  • Managing gastrointestinal issues and nutrient deficiencies
  • …and many other things!

Most ED RDs will be bringing in tons of compassion and validation along the way, and an acknowledgment that the eating disorder is not your fault. Sessions generally should provide you with a supportive environment and a non-judgmental space to explore these complex issues, as you take these brave steps forward in your recovery.

What to Expect in Your Sessions

Initial Sessions

The first few sessions typically involve a nutrition assessment to understand your current nutritional status and recovery needs. This helps set the foundation for your personalized care plan.

Follow-Up Sessions

Subsequent sessions usually start with a check-in, where you can share your progress, challenges, and reflections. Together with your dietitian, you will work on breaking down the next steps toward your nutrition and recovery goals. Sessions can be conducted virtually or in person, depending on your dietitian’s practice setup.

Duration of Treatment

The length of time you will work with a dietitian varies based on individual needs, the availability of the RD, financial considerations, and accessibility. Many individuals see their RD every 1-2 weeks and continue until they can sustainably manage regular and adequate eating patterns, often spanning several months to a year or more.

How to Get Connected with a Dietitian

Free Options

  • Referral: Your primary care provider or specialist can refer you to a clinic with a dietitian on the team.
  • Family Health Teams, Primary Care Networks, and Community Health Centres: These often have dietitians available and offer free workshops, education programs, and counseling.
  • Home & Community Care Services and Hospitals: Ask your case manager or hospital staff about dietitian services.
  • Telehealth Services: Call 8-1-1 or visit the website to ask dietitians questions for free.

Finding an Eating Disorder Specialized Dietitian

  • National Eating Disorder Information Center (NEDIC) – Find A Provider
  • Dietitians of Canada – Find A Dietitian
  • EDforRDs – Find A Dietitian
  • Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH) – Healthcare Provider Listing
  • International Association for Eating Disorder Professionals (IAEDP) – Member Search
  • Intuitive Eating Counselor Directory

Tips for accessing and picking your RD

Note – if you are part of a hospital-based program, you generally won’t get a say in who your dietitian is.

  • Consider your options based on where you live and financially: In-person vs virtual, Private practice vs a free option, sliding scale and/or direct billing to insurance providers, etc.
  • RDs with eating disorder knowledge may or may not highlight the extent of their expertise online, so ask about their knowledge and comfort level of working with EDs
  • Some ED RDs will specialize more specifically with a certain type of ED (ex, ARFID or BED). Consider your symptoms and ask the RD if they have additional training/experience with what you’re struggling with.
  • Consider what values the dietitian has, and if they are in alignment with yours
  • Ask if you can meet with the RD for a free initial call to see if you’re a good fit
  • It’s okay to say if you’re nervous!

Working with an eating disorders dietitian can be a transformative step in your recovery journey. By understanding what to expect and how to get connected with the right professional, you can take proactive steps towards a healthier relationship with food and your body. For those living in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, or Ontario, virtual nutrition counseling options are available through the Aleo Collective.

For more information or to schedule a free discovery call with the dietitian at The Aleo Collective, visit courtenayvickersrd.com and follow on social media at @courtenayvickersrd.

Remember: you are worthy of reaching out for help 💕

Reclaiming Your Birthright (Part 1)

An Introduction to Intuitive Eating: Rejecting the Diet Mentality

Posted by: Raquel Griffin

Time to read: 5 minutes

“I just want to eat normally”. In my experience teasing this statement out with folks, I typically learn that what they mean is they don’t want to feel so preoccupied with food, or worried, or scared. They are tired from being at war with food and with their bodies. Many of them want Intuitive Eating, but it feels far off, out-of-reach, out of their capacity.

But, what if I invited you to consider that we’re born Intuitive Eaters? Of course, there are always going to be exceptions to most things, but generally speaking we come out of the womb with much of our intuition (evolutionary and survival responses) when it comes to eating. However, what happens often is that internal wisdom becomes polluted by external factors like diet culture. We learn to disconnect from our bodies and deny our needs and wants. Intuitive Eating is about reclaiming our birthright by shifting focus away from external factors rooted in diet culture and rebuilding trust with our internal wisdom and intuition.

This blogpost is the first entry of a series, an Introduction to Intuitive Eating. To summarize, Intuitive Eating:

  • Its philosophy is rooted in an anti-diet positioning and is aligned with the concepts of Health At Every Size and weight inclusivity.
  • It is comprised of 10 principles that are dynamic in nature (not sequential steps, though the positions of #1 and #10 are intentional)
  • Interoception is the foundational skill of reference; it is the ability to perceive physical sensations that originate from inside the body. 
  • It has a solid footing in research in numerous ways: 
    (a) evidence for the ineffectiveness and damage of diets or intentional weight loss
    (b) is an evidence based approach that demonstrates the benefits of intuitive eaters (220+ studies and counting)
    (c) has a validated assessment tool. 

In this post, I want to focus on explaining the anti-diet positioning of Intuitive Eating, which is related to the first principle of Intuitive Eating, and I’ll pull in some research pieces to corroborate that stance.

The first principle is the most important, Reject the Diet Mentality, where right away things get real specific on why an anti-diet approach can be a helpful cornerstone in your relationship with food repair. Diets do not work, and by this I mean weight loss that can be experienced from dieting is not long lasting. On top of that, the ineffectiveness of dieting is not a neutral quality: diets can cause a lot of harm and damage on our health in a variety of ways.

Dieting and intentional weight loss have been have showing their hand in research for a while now. You can see a non-exhaustive list of some of this research at the end of this post. Way back in 2007 a team of researchers came together to conduct a meta-analysis of all the long term weight loss studies they could find to assess whether long-term weight loss was actually a thing. The results from this meta-analysis, and other research studies since, report a 5-year maximum window where approximately 95% of people will not only regain the weight they did lose from dieting initially, but up to 2/3 of people will actually regain MORE weight than they lost. Let’s recognize for a moment what that means: dieting is more likely to make you fatter in the long-run. Now, this is not meant to demonstrate colluding with diet culture, but instead to point out the ridiculousness of a product that worsens the very “issue” it claims to resolve. Imagine purchasing a water bottle that not only is ineffective in quenching your thirst, but instead actually makes you thirstier. Pretty ineffective product, eh?

So, the diet is the problem itself, yet we are convinced by diet culture that WE are the problem. We are somehow at fault. When the weight inevitably comes back we blame ourselves and try the next diet or “lifestyle change”, and the next, and the next. This often results in weight-cycling: the pattern of weight loss and regain that occurs with chronic dieting. Weight cycling is seldom controlled for in many large studies that associate weight with health issues; this is a major oversight because weight cycling itself is an independent risk factor for many health conditions including: cardiovascular disease, inflammation, high blood pressure, and insulin resistance. And what do you know, these health issues often are blamed on one’s weight or fatness, resulting in various prescriptions of the very thing that could be contributing to these health issues = intentional weight loss via dieting and exercise.

In future posts for this series on an introduction to Intuitive Eating, I’ll share more on how the concepts of Health at Every Size and Weight Inclusivity have overlaps with an an-diet approach, some of the benefits of Intuitive Eating that research has shown, Interoception, and more. For now, my hope is maybe reading this has helped you begin to consider a different perspective toward the normalized attempts to shrink our bodies via some rendition of eating less. If you’re feeling exhausted from the never ending pursuit of weight loss, or feeling obsessed with food or eating, know that exploring Intuitive Eating could bring more peace and ease to your food and body relationship. It has the potential to reconnect (or introduce) you to your birthright.

Research references (for dieting being ineffective), a non-exhaustive list:

Bacon, L., & Aphramor, L. (2011). Weight science: Evaluating the evidence for a paradigm shift. Nutrition Journal, (10) 9. DOI: 10.1186/1475-2891-10-9

Dulloo, A. G., Jacquet, J., & Montani, J. (2011). How dieting makes some fatter: from a perspective of human body composition autoregulation. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 71, 379–389. doi:10.1017/S0029665112000225

Field, A. E., Austin, S. B., Taylor, C. B., Malspeis, S., Rosner, B., Rockett, H. R., et. al. (2003). Relation between dieting and weight change among preadolescents and adolescents. Pediatrics, 112, 900– 906.

Fothergill, E., Guo, J., Howard, L., Kerns, J. C.,  Knuth, N. D., Brychta, R., et. al. (2016). Persistent metabolic adaptation 6 years after “The Biggest Loser” competition. Obesity biology and integrated physiology. doi:10.1002/oby.21538

Mann, T., Tomiyama, A. J., Westling, E., Lew, A., Samuels, B., & Chatman, J. (2007). Medicare’s search for effective obesity treatments: Diets are not the answer. American Psychologist, The American Psychological Association, 62(3), 220-233. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.62.3.220

Montani, J., Schutz, Y., & Dulloo, A. G. (2015). Dieting and weight cycling as risk factors for cardiometabolic diseases: Who is really at risk? World Obesity, (1), 7–18. doi: 10.1111/obr.12251

Neumark-Sztainer,D., Wall, M., Larson, N. I., Eisenberg, M. E., Loth, K. (2011). Dieting and disordered eating behaviors from adolescence to young adulthood: Findings from a

10-year longitudinal study. Journal of the American Dietetic Association.  doi: 10.1016/j.jada.2011.04.012

O’Hara, L., & Taylor, J. (2018). What’s wrong with the ‘war on obesity?’: A narrative review of the weight-centered health paradigm and development of the 3C framework to build critical competency for a paradigm shift. SAGE open, 1–28. DOI://1d0o.i.1o1rg7/71/02.1157872/241450812484707128878728888

Richmond, T.K., Thurston, I.B., Sonneville, K. R. (2020). Weight-focused public health interventions: No benefit, some harm. JAMA Paediatrics. 

Ross, R., Blair, S., de Lannoy, L., Després, J., Lavie, C. J. (2015). Changing the endpoints for determining effective obesity management. Progress in Cardiovascular diseases, 57, 330–336. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pcad.2014.10.002

Tribole, E., & Resch, E. (2020). Intuitive eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach, 4th ed. St Martin’s Publishing Group: New York.

Tribole, E., & Resch, E. (2017). The intuitive eating workbook: ten principles for nourishing a healthy relationship with food. New Harbinger Publications: Oakland.

Pietiläinen, K. H., Saarni, S. E., Kapiro, J., & Rissanen, A. (2011). Does dieting make you fat? A twin study. International Journal of Obesity. doi:10.1038/ijo.2011.160- online publication, 9 August 2011

Wing, R. R., Bolin, P., Brancati, F. L., Bray, G. A., Clark, J. M., Coday, M., et al. (2013). Cardiovascular effects of intensive lifestyle intervention in Type 2 diabetes. The New England Journal of Medicine, 369, 145-54. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa1212914

All in the family: Learning diet culture

Posted by: Raquel Griffin

Time to read: 4.5 minutes

One of the most devastating things I hear as an eating disorder therapist is how many people have been put on diets as children. 

Diet culture can be so insidious that what a parent thinks is just trying to do the “right thing” or promote a “healthy lifestyle” for their littles, can really be the tee up of an eating disorder. These often well-intentioned parents can be predisposing, precipitating, and perpetuating eating disorders in their kids. Not always, but often times, eating disorders begin in the home and in the family, normalizing the harmful all-or-nothing beliefs of “good” bodies and foods and “bad” bodies and foods. Research shows that kids begin equating “fat” with “bad” between the ages of three and five and one of the strongest precipitating factors in the development of eating disorders is dieting. Dieting is normalized disordered eating and the more this is modelled or expected in families, the more potential for harm.

Here are just a few examples of what I call “family food harms”, adapted from the book Intuitive Eating

  • Needing to clean your plate at mealtimes
  • Rules related to snacks, sweets, desserts
  • Food used as a conditioning tool (reward & punishment)
  • Encouraged/told to lose weight, put on a diet
  • Rules related to activity/exercise
  • Parent/caregiver engaged in dieting behaviours or disordered eating
  • Parent/caregiver criticized own body/weight, negative self-talk
  • Taking diet culture harms to the next level in families involves children being encouraged or instructed to limit their food intake for the purpose of losing weight or “preventing” fatness. To be told as a child that there is something wrong with your body and these are the measures you need to take in order to “fix” it is deeply disturbing. And yet, this is a common trauma experienced by many. And, yes I purposefully am referring to this as a traumatic experience for folks. To inflict the deprivation of an essential need such as food onto a child and encouragement of that child to disconnect from their body’s cues and needs is deeply traumatic. 

    It’s completely understandable to have anger toward the people that normalized diet culture to you as a child and taught you to dislike and distrust your body. Honouring those feelings is part of the grieving process. Remember, those who have done harm to us as it relates to food, eating, and our body relationship are also victims of diet culture themselves. Finding compassion for those individuals can be helpful in healing and helping us navigate what to do next, exploring how to provide ourselves the care we needed but didn’t receive. Virgie Tovar, fat activist and author, describes the challenge of this: “I can look back and intellectually understand that my family is made up of real, live, squishy people who are very hurt. […]  I can understand that they need compassion […] I can recognize that […] they actually did their version of their very best. But the body is not a creature of intellect.  It doesn’t care how damaged or hurt my family is because all my body knows is the very thing that has been beating like a drum in the pit of my stomach for as long as I can remember: I am not safe here.” 

    What I appreciate about what Virgie describes here is that we can’t always intellectualize ourselves out of a trauma response. We can intellectually have compassion for and validate the pain and suffering of our perpetrators while also making choices that prioritize our own inner peace. If you’re struggling with finding compassion for your parents and others who have sabotaged your relationship with food or body, you’re not alone. It’s never too late to begin to show your body its worth listening to, worth being respected, worth taking up space. Sure, maybe the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, but the second best time to plant a tree is today.

New Year New View: A Dietitian’s Take on Challenging Diet Culture

Posted by: Courtenay Vickers RD
Time to read: 8 minutes

What is diet culture anyway?

Diet culture can be defined in many ways. I’ve been an RD (short for Registered Dietitian) for the past 10 years, and adopted a weight-inclusive lens with my practice about 6 years ago. I’ll preface this blog (as I did in my recent webinar) that I am constantly learning more about what diet culture is, how it shows up, and what to do instead.

When asked this question (re: what is diet culture anyway) I often reply by saying something to the effect of: diet culture is the harmful belief that certain body shapes and sizes are better than others, and there’s a “right” way of eating. To which I typically get the follow up question of “but you’re a dietitian, isn’t there a right way of eating?”. My response from here can get quite nuanced, depending on the audience – in short, there is no one-size-fits-all way of eating, because bodies are meant to be incredibly diverse and different! Not to mention everyone’s unique relationship with food, cultural connections and traditions with food, access to food, etc.

One definition of diet culture that I keep coming back to is by Christy Harrison:

“Diet culture is a system of beliefs that:

  • – Worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue, which means you can spend your whole life thinking you’re irreparably broken just because you don’t look like the impossibly thin “ideal.”
  • – Promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status, which means you feel compelled to spend a massive amount of time, energy, and money trying to shrink your body, even though the research is very clear that almost no one can sustain intentional weight loss for more than a few years.
  • – Demonizes certain ways of eating while elevating others, which means you’re forced to be hyper-vigilant about your eating, ashamed of making certain food choices, and distracted from your pleasure, your purpose, and your power.
  • – Oppresses people who don’t match up with its supposed picture of “health,” which disproportionately harms women, femmes, trans folks, people in larger bodies, people of color, and people with disabilities, damaging both their mental and physical health.”

Diet culture in the new year

So, now that we have a bit more of an idea of what diet culture is, here’s a short list of various ways I’m seeing diet culture show up so far in 2024:

  • Overemphasis on getting “strong”
  • Influx of “clean eating”
  • Overambitious fitness goals
  • Bigger emphasis on dietary supplements
  • More orthorexic tendencies
  • Orthorexia = an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating
  • Sudden removal of entire food groups
  • Increased use of calorie-tracking apps + smart watches
  • Health washing + green washing on food labels
  • X # of day challenges related to food and/or fitness
  • “Watching” what you eat
  • More labelling of foods as good/bad, healthy/unhealthy
  • Lifestyle changes and wellness journeys

Here’s an interesting fact to highlight diet culture’s prevalence: according to Forbes, the top New Year’s resolutions in 2024 include improved fitness, losing weight, and improved diet.

I think it’s important to note that while there’s nothing inherently “wrong” with these resolutions, I find they are often fueled by diet culture and can perpetuate, worsen, or ignite eating disorder behaviours.

Why I’m concerned as a weight-inclusive dietitian in the eating disorder space

I’m concerned because diet culture can often be a precursor to eating disorders, and can perpetuate disordered eating behaviours. I think it’s important to mention that many factors can spur a full-blown eating disorder, such as genetics, food insecurity, trauma, and more (this is probably a topic for another blog post). And, diet culture is, unfortunately, a common piece that shows up along the way either in the development or recovery from an eating disorder. 

Challenging diet culture

Depending on where you are at with your journey to healing, you may have already started to challenge diet culture! I’ve compiled below a short list of ways I commonly find helpful to challenge diet culture (whether you’re starting this for the first time, or perhaps you are further along):

  • Learning more about the harms of diet culture
  • Setting boundaries (with yourself and/or others)
  • Stop labelling foods in binaries such as good/bad, or healthy/unhealthy
  • Take time to check in with yourself
  • Practice self-compassion
  • Get curious about a non-diet approach (or similar)

Here’s a short list of some keywords you may find helpful to guide your own reading and research as you start to learn more and challenge diet culture:

  • Anti-diet
  • Intuitive Eating
  • Body Liberation
  • Non-diet
  • Weight-inclusive
  • Health At Every Size®
  • Fat Positive

What to do next

A big (non-exhaustive) list of specific things you may or may not want to try instead of participating in diet culture this new year:

  • Eat regularly throughout the day. For some, this might look like multiple meals and snacks throughout the day. This might mean seeking help from a trusted support person, or a professional such as a dietitian. 
  • Integrate challenge foods, if you find there are foods in your life that are holding some sort of power over you. This might be foods that you are fearful of, foods you avoid completely, or foods that you often feel ‘out of control’ around. Integrating challenge foods is something that I typically only recommend once we are getting enough food in regularly first, and then slowly integrating the challenge foods one at a time in a structured way. 
  • Play with movement in a way that feels good for you and your body (only if this is medically appropriate and accessible for you).
  • Work on staying appropriately hydrated. What this might mean is ensuring you are drinking adequate fluids (or high fluid food sources) throughout the day. Watch out for overdoing it with caffeine as this can cause dehydration. 
  • Prioritize rest! And not just sleeping enough at night, but allowing space to rest during your waking hours. For some this might mean taking a nap, allowing yourself to ‘do nothing’ for an afternoon, or perhaps it’s pausing what you are doing for a few minutes periodically throughout the day to slow down and check-in with yourself.
  • Take time to explore your relationship with food and body. This might mean journaling, talking about this in therapy or with a dietitian, or reflecting on your own. 
  • Cultivate self-compassion ❤️ I truly believe we can’t talk about nutrition without talking about self-compassion. Nourishing ourselves and challenging diet culture is not always an easy thing to do. And at times, it can feel like a struggle. Can we work towards being kind and gentle with ourselves as we navigate all the sticky murky bits?
  • Challenge your food rules – especially if you find there are specific rules/patterns/or behaviours related to your eating getting in the way of recovery.
  • Re-evaluate your use of the scale and set limits around this. Many find it helpful to hide the scale, reduce the frequency of how often you use it, or get rid of it entirely. If it’s absolutely medically necessary to be weighed, consider these limits or have it done blindly at a clinic.
  • Put away diet apps and/or fitness trackers/watches. As a dietitian, I rarely find these pieces of tech actually helpful, and, if anything, they often cause an unnecessary focus and obsession with food/movement.
  • Curate your social media to better support your pro-recovery and anti-diet goals
  • Pick up a workbook or book related to ED recovery and/or an anti-diet approach
  • Improve your sleep hygiene. For some this might mean developing a bedtime routine, sticking to a sleeping schedule, or reducing caffeine intake.
  • Try a support group geared towards eating disorder recovery, body image, or intuitive eating (depending on where you are at and what fits best). 
  • Get professional help from an eating disorder registered dietitian, therapist, social worker, nurse practitioner, family doctor, or psychiatrist. 

I hope that by the time you are done reading this, something has stood out to you. Whether it’s a small takeaway, a new learning to ponder, or a new perspective on a familiar theme, I hope this has resonated with those reading. 

For anyone wanting to dig a little bit deeper, I’ll end with a few reflective prompts below.

Reflective prompts to help you challenge diet culture:

Whether or not journaling in a pen-and-paper way is your thing, these reflective prompts may be helpful as you work on challenging diet culture and healing your relationship with food and body:

  • How has diet culture shown up for you in your life?
  • What would it be like to step away from diet culture?
  • What’s the scariest part of challenging diet culture for you?
  • Who or what might be helpful to you during this process?
  • What’s one small thing you can do this month to challenge diet culture in your life?

“Yes, I’m Really Eating That!” (Boundaries Part Two)

Posted by: Lee Thomas

Time to read: 6 minutes

You can read Part One here.

Ok, so let’s get to the actual process of this: what does it LOOK like to set boundaries? When I recently did a webinar on this topic, it was around Thanksgiving specifically and so we talked about the three approaches of “subtle, solid, and spicy”. If you’re thinking that that’s just a rebrand of “passive, assertive, and aggressive” then you are absolutely correct :). But to keep with our driving metaphor here, I’m going to go with “swerve, educate, and honk”. 

Part of the reason that I don’t like to just talk about passive, aggressive, and assertive communication is because I think that “passive” and “aggressive” get a bad rap. Every communication style has its strengths and weaknesses, and I do really feel like there’s a time and a place for almost everything. Communication skills are just tools like everything else — instead of assessing whether a tool is good or bad I think it’s more useful to ask if this tool is well-suited for the outcome you are trying to achieve. Education is great, but there’s times where swerving and/or honking are the more effective tool! Every approach has potential pros and potential cons.

The goal of the “Swerve” approach is to avoid engagement. That’s an okay thing to do! Not every person or every moment deserves your engagement. The key element of nuance here is that while this approach might “keep the peace,” I would argue that it’s not the same thing as being selfless or compassionate. Compassion in our relationships usually looks more like “education,” even though it doesn’t feel as pleasant in the moment.

Best used with: relationships that you don’t think merit engagement (at this moment in time)

In my opinion “Educate” is the most complicated approach, because it asks that you engage really sincerely with the other person. This is a good example of the concept mentioned earlier, about how boundaries are a gift to our relationships. Even though in the short term this approach is not necessarily super comfortable, in the long term it helps the relationship become an environment that both of you can feel good in — and that’s an incredible gift to give to both of you.

Best used with: relationships that you care about and want to deepen.

Let’s go back to the driving metaphor. Honking can serve a handful of different purposes. We usually think of it just as a way of saying “Hey! F*** you!” But it can also be a way of trying to communicate information that you have no other way of communicating. “You’re coming into my lane!” “Pay attention!” “Stop it!” Honking can serve similar purposes in our relationships. I definitely think there’s a time and place for honking, but I think it’s kind to our relationships to try different approaches first. But, like with driving, you need to assess the current situation and respond accordingly.

Best used with: careful consideration, after other approaches have not worked.

I would love to expand on the above approaches, but this piece is already getting kind of long. Brevity is not generally my strong suit. So instead let’s look at what these approaches might look like in practice. As a heads up (or a content/trigger warning), I’ve used some specific examples of diet talk below. I’m hoping these situations are specific enough to be useful, but generic enough to be generalizable to your life. They’re certainly not designed to be triggering, but diet culture is a tricky beast and so if you notice that you’re feeling triggered, feel free to take some space. This blog post isn’t going anywhere babe! You can come back to it a different day!

You can use these responses verbatim if they work for you, but lots of them probably won’t be a perfect fit. Adapt them as much as you need to. And if you see a response that makes you shudder, that’s okay too — take what’s helpful and leave the rest. 

Situation 1: Hungry Eyes

Your family is together for the holidays. At dinner, your cousin glances over at your plate and says “you’re really eating all of that?”

Swerve: Yep, I am! Anyway, how have your kid’s piano lessons been going?

Educate: I’ve been working hard on my relationship with food, so I’d really appreciate it if you didn’t comment on my food choices. If you want we can talk more about this later, but for now let’s just keep our eyes on our own plates. Thanks! 

Honk: What I’m eating really isn’t any of your business. 

Situation 2: Your Fitness Pal

You’re on the phone with your friend and he starts talking about this new diet and exercise routine that he’s going to try in order to lose “all this extra weight”. 

Swerve: Well, I like you at any size. Anyway, how have things been at work?

Educate: I’ve been learning a lot about diet culture lately, so I’m not really into the diet talk these days. Do you want to hear a little bit about what I’ve learned?

Honk: I love you but I’m not the right person to talk to about this.

Situation 3: Aunt Misbehavin’

Your aunt is staying at your parents’ house for a few days and you come over to visit. At one point in the conversation she lets out a long sigh and says “You have such a pretty face. You’d look so good if you just lost a few pounds.”

Swerve: Anyway, I should get going. It was good seeing you!

Educate: That comment makes me uncomfortable. I’d prefer if you didn’t say anything about my body right now, positive or negative. Thanks!

Honk: What a weird, gross thing to say.

A final pep talk

Setting boundaries is a skill, and skills require practice! It’s normal to feel nervous when you’re new to driving, or when you’re driving in an unfamiliar place or in adverse weather conditions.

Try to remember that there are no perfect answers. Sometimes driving safely means staying off the road in certain conditions, driving slower than other drivers want you to, taking detours or shortcuts, or keeping pace with the flow of traffic even though it’s a different speed than you’d prefer. Sometimes taking care of yourself looks like “picking a fight” and sometimes it looks like “letting yourself get walked all over”. Ultimately it’s not your job to drive in a way that’s convenient to other drivers, it’s your job to drive in a way that you think is safe. Try to show yourself some grace and compassion. You’re doing the best you can. 

Good luck out there — drive safe!

Boundaries (Part One)

Posted by: Lee Thomas

Time to read: 4 minutes

One metaphor I like to use around boundaries is driving. So let’s talk about highway driving for a second.

A key thing about driving is that you only control your own vehicle. You can do basically nothing about how other people drive; all you can do is choose how you drive, and how you respond to their driving. If your plan for a smooth trip is controlling how other people drive, you’re in for a bad time.

We’ve got these lines painted on the highway. And the thing is, those lines actually do nothing to prevent cars from driving over them. But we’ve all collectively decided that those lines mean something, and the vast majority of the time most of us try really hard to not cross those lines, because we know they keep us safe and other people safe. 

The majority of boundaries we set will hopefully be like these lines. A lot of the time when we start talking about boundaries, our brains immediately jump to “well what if the person doesn’t respect those boundaries???” And I get it, because a lot of the time we’re coming into these conversations with experiences of people not caring about our boundaries. And we’re going to cover that “what if” a little later on.

But let’s be honest: sometimes we’re so sure that people won’t listen to our boundaries that we don’t even really express them. So let’s remember that on this road, we’ve just got these painted lines, but most people try to follow those lines most of the time. (People don’t follow them nearly as well when they’re impatient or not paying attention or don’t know the rules or think that their desires are more important than others. I’d argue that that’s all basically true for boundaries too). Many people, and hopefully most people in your life, want to treat you relatively well, but they need to see the lines in order to be able to do that.

But also, unfortunately, there’s some moments where the line just doesn’t quite cut it. Back to our highway. We don’t have just one painted line and then a huge plummeting cliff, right? We’ve got the line, and then a rumble strip, and then a shoulder, and then a ditch. I think it can be helpful to think of boundaries in a similar way. We can have layers of boundaries and consequences, it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing approach.

The last part of this metaphor is the importance of being proactive. We learn about driving before we get in the car. We do up our seatbelts. We think about the conditions we’re going to be driving in, and we try to set our expectations accordingly. We drive differently in a nighttime winter storm than on a clear sunny day, and that can be true about boundaries too. It’s almost always more effective to set people up for success by communicating needs in advance than it is to set boundaries in the moment… but that’s a blog post for a different day.

This part of the boundaries talk doesn’t translate well into the driving analogy, so I’m just going to say it directly: we don’t live in a very pro-boundary culture. We’re usually taught (implicitly or explicitly) that setting a boundary is harmful to our relationships, that boundaries are something we do as a punishment, and that a healthy relationship should never need conversations about boundaries because the other person should just know how you feel without you ever having to express it. 

But that isn’t true. Boundaries are a gift to our relationships. Setting boundaries sometimes sucks, but that’s actually part of what makes them such a gift. We don’t do things that suck for relationships we don’t care about. And often the more that it sucks and feels awkward and messy, the more of an act of caring it is. It’s way easier to avoid an awkward situation and just cut someone out of your life lol.

Setting boundaries is part of the messy business of learning to care for other people and for ourselves. I feel like this idea is summed up beautifully by this quote from Prentis Hemphill: “Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.”

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